Surveying History: Man Behind Ultimate Surveyor’s Guide
In 1978, the late Dr. R. Ben Buckner, with his partner in Carben Surveying Reprints, Carlisle Madson, published the reprint of “The Surveyor’s Guide and Pocket Table-Book,” by Benjamin Franklin Dorr. As Dr. Buckner stated in the reprint preface, “The public land survey system had, at the time, reached what some have termed an ‘almost perfect condition,’ meaning that it was approaching completion …” This book, first published in 1886, was reprinted in seven editions. It was an instruction book on how to proceed with completing subdivisions in the public land system after the original federal surveys were complete.
In Dorr’s own preface to the book, he states, “The Rules, intended to cover every case likely to occur in a surveyor’s practice are based on United States laws and have the written approval of the Commissioner of the General Land Office …” Dorr set a high bar and, if Ben Buckner thought this was a significant book, then I wanted to know: Who was this Benjamin Franklin Dorr? What credentials did he have to publish his “Surveyor’s Guide?” The answers were as difficult to find as they were rewarding to discover.
In his lifetime, Dorr would perform surveys in at least five states, become a civil engineer, serve in the Civil War, publish articles, and serve as a county surveyor, among other roles.
The man, whose name appears as a “pioneer surveyor” on many corner restoration reports, was born in 1833 in Lockport, Niagara County, N.Y., to Roxey and Gridley Dorr. At 4 years old, the family decided to move to Ohio. So, in 1837, his mother, her sister in law Abby, her daughter Elizabeth, her husband Lewis E. Marsh, their son and Benjamin all moved to a frontier village in Sandusky County, Ohio, expecting Benjamin’s father, to follow soon. Unfortunately, Gridley Dorr died suddenly at Lockport on Oct. 20, 1837, leaving his wife, Roxey, and their 4-year-old son in the pioneer village of Ballville, Ohio.
Ballville was founded about the time that the Dorr family came to Ohio. The village was surveyed and platted in 1840, and lies just south of what is now Fremont, Ohio. Ballville sits near the site of the famous War of 1812 battle known as “Colonel Ball’s Battle.”
Benjamin’s brother in law, Lewis Marsh, 22 years his senior, was a tanner and currier, a trade that was both shunned and revered. It was a smelly job to tan hides, but one that was vital to frontier communities. The extended Dorr family lived with Lewis and Elizabeth Marsh and their growing family in Ballville. As a youth, Benjamin helped in this business, listing himself as a Sabon, or maker of soap, on the 1850 census.
Benjamin probably attended public school in Fremont (then known as Lower Sandusky) in their newly constructed stone schoolhouse, built after the log school house burned down. Two of the teachers at that time were John W. Chase, who taught there for 10 years and then went on to be a Methodist Preacher of some renown, and Horace E. Clark, a young man from New Hampshire who was trained as a surveyor and taught for several years before serving Sandusky County as county surveyor for seven years and county auditor for four years.
After public school, sometime after 1850, Benjamin “went to New Hampshire [Cornish, N.H., being the ancestral home of the Dorr family] where he fitted himself for the business of a civil engineer, …”2 After his training and some surveying in New Hampshire, he returned to Ohio, where he also practiced his profession for a short while. In the fall of 1856, he and his family, including the Marsh family, moved to the frontier village of New London, Wis., where Benjamin, too, became a teacher.
Like many teachers in that era, teaching was a temporary “holding pattern” while searching for a suitable position. So, after his mother’s death in 1857, hers being the first burial in the New London cemetery, B. F. “Frank” Dorr moved to West Liberty, Muscatine County, Iowa, where he soon became that county’s county surveyor.3
His surveying career was interrupted when, on Feb. 20, 1864, “Frank” Dorr enlisted in Company G, 2nd Regiment, Iowa Cavalry and joined the Civil War. He had a distinguished career and was praised highly by his commanding officer, General Hatch. At the war’s end, Frank Dorr was mustered out of service on Sept. 19, 1865, and he returned to West Liberty, Iowa, to recuperate from the war. In 1866, he moved back to New London, Wis., where he became a timber cruiser for the Chandler family’s timber holdings. Shortly thereafter, on Feb. 28, 1867, he married Harriet Chandler.
When their first child, Lucia, died in infancy, Frank and Harriet moved back to Iowa, where Frank took up farming in Linn County. Their second and third daughters were born there.
A Growing Surveying Career
Sometime after 1870, the family moved back to New London, Wis., where Frank’s career began to blossom. Frank was successfully engaged in timber cruising and subdividing the sections run by the federal surveyors into quarter and eighth portions. His letters to the GLO from that period asking for an explanation of conflicting GLO rules testify to his thoroughness. In 1874 he was elected county surveyor for Waupaca County and served two terms.4 Frank also platted and named the village of Marion for Dr. Perry, a local physician and timber tycoon.
In 1876, Frank was invited to be surveying editor for the national publication “Engineering News” [now the Engineering News Record]. Several of his articles can be found in the 1876 and 1877 issues.
He was a great ambassador for the surveying profession.
In April of 1874, Frank and Harriet’s fourth daughter was born, but in January 1877 an epidemic of diphtheria took the lives of all three of Frank and Harriet’s. Just a little over a year later, however, on Feb. 20, 1878, their son, Roy, was born.
In 1881, the Milwaukee Lake Shore & Western Railroad had built their line through New London and was building toward the iron and copper regions to the north. Frank Deleglise, who had been planning to build a town on his lands since the early 1870s, successfully offered the railroad free right-of-way through his property and through the fledgling town as he had it laid out.5 In 1882, after the railroad routed their track through his emerging village, Frank Dorr assisted Francis A. “Frank” Deleglise in finalizing the survey and plat of “Deleglise’s Dream,” which became the town of Antigo in Langlade County. The plat for Antigo was filed for record on July 10, 1882. In that same year, the Dorr family made their final move to Antigo as Frank had been appointed assistant town surveyor in 1881. [He was assistant because “Frank” Deleglise was also a surveyor, engineer, and timber cruiser and owner of a lumber business.] From the time the railroad arrived the town flourished, and by 1885 it was incorporated as a city.
For a frontier village, the plat of Antigo was quite ambitious. It contains 90 numbered blocks of various sizes, most of which contain 26 to 34 lots. The plat accommodated the railroad and a stream that meandered through the village. The primary north-south [Superior] and east-west [Fifth] streets are 88 feet wide, and the remaining streets are 66 feet in width. One of the most interesting features of this plat is the meticulous method used by the surveyor to witness the stone monuments that control the layout of the plat. The stones were set 50 to 72 inches into the ground. The stone contained a cross chiseled into it with its center drilled out by a 1/2-inch diameter hole drilled 3 inches deep. In each hole was a lead plug, and above each buried monument was a cherry post 5 inches square and 42 inches long. Witnesses were then set around each monument.
The “Surveyor’s Guide”
Frank Dorr set up his practice as a surveyor and land agent in Antigo, and became one of the town’s leading citizens. The Dorrs became founding members of the Congregational Church in Antigo. When Antigo was incorporated as a city, Frank Dorr was appointed the first city engineer and served in that capacity for much of the rest of his life. He served in many civic capacities and helped organize the Antigo Businessmen’s Association.
Benjamin Franklin Dorr first published his book “The Surveyor’s Guide and Pocket Table Book” in 1886. The publishers’ weekly of Jan. 1, 1887, listed this entry as having 112 pages, priced at $2.00. The late Bud Uzes, in his list of historic surveying books, styles it as having “59 pages of text and 52 pages of tables.” He states, “This work focuses on rules of public land surveys and corresponded with the General Land Office for their concurrence.” The seventh edition , contains the original 59 pages, but skips most of the tables. Also included are an addendum, from page 112 through 129, and a second addendum, independently numbered as pages 1 through 20.
Beyond the “hints to beginners” mentioned both by Ben Buckner in his reprint preface and the author in his preface, one of the most interesting parts of this little pocket book is the published letters between Frank Dorr and GLO regarding issues in the subdivision of sections. These letters, when compared with those published in C. Albert White’s “A History of the Rectangular Survey System” [PDF version] make for very interesting reading of surveying history.
The importance of this and other like books of this era is in the history of the “filling in” of the original federal government rectangular surveys at the same time as the rules for such surveys were being developed. Much of this work was performed by county surveyors, many of whom needed guidance in the establishment and reestablishment of corners in the rectangular system. Each county in the rectangular survey system has their own history of how these tasks were accomplished. Many, but sadly not all, counties have early county survey records that are necessary to the restoration of corners and form a major part of that county’s history. It is vital to the profession of surveying that these histories be preserved and the stories told.
Frank Dorr continued to practice surveying for many years. There are many corner restoration reports that mention his notes and refer to him as “Pioneer Surveyor.” The reports from Oneida County can be found on the Internet. He was also employed in laying out and naming several towns as the frontier gave way to new development. In 1887 he surveyed and platted the village of Elcho. In 1888, he bought land around Elcho and, in 1904, surveyed and platted his own land into Dorr’s Addition to Elcho as well as Dorr’s Outlots at Elcho.
He surveyed and platted an addition to the village of Bryant for a large timber owner of the same name, and in 1886 he surveyed and platted the village of Reeve for Dr. James T. Reeve and his wife. In 1887 he platted the village of Neva for Charles and Julia Upham. Charles was a brother of former governor William H. Upham.
In 1896, at the age of 63, he helped to organize the Wisconsin Society of Engineers and Surveyors and served as their first vice president. Also around the turn of the century, B. F. Dorr wrote a series of articles for the “Michigan Engineer.” Among them was an article titled “A Meander Corner — What Office Does it Perform?” It is a brilliant case for meander corners being monuments for measurement when establishing an intermediate corner, as was being argued in the courts at the time.6 A quick reading of C. Albert White’s “A History of the Rectangular Survey System” points out what a problem it was even as late as 1900. In Dorr’s second addenda of “The Surveyor’s Guide,” he goes over some of the same arguments, adding that the GLO had concurred with his position in a letter dated Jan. 5, 1900, and that his correspondence with Francis “Frank” Hodgman,7 he also agreed with Dorr’s position.
Another article that he wrote in 1904 is titled “The County Surveyor.” In this article, Dorr has “uncomplimentary things” to say about the qualifications of county surveyors in his home county Langlade County, Wis., specifically singling out the county’s first surveyor whom Dorr says had only the experience of “cooking for a land looker” before becoming county surveyor. Dorr does go on to defend the position of county surveyor — as long as a competent practitioner is elected.
B. F. Dorr states in “The Surveyor’s Guide” that he has surveyed in New Hampshire, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa. It has been documented that he was a county surveyor in at least two of these states during his career. Evidence of his work in New Hampshire or Ohio has not yet been cataloged. That task is left to the next generation of surveying historians.
Benjamin Franklin Dorr passed away in Antigo on March 28, 1916, after a very fruitful life.
- [the site of the famous War of 1812 battle of Fort Stephenson when, on August 2, 1813, Major George Croghan refused orders to burn the fort and retreat and proceeded to defeat the British and Indians in the “Battle of Fort Stephenson.”]
- Soldiers’ and Citizens’ Album of Biographical Record, Grand Army Publishing Company, 1888, p. 495.
- C. A. White, in his History of the Rectangular Survey System, lists two letters to Frank Dorr, one of which [P. 151], dated in 1873, refers to him as County Surveyor.
- The Standard History of Waupaca County, Wisconsin, Vol. I, 1917, by John M. Ware, page 172, lists B. F. Dorr as serving one term. The list of county surveyors in The History of Waupaca County, Wisconsin, by D. L. Stinchfield, does not list him. The Wisconsin Legislative Manual for the year 1877 lists B. F. Dorr as Waupaca County Surveyor with the term expiring Jan. 1877. The Legislative Manual for 1877 lists Frank Door as County Surveyor with the term expiring Jan. 1879. NOTE: The Legislative Manuals were kindly furnished to me by David Tlusty, Waupaca County, WI Surveyor. He has offered a wealth of information and suggestions regarding B. F. Dorr. Herein I acknowledge my gratitude for his assistance.
- In the History of Langlade County, Wisconsin [Robert M. Dessureau, 1922, page 99.] notes that on October 12, 1878, Frank Deleglise, “with the single assistance of his daughter, Virginia”, who was 9 years old at the time, began the layout of the village he had dreamed of founding. The records, however, show that he did not have a daughter named Virginia. A history published in 1828, states that “Virginia Street, the first street definitely surveyed, received its name from the fact that it was laid out with the help of the surveyor’s daughter Anna Virginia Deleglise, now Mrs. Thomas Morrissey.” The plat of Antigo that was filed for record contains a section titled “Significance and Commemoration” which explains some of the names used on the plat. For “Virginia” there is the following note: “The south end of Virginia Street being the first definite survey of Antigo and done on October 12, 1875; with the single help of the surveyor’s first Daughter born after his return from the Civil War in Virginia.” Mr. Deleglise had a daughter Annie born on August 1, 1867, who married Thomas Morrissey. After Frank Deleglise’s death in 1894, Mrs. Morrissey assisted in managing his extensive real estate affairs. http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~antigowis/history/langcohistory1.html
- There is a monument in Oneida County known as Dorr’s Rock where B. F. Dorr leaded in a star drill into a rock on a small island lands to monument a meander corner. I am told that Dorr’s Rock can be seen if you know where to look as you are driving U.S. Highway 51.
- Francis Hodgeman, along with C. F. R. Bellows, authored A Manual of Land Surveying Comprising an Elementary Course of Practice with Instruments and a Treatise upon the Survey of the Public and Private Lands, Prepared for the Use of Schools and Surveyors, 1888. Frank Hodgman was also one of the founders of the Michigan Engineering Society. He and Frank Dorr carried on a correspondence regarding rules of survey in sectionalized lands. https://archive.org/details/manualoflandsurv00hodgrich
NOTE: The Surveyor’s Guide and Pocket-Book can be downloaded from the Internet in a PDF format from Google Books.