SOUTHWEST HARBOR — Driven by a fear of losing the results of his labor from 63 years ago, Earl Raymond pressed the local historical society to unearth aerial photographs taken of the town in 1955.
When Karen Craig, former president of the Southwest Harbor Historical Society, asked the board of selectmen for the photos earlier this summer, no one was positive where they were being stored. Some were found in a drawer at the town office and others were dug out from a dark place at the public works garage.
“I was concerned about these for years,” said Raymond. “Because I knew they were there. I felt they needed to be protected.”
At this time, all of Raymond’s photos that have been found are at the historical society’s new home on Seawall Road in Manset.
Raymond took the photos of the town when he worked for the James W. Sewall Company of Old Town. He began working for Sewall shortly after graduating from Yale University in 1953 with a Masters degree in forestry.
“I’m happy they’re here,” said the photographer, sitting in the Gleaner Hall of the historic building. “Most towns, I doubt if they keep a lot of this stuff…Southwest Harbor was kind of sentimental for me. It was one of my first jobs.”
Raymond, 89, recently visited Southwest Harbor to explain the cadastral mapping method that he and a team of about four employees of Sewall undertook in Southwest Harbor and more than 700 other towns and counties around the country.
“After World War II the inequities of housing and buildings was way out of whack,” he explained. “It was an equalization project the state mandated. Towns needed to do that… They called it a revaluation but it was actually an equalization.”
When states realized they were collecting the same amount of tax dollars as they had around the time of the war, nearly two decades earlier, they required towns to update their records. Sewall performed many of these cadastral mapping projects in order to get properties correctly recorded and their values updated.
“From the aerial photographs we could map it out,” Raymond said. “We were pioneers in that area…From the photographs you could see buildings and put a value on the buildings. That way they could have an inventory of what they had in town.”
To begin the process, flight lines for the planes were set on the ground marked with large white Xs was so the pilot would have a guide to follow. Then, the company would take a plane up with a 9-inch-by-9-inch format camera and take photos from the air.
“Taking the pictures is like mowing the lawn,” Raymond said. “When you fly your flight lines, you pre-determine what your height would be.” Then, a pilot would fly his lines, turn around and go back. “You needed to make sure you didn’t have any gaps.”
Once the photographs were taken, they were brought to Sewall and printed in a large format. Most were printed at a scale of one inch equaled 100 feet on a piece of paper 36 inches by 36 inches.
“You had to develop big pictures like this,” Raymond said, standing above a six-square-foot photograph. “You needed big enough equipment to do it … No commercial place could do it.”
Each large-format photograph was marked with a date in the upper left corner and a code representing the town, flight line and number of photos for that flight taken. For example, one photo for the Southwest Harbor project was marked, SWH – 2 – 6 for the second flight line of the six photos taken on that day.
With the large photos in hand, the team of mappers would head to the town they were working in and walk the streets to record property lines. Each photograph was mounted onto a board and each mapper carried a red pen to mark the lines.
“We each took one of these things and started talking to people,” said Raymond. “And we had wonderful experiences… We had to talk to people to find out where their property lines were. We had to spend two or three months with three or four people to talk to all the [town’s] people…We generally did it in the summer because the town was eager to get the maps done and get their revaluation done.”
When the process was finished, the towns got the photographs, a map of the town’s property and a card file, according to Raymond.
“We took these things and fiddled around with them and made the best maps we could,” he said, “and put them on vellum.”
With the large captures encased in vellum paper, towns could continue to mark new properties on the original maps/photographs.
“Occasionally people would get very upset,” said Raymond. “They’d come into the office and tell you it was wrong… It did inventory everything they had.”
Now, this same process can easily be done with computer programs and other methods of graphic recording. As Raymond reflects on his 46-year career with Sewall, he wants to make sure some of these photographs reflecting an aged process are preserved.
“When I left, we were 150 people,” said Raymond about the company that was formed in 1910. “When I came, we were 10… I officially retired and I stayed on for many years.”
Raymond, who lives in Falmouth, visits friends back on Mount Desert Island frequently, especially in Southwest Harbor.
“The town was pretty much the same as it is now,” he said. “There’s not a whole lot that has changed.”
Some might not agree, but from the air, the town looks pretty similar to the way it did more than 60 years ago.