Eugene Scheel

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Article taken from "Backsights" Magazine published by Surveyors Historical Society


by Ray Linville

Eugene Scheel has done the leg work, fine lettering and many a companion narrative for more than forty intricately detailed maps, most in his Potomac River basin and ranging from 11 by 17 inches to six-foot square. Whether on assignment for Elizabeth Taylor or taking on Occoquan, "A Wicked Little Town" in Northern Virginia which once was the seat of the Doeg Indians, he has scouted out and penned in centuries-old skirmishes, family graveyards and packed landscapes of often forgotten sites such as mills, stores, post offices, distilleries, shipyards, fisheries, churches, schools, and campgrounds.

"I use the term mapmaker instead of cartographer," he told interviewer Ray Linville, "because Iím one of the few who does the entire job from research to practically printing."

In Scheelís Crossroads and Corners, which parallels his recent historical map of Prince William County, he traced the founding family of Pickettville, originally settled and homesteaded after the Civil War, concluding: "The last of these somewhat ornery Picketts was Frank, son of Jimmy. One day about 1960 he went out to pick strawberries and didnít come back." End of story ....

Q. What makes your maps unique?

A. Most of my maps have information that does not appear on other maps. In general they have twenty times the place-names than those that appear on a National Geographic map.

The details Scheel provides are not the ones you usually find in historical references. He notes, "John Learyís store survived the blaze when his wife Rowena Leary and the family wrapped the building in wet blankets." Of a community theater in Occoquan, Va., he observes, "Dr. Hornbaker also opened the Lyric Theater in the late Ď20s .... Blacks sat in a tiny balcony, but as these seats had a better view than the orchestra seats, the whites wanted to change places."


Q. How much time do you need to complete a map?

A. It depends on how much detail you want on it. Large maps, about a year. Iíve done maps of large farms, for example, 55,000 acres; the smallest, about 50 acres. The maps show every fence line, gate, jump and sites of former buildings.


Q. What are some of your historical maps?

A. I made my first Fauquier County map in 1974. I completed another version in 1986 and a book on the history of the Civil War in the county. I finished another version in 1995. The first edition of the Loudoun County map was completed in 1972. It was totally redone in 1990 - both as is and historical. The maps contain current landmarks as well as historical detail.


Q. How would you describe your "thumbnail sketches?"

A. I generally index all community corners and crossroads so everyone can find something of interest. People ask me, where did you find out about this - people, houses and rivers that have passed from existence? For the history of Culpeper County I added a huge appendix that capsulated all the elements. Every community is indexed. It takes some work to explain the index.


Q. And your maps are not only of the Potomac River area, correct?

A. Iíve made maps of locations as far away as the Bermuda Islands. I just got a contract to do Troy, New York, and a township in New Hampshire. The Bermuda Islands map was funded by Butterfields Bank. Banks have traditionally been my best supporters.


Q. Why banks?

A. Many rural counties have a traditional, local bank - Fauquier National Bank, now The Fauquier Bank, in Fauquier County, Virginia. In Culpeper, Virginia, itís the Second National Bank. They sponsor a map and its role in the heritage of the county. The only place you can get the Fauquier map is at the bank. That makes people go into the bank.

Special landmarks deserve a written portrait. Scheel explains why they were landmarks. His anecdotes depart from the routine narrative about locations and appearances and reach out to personalities and their eccentric ways, successes and failures, particularly in commerce and business. On the Prince William map, he notes "the Pumphouse for the Southern Railway stood just east of the Broad Run bridge. It was nothing more than a wooden shed enclosing a steam-engine-powered pump that drew water from the run and forced it through underground conduits three miles to the train yards at Manassas. But it was a landmark, partly because of William D. Sharettís dairy farm. He was always a bit ahead of everyone in using the right feeds and fertilizers. During the early 1930s, he had a Washington plant that made some of the earliest milk cartons. Some locals helped to fund it, but it was ahead of its time and went broke."


Q. What would be an unforgettable map for you?

A. I did one for Elizabeth Taylor, who called me to make a map when she was married to Sen. John Warner (R-Va.). It was a map of Atoka Farm - their property in Middleburg - for a Christmas present. She wanted it to be a surprise. When heíd leave for Washington, D.C., sheíd call me and say it was okay to come to the farm and do a "field-check."


Q. What happened when you finished?

A. She asked me to present it at a Christmas party. She wasnít able to explain the map, so I did. Warner was ecstatic. Elizabeth Taylor was very fond of animals; she picked up pets. Sheíd picked up a mutt at the Philadelphia rail station that she called "Depot." Depot was chewing my pants leg when I made the presentation. The repair cost for the trousers appeared in my bill. Later she sent me a letter that Iíve saved; Depot had taken a nip on someone else.

Scheel has lived in Waterford, Va., since 1965. With his interest in historic towns, youíd think Waterford would be on the top of his list. But he says, "Waterford is a museum town. It does have a store, but no one works there except for an insurance company. You canít eat there. It doesnít give you the impression itís alive. Only tourists come there."


Q. What town is your favorite?

A. For a "living" town, meaning a town with restaurants and shops, my favorite is Washington, Virginia. Everybody calls it Little Washington. The town has country restaurants, a historical society; it has no suburbs. Itís alive. Itís also the county seat [of Rappahannock County], has a county jail, a courthouse. People come there.


Q. How do you get information about the specific locations of former buildings?

A. With a general knowledge of a county, I approach an old-timer who has a good feel for the geography of the area. Iíll ask him to tell me where something like a fishery was located. You canít ask a general question like, whatís important? Heíll never mention the fishery. You have to remind him of things for him to bring names out of the past.


Q. Any unusual requests?

A. Iíve been requested to leave things off a map. For example, the Prince William County map was delayed twenty years. A lady didnít want people to know graveyards were on her property. The Prince William Historical Society initially wanted to sponsor the map. She stymied their efforts. The map was eventually sponsored by Historical Prince William, another historical organization.


Q. Is that why "field-checking" is important?

A. Yes. After Iíd made my first Culpeper County map, I saw a source twelve years later when I was preparing a second edition. He told me, "I didnít tell you on purpose about two graveyards I had on my property, but you kept coming back."


Q. Who helps with your field checks?

A. In Patrick County on the North Carolina line, a good source was the former county surveyor. I didnít want to go up into woods looking for graveyards without a local. And theyíll steer you clear of the stills to avoid getting shot. When I was in Madison County, the local newspaper headline was "Donít Shoot Him On Site."


Q. How do you decide what names to use?

A. I use exact names. On one map, the Winchester town manager wanted me to spell a streetís name as "Merryman," but the original and correct spelling was "Merriman." And thatís the way I spelled it on the map. The Merriman family was happy, but it made the town manager upset. Occasionally the names are from the government for official designations. Sometimes Iíll find the name on a tombstone spelled wrong. Iíll get a letter with a birth certificate to show the correct spelling.


Q. What distinguishes your maps besides the historical illustrations?

A. Iím one of the few mapmakers who uses diacritical marks, such as apostrophes.


Q. Why are they important?

A. Theyíre important to historical maps. For example, Snickersí Gap, where Route 7 crosses the Blue Ridge, on all government maps is spelled without an apostrophe. But without the apostrophe, you donít know if itís "Snickers" or "Snickerís" - so you really donít know its name.

Of the town Purcell in Prince William County, Scheel writes, "The first thing a Purcell will tell you is that their family name is accented on the first syllable, and not the last. The village is also called Purcellville, despite some small confusion with that Loudoun County town, metropolis of the Loudoun Valley."


Q. How do places get their names?

A. Official names are provided by a branch of Department of Interior. The Board of Geographic Names (BGN) officially approves names that appear on maps of U.S. areas, such as Occoquan Creek or River. Often a name changes; sometimes there are older names and misspelled names.


Q. An example?

A. Rappahannock River was once called Hedgemanís River. Someone researching Rappahannock River in the records of the 18th or early 19th century wouldnít find it.


Q. How do name changes occur?

A. For many years Occoquan Creek was the name of the river between Fairfax and Prince William counties. A lady decided to get the BGN to change the name. It took about five years and two inches of correspondence to get it renamed Occoquan River.

Of the town of Occoquan, Scheel notes, "Mid-17th-century records spell it ĎOhoquiní or ĎAquaconde,í" meaning in the Algonquinn language, "at the end of the water" - the Occoquan River .... Virginiaís General Assembly established the town, spelling it ĎOccoquon.í"


Q. How did you get started?

A. My undergraduate degree is in geography from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. After college, I had a job with Rand McNally and Company in Chicago. Later I was with the National Geographic Society.


Q. Any other degrees or experiences related to mapmaking?

A. I have a masters in city planning from the University of Virginia School of Architecture. Iíve also been a planning consultant to builders and a consultant to historical properties.


Q. Any early influences?

A. My father was an artist, but he was basically a cartoonist, a caricaturist - not a mapmaker. When I was a child, I learned to draw, just doodle, maps. Iíd make up imaginary countries and islands.


Q. You went from Rand McNally to National Geographic?

A. After Rand McNally, I was in the Marine Reserves from 1957 for about eight years. I was in the infantry and demonstrated combat techniques. I was stationed in San Diego and San Clemente. Everybody loved to be in my platoon. Even on night marches, my sense of direction would lead us through ravines and deserts relatively quickly.

His Marine pride is obvious, and sometimes it surfaces in his historical descriptions. About Quantico he writes, "Itís one of the most architecturally natural and friendly communities in Prince William County, a throwback to a small-town downtown. But, being a Marine, Iím biased." At least heís candid - an indispensable quality for a historical mapmaker.


Q. What happened after the Marines?

A. I went with National Geographic. I had an interview with the CIA, but they just wanted me to draw coordinates. I didnít think Iíd be satisfied; the job was a cousin to a cartographer. And I thought it wouldnít pay as much as a nongovernment job. I worked for the National Geographic Societyís magazine from 1960 to 1969. Iíd read articles and develop ideas for nonphotographics - graphs, maps, and illustrations - to help a reader understand the stories. Then Iíd draw rough ideas.


Q. What else at National Geographic contributed to your mapmaking skills?

A. I got interested in urban planning. I also got a graduate degree in literature from Georgetown University - to be able to "converse" with the people I worked with.


Q. Why did you leave National Geographic?

A. National Geographic was too comfortable. I wasnít ready for a comfortable job in my 30s. I left in 1969 for self-business.


Reprinted from Potomac Review, No. 21 (Winter 1998-99). Ed. by Eli Flam. Port Tobacco, Maryland: Potomac Review, Inc. ©Ray Linville 1998.





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