Welcome to Curbed's new series Homeward Bound, in which long-affirmed city dweller and design journalist Karrie Jacobs documents her process as a first-time home builder. Jacobs, a professional observer of the man-made landscape, was the founding editor of Dwell magazine and the author of The Perfect $100,000 House: A Trip Across America and Back in Pursuit of a Place to Call Home (Viking, 2006). This eight-part series is a continuation of Jacobs's pursuit to solve the puzzle of modest, modern, and regional domestic architecture, using a recently-acquired parcel in upstate New York as a first-person case study.
On a fantastically balmy May afternoon, I find myself bumping through hilly pastures in a flatbed truck driven by one Dick Liddle, a 70-something year old dairy farmer whose family has been working the land in Andes, New York, since 1868. He tells me that when he graduated high school in the 1950s, "There were 235 dairy farms in the town of Andes." "Now," he says, "there are four." His farm, located a couple of miles up the road, is among the survivors.
We're skirting the perimeter of a property that Liddle had owned for a decade or so and sold to an investor in 2001. It's land that my husband and I purchased early last year. When we bought it, we believed we were getting 58 acres, but our surveyor recently concluded we actually own 48. Liddle, who knows every hill and hollow—he still pastures some of his cows here and cuts the hay—is taking me to what he believes is the site of missing ten acres.
I've never owned land before, and I as I drive around with Liddle, I realize how little I know about it. I've only owned apartments, specifically the very rectilinear kind found in glazed brick buildings that sprung up in New York City in the early 1960s, which are largely disconnected from anything one might consider the natural world. Land is different. What I'm learning that land retains its history, the imprint of every generation that's used it, the decisions that they made and the things they left behind, in ways that a parquet floored New York City coop doesn't.
When my husband, Ed, and I started looking for a house to buy in the Catskills a few years ago, we found most of what was on the market depressing. We decided it might be better to simply purchase land and build a house, a notion that I hadn't entertained since a decade earlier, when I went bust writing a book on the subject.
After I left my job as the founding editor-in-chief of Dwell magazine in late 2002, I wrote a book called The Perfect $100,000 House. Published by Viking in 2006, it was about 14,000 mile road trip I took around the country looking for a way to build a modern house for a modest price. I was after a simple house, minimalist in style, 1,000 square feet, a comfortable, sunlit place for me to live a solitary life. Since then, I've acquired a husband, a dog and two grown up stepchildren. The house, obviously, would have to be much larger and, unavoidably, much more expensive.
Ed and I figured that about five acres would be plenty and began looking at properties around Phoenecia, an increasingly hip town in Ulster County where we were staying that summer. Mostly we saw wooded lots that had been subdivided in ways that promised to transform the area into exactly the sort of exurb where we would never want to live.
I suggested to Ed that we push deeper into the Catskills, west to Delaware County, where the wooded mountains give way to rolling farm land. The parcel we eventually bought sits on the edge of downtown Andes (population: 1,301). It's mostly open pasture sloping gently from north to south, offering views of peaks to the east and the picturesque village to our west. Here was a place where we could stroll to get a meal at the local hotel, where the dog could have all the running room he needed and Ed could get the privacy he craved.
Our lawyer wisely suggested we have the land surveyed before we closed the deal, but because the transaction—much delayed by the seller—happened in dead of winter, January, 2014, a survey seemed impractical. Later, our architect insisted that he needed a topographic survey and reasoned that it would be smart for us to know the land's boundaries. So in November, we hired Kaatskill Mountain Surveyors of Oneonta, New York. Then winter roared in making it impossible for the surveyors to get much done. When we finally got the survey map in March, I was shocked when I looked at it: 48.45 acres? What happened to the other ten?
The Delaware County tax map shows that we own 58 acres. So do the tax bills we regularly receive from the town of Andes. But, belatedly, we noticed, all the contracts and deeds don't actually mention acreage, just long, complex narrative descriptions of the land's dimensions, always beginning from a point at the "centerline of Main Street."
This spring, I drove up to Oneonta to meet with Richard Braun, the surveyor, a burly fellow who works out of a Victorian house downtown and keeps Jerry Garcia posters on his office walls. He shows me how he works. "We take the deed of the land you purchased and relate it to the ground," he says, handing me a sheaf of papers, deeds going back to 1944 describing transactions on the land that date to the late 1800s. The margins are covered with his calculations. "Initially it seems pretty clear," Braun says of the descriptions in the deeds, but as he pages through, going back in time, "This is where we go, oh my god."
Beginning at the Northwesterly corner of the lot at a point in the center of the wall; runs thence 64 deg 15' W 9 chains 54 links to a stake in the wall thence S 15 degrees 30' E 3 chains 21 links to a large apple tree… This text goes on for three solid single-spaced type written pages, like a treasure map, all chains, links, board fences, stone walls, fruit trees, and metal rods. A chain, Braun informs me, is a unit of measurement—equal to 66 feet—dating to Colonial times. A link is a one-hundredth of a chain. Braun's job is to take these descriptions, some written over a century ago, and correlate them to what he finds on the ground today; a surprising number of the markers are still there. He then uses a digital tool to measure distances and map them precisely on an electronic grid.
Braun explains that our land is surrounded by parcels—18 or more—that had been surveyed, but our own property had never been properly measured. So it's easy to understand how land presumed to be 58 acres for a century or two could actually be 48. Happens all the time, he says. Or, as our contractor, Steve Walker puts it: "Parcels without recent surveys lend themselves to accumulated surveying error from adjoining parcels." I would happily blame the discrepancy on accumulated error, except for one thing. The farmers I've met who have worked the land going back to the mid-1960s insist that when our neighbor, an affable guy named Chris, had his land surveyed, a boundary was misplaced.
June and Mel Ruff live in a lovely 19th-century home fronting Main Street that was the original farm house. They bought it along with the land, the cows, the barn and all the farm equipment in 1966 for $28,000. By the end of the 1980s, low wholesale milk prices and a host of other difficulties drove them out of the business and they sold most of the land to the Liddles. By the time we came along, the asking price for just the land—minus a few acres that the Ruffs had held onto—and the barn was roughly eight times that amount. "Did you ever have the land surveyed?" I asked the Ruffs. No, they hadn't.
"We see somebody else did and we don't think the lines are right," June tells me.
"They had it surveyed and they took one field away from you," adds Mel.
"We called it the thorn field," June recalls. "It wasn't anything very valuable really, but it was part of our farm."
Later, as we drive through the pastures, Dick Liddle says of the discrepancy, "It's so obvious." We stand by one stone wall where yellow "posted" signs mark the land as our neighbor's and look out at a field of scrub. We then drive to the other side of a field and look at a second stone wall. Liddle insists that the boundary of the land is the more westerly stone wall, a demarcation that has "held for generations."
Chris, our neighbor, just knows what his surveyor told him. He says his survey showed that he had a little more land than he thought, but only about three-quarters of an acre. And he recalls being puzzled when he ran into the Liddles erecting a barbed wire fence along the disputed border as if it were the Gaza Strip. Apparently, they said something about keeping the cows out. "But why would any cows be there?" he wondered.
Our neighbor's surveyor, Robert Allison of Catskill Region Surveying Services, informs me that the whole idea that we own 58 acres is largely a construct of the tax department, but says he's nonetheless taking another look at the border in question. "Farmers know their land," he acknowledges. And Braun has gone back to the historic deeds to see what they say about my neighbor's parcel. So far he's found descriptions of a plot that only seems to have three sides, with a crucial north/south boundary line unmentioned. So the mystery is ongoing. As Braun remarks, with a deep sigh, "It's a beauty."