Limited Edition Print of Pioneer Minnesota Surveyor Announced

Inspiration at the PAC Auction: Honoring Pioneer Surveyor Norris Y. Taylor

As 2006 President of the Minnesota Society of Professional Surveyors (MSPS), it was my honor and privilege to represent Minnesota at the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS) meeting held in April of 2006 in Orlando, FL. One of the evening activities of the Annual NSPS Meeting is the Political Action Committee (PAC) Auction to benefit the lobbying effort of NSPS. State and National Delegates donate numerous items that are sold to the highest bidder. My wife, Wendy, and I attended this event with John Freemyer, Minnesota Governor to NSPS. Due to the high number of items to auction, this event lasted more than two hours. Through this time, the conversation at our table drifted to the fact that very little artwork features Surveyors. John Freemyer mentioned that he had found a letter in the Minnesota Historical Society records, written by Norris (N.Y.) Taylor in March 1928 to his son, Wilfred Taylor, about his experiences in working on the original government survey in northwestern Minnesota.

John felt that this passage in Taylor’s letter could be an inspiration for commissioning a painting.

“The Red River valley at this time had hardly been touched by the hand of man. But a short two years had passed since the last Buffalo had been seen to swim the Red River and started west – bidding a final farewell to the bones of his fellows that plentifully strew the prairie which at this time was a waving mass of blue stem mingled with flowers of every hue. – The streams were fringed with brush and small timber. In fact, the tall timber to the east, always in sight from the Guide Meridian, to the Oak timber along the Red River to the west – the Red River Valley at this time of year was a picture or rather a succession of pictures, that an artist would rave…”

I am familiar with the survey work of Norris Taylor because he served as the Meeker County, Minnesota, Surveyor from 1887 to 1924. Norris did remarkable work, and I have long admired his accuracy and the foresight he had in remonumenting the GLO corners with cast iron monuments in Meeker County.

When we got back to Minnesota after the ACSM Conference, John Freemyer sent a copy of the “Norris Taylor letter” to me. This letter was written by Norris at age 77 (a little over a year before he died in June 1929). His son, Wilfred, had asked Norris about the Surveyors by the name of Stuntz who had worked on the original government survey in northern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin. Norris explains in his letter that there were three Surveyors by the name of Stuntz: A.C., George R., and George E.

Norris actually worked under the direction of George R. Stuntz in 1872 at the age of 22, in the Red River Valley of Minnesota, running the 6th guide meridian from Township 148 North to the Canadian border.

Several pictures of, and articles about, Norris Taylor can be found in the MLSA/MSPS 50th Anniversary History Book compiled by Theodore Kemna.

Norris was the first Minnesota Licensed Land Surveyor, and as such was referred to in one article as “The Man At The Top Of The List.” The following excerpt is from that article.

“Perhaps Taylor’s value to the surveying profession can best be measured by his vision, for he was one of those few great people in history who had vision, a vision to the future. In 1894, Taylor perpetuated each of the township corners in Meeker County with specially designed iron monuments. In 1895 and in 1909, Taylor authored two bills in the state legislature that eventually became law. The first was to have all government corners marked with iron monuments as fast as permanent resurveys could be made for county surveyors. The second bill required all county surveyors to record all surveys in County Record Books. Taylor was one of the first persons to move for the organization of surveyors and engineers, and very fittingly he became the first president of this organization, serving from 1895-1898.”

“Norris Taylor was appointed to the State Board of Registration on June 21, 1921, by Governor Preus and he became the State’s first Registered Land Surveyor on November 11, 1921.”

It was with this inspiration and admiration that I went to see my former classmate of 12 years, artist, friend, Dan Metz, in his “loft” studio in the barn on a farm near Delano, MN. I knew that his experience in illustrating many wildlife journals and his travels throughout most of the United States would be an asset in this task.

As I told the story of Norris to Dan, I could see he was intrigued. We decided that the picture of Norris should feature him as a young compass-man working on the GLO Survey crew under George R. Stuntz in the Red River Valley of Minnesota.

Dan was very concerned about the accuracy of the picture and wanted to make the picture as authentic to the period as economically possible.

One issue is that we had pictures of Norris at about 50 and 75 years of age. We wanted to portray him at age 22. What did he look like?

Through Dan’s experience, he knew immediately that the survey vehicle of 1872 would have been the Red River Ox cart. Dan had previously illustrated a similar cart for a book that discussed the extensive use of this type of vehicle on the trade route to Winnipeg.

Taylor’s letter says, “The smaller of the two instruments we used on the Red River survey in 1872 was one of the first instruments made after the W.A. Burt invention.” For authenticity, Dan Metz used recent photographs of an actual Burt Solar Compass as the model for his painting.

In my possession at the time was an original GLO section corner post on loan to MSPS from Rollie Ackerman of the North Dakota Society of Professional Land Surveyors (NDSPLS). With that in hand, Dan had a very good idea of what an original section corner post looked like. For the scribing on the section corner post, I went to the Minnesota Land Management Information Center (LMIC) website and viewed the many GLO plats that George R. Stuntz was given credit for surveying. We chose to depict Norris at the southwest corner of Section 30, Township 149 North, Range 48 West. The point of view would be to the southwest, with Norris set up over the section corner post and he would be looking North. That way the trees bordering the Red River that were mentioned in his letter would be on the horizon behind Norris and his crew.

The picture includes a gunter’s chain, chaining pins, and a rifle to give the picture authenticity.

The purpose of this painting is threefold:
1. To honor the memory of Norris Taylor in particular, but surveyors in general, who worked on the GLO surveys.
2. To provide a piece of artwork that was prepared specifically for surveyors to honor surveyors.
3. To be printed in a limited supply and sold for the benefit of the surveying profession.

The production of these prints is limited to 500. Twenty-five of these prints will be titled “Artist’s Proofs.” These artist’s proofs will be framed and donated to MSPS, one each year for the next 25 years, and sold at auction at the society’s annual meeting.

At the February 1, 2007 meeting, the first Artist’s Proof was sold for $1,100. Next year will be a special year because Artist’s Proof No. 2 will be sold — and that was Norris’ license number.

The remaining prints can be purchased framed or unframed with a single or double matte from Ed Otto directly. Proceeds will be donated to the MLS Foundation. The only stipulation is that the scholarship that is given each year will be titled the “Otto Family Scholarship.”

If you are interested in ordering a print, please click HERE for an order form.

Two preliminary drawings of N.Y. Taylor by Dan Metz, one showing him with just a beard and moustache, and the other with full facial hair. Note that a shadow falls across his face in both of these drawings; in the final version, his face is clearly visible because the angle of view was changed.

A sketch of the oxcarts that were commonly used when N.Y. Taylor was in the field during the 1870s; just a single cart was used in the final painting (all artwork courtesy Dan Metz).

Compare the preliminary pencil drawing above to the finished painting at the top of the article to see how the artwork evolved from this middle stage to its final form. A few points: In both of these drawings, it is apparent that the tall prairie grass has been mowed; the final painting shows a scythe (and various other surveying equipment) near Taylor’s assistant. In the background can be seen the “brush and small timber” noted in Taylor’s description of the land near streambeds. The thunderhead in the background of both pieces is intended to frame Taylor, making him the focal point of the work.