Monday, February 28, 2011

The Lost USDA Maps of Texas Counties: A Project Note

One of my current map projects is to scan and publish a number of scarce USDA Soil Survey maps from the 1890's to about 1935. Over the years I have collected something close to 100 Texas soil maps of various age and size, most of them in fairly good condition.  

1920 Tarrant Soil Map~Click to enlarge

I am finishing up the work on my 1920 Tarrant, 1920 Dallas, 1918 Denton and 1930 Collin County maps and in the future will work on Erath and Stevens County as time permits. These are very large folded maps averaging at least 3' by 3' or more and are difficult to handle. Because of their size they must be scanned in sections and then carefully pieced together.

These maps are a product of Texas' early dependence upon agriculture. When they were first distributed they were of high importance. Texas and other states completed their topographic land surveys in the late 1800's and early 1900's. Using these surveys as base maps, the state Departments of Agriculture, began  generating these soil maps to aid farmers in their efforts to produce more and to increase efficiency. 

1920 Dallas Soil Map Clip ~ Click to enlarge

Creating a soil map for a county was a huge undertaking.  Using survey gangs, measurements of the soil to a depth of about 6 feet were taken at close intervals and the type of soil and terrain was recorded for each measurement.  Then these thousands of measurements were compiled and laid over the top of a base map and the various kinds of soil according to standard references were laid in and colored.

In addition to soil information, many of these maps contained accurate information as to the rural roads, railroads land interurban lines of the time. Maps of the cities and towns were laid in as well as individual buildings or structures in the county.  Often, these maps are the only accurate source for antique rural features that exist today.

1920 Fort Worth to Handley Clip ~ Click to enlarge

Eventually, most states agreed to conform to generally agreed upon scientific standards and to share their findings, including the maps.  The US Department of Agriculture managed this effort, provided financing and expertise and produced yearly report volumes sent to members of Congress and the local USDA and state agriculture officials. These official reports were handsomely bound and might contain as many as 50 maps that had been completed in the previous year in protective slips.

Unfortunately, in spite of their excellent color lithography and the careful presentation, the earlier maps were printed on poor paper, high in acid content. Many in collections have deteriorated beyond use.  So the numbers of these maps is decreasing as time takes its toll and we do not see as many listed on the market as there were 15 years ago.

Soil maps are truly lost. They are essentially unknown to most people and have never been suitable for framing because of the bright colors. However, these maps carry a lot of history in them that is hard to find on other maps.  I use them all the time when working on early 20th century projects.  It is important that as many as possible be conserved and restored and digitized for the future.

All pictures and map images from The Electric Books Collection

1 comment:

  1. What progress have you made on this project? I am currently looking for a USDA Soil Map for Wise County, and would be willing to pay for a copy, should one exist.

    -Nick Coleman