“I’m just getting my feet wet,” Eric Schmitt said last week. As the new Houston County surveyor, Schmitt began his duties on Jan. 3.

“You’ve got to be a ‘Jack of All Trades,’ and I really enjoy that challenge,” he added. “It keeps everything interesting and fresh.”

Schmitt credited assistant county surveyor Tammy Mauss and his predecessor (retired county surveyor Dick Walter) with making him feel right at home.

“Dick stopped in one day, and he’s been very helpful. And Tammy’s been just great, showing me around.”

“I’m pleased that the county hired a surveyor,” Walter commented by telephone. “We need one.”

While pursuing a career in engineering, Schmitt decided to change his major to the surveying trade. He earned an associate’s degree in Civil Engineering Tech (from South Central College in North Mankato), then a bachelor’s degree in Surveying Mapping Science (from St. Cloud State), before obtaining a Minnesota surveyor’s license.

Schmitt worked in the private arena for six and a half years prior to landing his current position.

One reason for the switch from engineering to surveying was, “you get to be outside,” he noted.

“That was what grabbed me. Then when I got into it, I realized that you got to play with math, and there’s also history involved and technology.

“Sometimes, I like to think that we’re uncovering something that’s ancient. Odds are, there’s probably been someone there in the not too distant past, but to nail down a location (such as a stone monument) that was originally set in the early 1850s, that’s just humbling.

“When the pieces of the puzzle fit back together just right, that’s about as gratifying as it gets!”

Job includes detective work

The job includes detective work as well. “You don’t know what’s happened over the last 120 years from when that stone was set,” Schmitt said.

“If we get somewhere, and we don’t find something, is that because there was never anything there, or because it got moved or hogged out by a bulldozer at some point?

“Once the original surveys were done, they were approved by the surveyor general of the State of Minnesota.

“Once they were accepted, right wrong or indifferent, that’s what they were. If it’s off 20 feet, two feet or two-hundredths of a foot – that’s what they measured, and that’s what it is.

“They did the best they could with what they had. And when the original landowners came out and saw that post, that’s what they agreed to. That’s what they saw.

“Just because we can come along with better measuring tools, we cannot move that (survey line or marker) closer to the right location. And a hundred years from now when they can measure it down to the width of a human hair they will call us (as being) off.

“We’ve got a lot of information here – from surveys from the past, where we have information on all the government corners. There’s eight more or less per section, per square mile in the county.

“We’ve been setting out to re-monument those. Dick started out to find the ones that were there, get good coordinates on them, get sketches made of all the locations, and reference ties to them. Private surveyors can come to us and find that information.

“Furthermore, we encourage private surveyors to communicate with our office, so they can bounce questions off us. If we have any resources that will help them, we make those available.”

Hit the ground running

On his first day in the office, Schmitt was tasked with surveying the county fairgrounds and adjoining Highway Department headquarters parcels in Caledonia.

“The county wants to know what they own out there, where the lines are, so that they can make improvements to the property based on that,” he explained.

Those improvements are likely to include a new hog building at the fairgrounds and the possibility of a new headquarters/ maintenance building at the Highway Department.

“I’m employed by the county. I’m going to try and get them a map that will show them the area, so they can see everything that’s out there and make some decisions based on that.”

Another big portion of the job is surveying for other public projects such as roads and bridges, Schmitt reported.

“If the Highway Department puts in a box culvert, for example. Do we need additional right-of-way? The Surveyors Office typically has the task of platting the required parcels.

“So if you have a 66-foot strip of land, and you need more to get this box culvert in or a bridge, we’ll describe the land that’s going to be purchased.”

He added, “That, I’m told, is what keeps us the busiest.

“We don’t just work in that tight (construction) area. We have to work out to the section (lines) or multiple sections to establish who owns what, and where exactly everything is – so the big picture doesn’t get distorted by working in a small area,” Schmitt pointed out.

“That fits in well with the goal of getting all the corners marked out in the county. That’s the funnest part about this job, in my opinion. It’s finding all the old stuff, putting the pieces of the puzzle back together.”

Helping the public is key

Although private surveyors are tasked with finding private property lines, Schmitt encourages residents to contact his office when they have questions.

“If someone wants to know if there was a survey done, and they want to know where that is, stop in here and get it. We’ll be the place for that. We have that information on hand for private surveyors and citizens alike. It’s important to provide that to residents.”

Working as a public surveyor has a lot in common with what private surveyors do, Schmitt concluded.

After all, “The private surveyors are agents of the public,” he noted. “They work for the good of the community as a whole. So we work in a system and upholding the integrity of that is the goal of any surveyor.

“If a private landowner hires you as a surveyor, you’re not going to favor them just because they are the person that is paying you. It’s about fact finding. You can’t move a section line to benefit your client.”

To reach the Surveyors Office, call 507-725-5804. It is located in the Houston County Historic Courthouse in Caledonia.