"Finding an original witness tree still alive is a real treat for us as surveyors," says La Crosse County Surveyor Bryan Meyer. "It’s like shaking hands with the past.”
A large, gnarly looking burr oak tree just east of Mindoro has a unique history when it comes to La Crosse County land measurement. It has stood as a witness to a Public Land Survey System (PLSS) corner for 174 years, says La Crosse County Surveyor Bryan Meyer.
In September of 1847, a federal land survey crew led by Deputy Surveyor James Turner established key land survey markers at roughly half mile intervals in what would become the Town of Farmington. Utilizing a magnetic compass and a measuring device known as a chain, the crew performed the task of measuring and setting marker posts.
The crew, and others like it across Wisconsin, established corner markers that would serve as starting points for the division of land for decades to come. The original corner markers were simple wood posts created by cutting down a nearby tree. The posts marking the corner were referenced by direction and distance to nearby trees which served as witnesses to the corner marker post.
One such corner is in Section 22 of Township 18 North, Range 6 West in the Town of Farmington. The crew set the corner marker post and established two witness trees, one being an eight-inch diameter burr oak to the southeast of the corner. That tree stands alone in a corn field and now measures 45 inches in diameter. It was discovered by former La Crosse County Surveyor Bill Jung in 2002.
After Jung and co-worker Pete Follansbee determined the oak tree was the original government witness tree, they were able to re-establish the corner and set a substantial iron marker at the corner location. PLSS corners are used for surveying and mapping purposes.
As part of the La Crosse County Surveyor Department’s ongoing efforts to maintain these corner locations, Meyer and Assistant County Surveyor Corey Hughes visited this corner by the oak tree recently. Meyer and Hughes (pictured with the tree above) found Jung’s iron marker in good condition and collected accurate GPS coordinates on the marker. They have since shared the coordinates with the county’s Land Records Department to create more accurate mapping on the County Geographic Information Systems (GIS).
Hughes described the knobby old witness tree as “something you would see in a horror movie”. Meyer noted that discovering a living witness tree from the Original Government Survey is extremely rare.
“Finding an original witness tree still alive is a real treat for us as surveyors," he said. "It’s like shaking hands with the past.”