Counties were among the earliest units of local government established in the Thirteen Colonies that would become the United States. Virginia created the first counties in order to ease the administrative workload in Jamestown. The House of Burgesses divided the colony first into four "incorporations" in 1617 and finally into eight shires (or counties) in 1634: James City, Henrico, Charles City, Charles River, Warrosquyoake, Accomac, Elizabeth City, and Warwick River. America's oldest intact county court records can be found at Eastville, Virginia, in Northampton (originally Accomac) County, dating to 1632. Maryland established its first county, St. Mary's, in 1637, and Massachusetts followed in 1643. Pennsylvania and New York delegated significant power and responsibility from state government to county governments, and thereby established a pattern for most of the United States, although counties remained relatively weak in New England.
Bob Ake was a Physical Chemistry professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, when he took a sabbatical and did research at the University of Wisconsin - Madison during the 1976-1977 school year. Bob was (and remains) a fanatic birder who, while living in Wisconsin, traveled all over the state trying to generate the largest state bird list possible in the short time he lived there.
I met Bob in November 1976 when he chased a Northern Hawk-Owl I had found in Barron County. It was the first one I'd ever seen and one of very few records (at the time) for Wisconsin. Bob and his son Jorn drove up from Madison the next day and searched unsuccessfully for the owl. Early in 1977 Bob traveled to River Falls (Pierce County) where I lived at the time. His purpose was to look for a Red-necked Grebe (in St.Croix County) that he wanted to add to his Wisconsin list. Stopping by our meager home in River Falls after a successful search for the Grebe, Bob said that he was torn by the drive home. It was already 10:00 p.m. and Bob pondered his return route. "If I take the Interstate back I can get home in four hours," he began, "but if I follow the River Road (Highway 35) to LaCrosse and cut over from there I can add 7 counties to my state list."
I perked up and asked about his state list of counties. Bob replied "don't you keep a life list of the counties you've been in?" I thought to myself, "Well, I do now."
As soon as possible I found a large wall map of the United States that included the boundaries and the names of each county in each of the lower 48 states and Hawaii. Among all of them there were 3,076 counties plus in places like Virginia there were "independent cities" that took on the same governmental role as a county. I decided after looking at the map that one day I wanted to visit all of them.
My task began by recounting trips I had taken across Wisconsin and into other nearby states. At the time I had been in 71 of Wisconsin's 72 counties. Common sense dictated that I would finish all of its counties first but it took until September 1995 before I got to Lafayette County southwest of Madison to finish off all of Wisconsin's counties.
I had made two trips to Montana as a child. Both trips brought us to Bozeman in Gallatin County where my dad went hunting with his uncle. I dug out an atlas and re-traced our routes and put all of the counties we traveled through on the large map of the United States.
Then there was the Geology field trip we took to the southern Appalachian mountains in April 1972. The professor for our trip, Steve Burrell, put together a stop-by-stop itinerary for the trip. I simply re-traced the route and added counties in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina. We came within a hair width of getting to South Carolina and Georgia but never made it. Those states would have to wait for some time in the future.
Not long after the epiphany brought on by Bob's county story my now-former wife and I made a birding trek to the Black Hills of South Dakota and to the Sandhills of Nebraska. It was my first time in either state and I made sure the route brought on as many counties as possible.
Later that same year I started working for the US Fish and Wildlife Service in our Regional Office in Minneapolis. My job then was to evaluate lands nominated to the Service for acquisition and protection in the National Wildlife Refuge system. Our area of responsibility included Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. I was given specific responsibility for Indiana and Ohio and after several trips there in two years Indiana was the first state where I visited all of a state's counties. In Indiana's case that was 92 counties.
In 1981 we made a birding trip by car from Jamestown North Dakota to the southeast Arizona mountains. The route I plotted to Arizona and back ensured that I added new counties in Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.
Working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service afforded me many opportunities to travel and in 31 years with the service I added more than 1,500 counties (parishes in Louisiana) to my list. And at the end of every trip I took out a red marking pencil and colored in the new counties I had just visited.
Living in Georgia after my divorce opened up opportunities to get to all 154 counties in the Peach State. It was on one of those county-chasing trips that I met the Ku Klux Klan, complete with their prejudice and hoods and capes. It seems that the Klan was upset because a black boy was dating a white girl in a little town in Wilkinson County. To the ignorance of the Klan this was almost as bad as when General Sherman created a hell of a light show in Atlanta during the "War of Northern Aggression" that the rest of us know as the Civil War. A member of the Klan stopped my car as I was entering this little town and explained to me how everything was going to hell in a hand basket because this inter-racial couple liked each other. After absorbing his vitriol for a minute or two I put my car in gear, said "When are you ignorant pigs going to join the 20th century" and drove away. I'm betting the Klansman still remembers the day he told off that Yankee on the side of that Wilkinson County road.
By the time I moved to Washington DC in September 1994, my wall map of the United States' counties showed some huge holes in several states. Thanks to excellent air fares from Washington National Airport I spent many extended weekends flying somewhere and just driving from county to county. One weekend I found a $58 round trip from Washington to Louisville, Kentucky. I picked up a car at the Louisville airport and 3 days and more than 2000 miles later I returned to Louisville having finished off the last of the 124 counties in the Bluegrass State.
It was on this trip, while driving on the Bluegrass Parkway, that I passed a road sign welcoming me to Muhlenburg County. The name sounded familiar to me but I could not remember why. I'd never been in Muhlenburg County so why did I know about it? A mile or so later I crossed over a bridge and off to my left was a massive drag line used to open the earth and rape it of its coal. One word was painted on the side of the dragline - PEABODY. Then it hit me and I remembered why I knew of this county. John Prine had sung of it so passionately long ago.
Another time I rented a car at National airport and took off for southwest Virginia returning 3 days and 1700 miles later and had visited the last of all the counties and independent cities in Virginia and West Virginia. On this trip I thought I had run onto the Hatfield's and the McCoy's still feuding in McDowell County, West Virginia.
At the conclusion of the 20th century my wall map of US counties was colored brightly red except for a white patch in northwestern Nevada and in central Oregon. I was missing three Nevada counties and eight in Oregon and it bugged the hell out of me that I hadn't been to all of them.
Northwest Airlines offered a great round trip fare from National Airport to Reno, Nevada so over Memorial Day weekend 2000 I flew to Reno and went off to explore. From Reno ("The biggest little city in the world") I drove north to Humboldt and two adjacent counties before entering Harney County Oregon. There I drove first to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge out in the middle of absolutely nowhere in southeast Oregon. From Malheur I drove north and finally west. First I needed eight Oregon counties and then it was seven and then it was six and finally it was four.
I woke up on May 30, 2000 near the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in central Oregon needing just four more counties to have them all. As I drove west I picked off three more until finally at 4:04 p.m. (Pacific Time) on May 30, 2000, I drove into Deschutes County Oregon. It was county number 3,076.
I celebrated this milestone by visiting the Bend, Oregon airport (which I've not flown into or out of) and watching Horizon Airlines planes land and take off from the runway.
I slept in Bend that night and then left the following morning for Crater Lake National Park and eventually back to Reno. When I returned home from the trip I rather triumphantly colored in the last eight boundaries on my nearly 25 year old map and saved Deschutes County, appropriately, as the last one.
Having visited all of the counties or parishes (and all of the independent cities) in the lower 48 states and Hawaii was rather anti-climactic when it was over. Alaska has county equivalents known as "buroughs" and there are 17 of them in an area damned near the size of the lower 48 states. I've been to 16 of them and someday will get the North Slope burough. Still I have difficulty wrapping my head around the fact that a "county" in Alaska can be as large as all of Montana. Somehow something gets lost in the translation.
At one point early in my career I thought it would be to my advantage and to the Fish and Wildlife Service's advantage if I had all this extensive experience having visited all these places in the country. As it turned out all the Service was interested in was who was better at stroking the ego of the Assistant Director or the Division Chief - experience with the habitats of the country meant very little.
Still I'm glad I did it. To this day it still freaks people out on occasion when I'm talking to someone in an airport and they describe where they live and I say to them "that sounds like Throckmorton County, Texas." I can't remember all the times someones mouth dropped open and my guess as to where they lived was true. "How in hell did you know that"? I was regularly asked. Well, I have been there.
Although it was 11 years ago today that I visited the last of the 3,076 counties or parishes, I still have a rabid interest in them. It still gets a little tingly when I pass a county boundary sign no matter what state I'm in. Here in Florida with its 67 counties (I finished off Florida's counties in Union County in 1995) I am working diligently at seeing a minimum of 101 bird species in each county. Now when I'm out birding I have started to take a picture of the county boundary sign for each Florida county like this one for Manatee County where I now live.
Through all of the travels I kept a lot of notes about where I was, what I saw, who I conversed with and my feelings about each place I visited. Once I get two books published that are now finished manuscripts, and then get a book on travel in Asia and the Southern Hemisphere written, I want to write a book about counting counties. I think I will take one county in each of the fifty states and tell a story about it. My Wisconsin county would have to be Barron County where I was born and where all the journey's began. For Oregon it would have to be Deschutes County where all this nonsense ended. For the other forty seven states I'll think of something.
No doubt the book will be dedicated to Bob Ake because he was the one who got me started. His simple quip that night in River Falls, Wisconsin set me off on an odyssey that has taken me to every corner of this huge country. I've learned a lot about America in the process; its history, its geography, its customs and its some times crazy people. And I have Bob Ake to thank for giving me the push to experience it all.