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Tax office chief maps out retirement

| Monday, May 14, 2012, 3:26 p.m.

Gerald Wendling is a master puzzle builder - but rather than triumphing over some puny 1,000-piece 'Water Lilies' jigsaw, Wendling has spent his career arranging, and quite nicely in fact, the 180,000-plus pieces of Westmoreland County tax properties.

And while Wendling savors his two-dimensional world, he has been able to use it to pass through time itself - using his lunch hours and free time to create county maps that take researchers back to the time when Pennsylvania was wilderness.

Wendling, 65, of Murrysville will retire next month as head of the county's tax office. County officials agree that he takes with him a vast and intricate knowledge of tax collection that will be hard to replace.

'We're keeping his home number on speed dial,' joked one tax mapping clerk.

Wendling came to work for Westmoreland County in 1972 after supervising the creation of the county's basic tax map while working for Aero Service Corp., based in Philadelphia.

'I started making tax maps six months after I graduated high school,' in Allentown, he said. With some basic drafting skills in hand, Wendling was sent off to West Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Pennsylvania developing the new taxing aid.

But by the time Westmoreland County's job was completed in 1969, he said, the tax mapping market began to dry up, and he was offered a job in Aero's Philadelphia main office.

'Not for this boy,' he laughed.

Wendling caught on with Westmoreland County and eventually was given charge of the combined tax collection and tax mapping departments. Bringing cash into county government has been his main job; producing the tax maps that define what the county is from a taxing point of view is his main love.

'There was an old title searcher who came in one day. He had a problem in the mountains and was looking at the warrant book,' Wendling recalled.

From roughly 1769 to 1868 the state government was handing out warrants to people to settle land in western Pennsylvania. If they made a go of the land - clearing it, building a home, farming it - then they could get a patent, giving them rights to the land. The problem was that the person who got the warrant didn't always succeed and would sell the warrant to someone else who would eventually get the permanent patent.

'He said it would be nice if we had a patent map.'

With the challenge given, Wendling proceeded to dig.

His office had records of warrants for about 35 percent of the county that they could research easily enough to find the eventual patent holder.

That was the easy part, Wendling said. After arranging those parcels over a current tax map, Wendling and others started looking at deeds for land beside the known patents going back to the original deeding from the government.

'We went backwards to determine where (current deeds) came from,' he explained.

Along with the patents, Westmoreland County contained two tracts of land of a couple thousand acres each - Denmark Manor taking in part of Penn Township and Murrysville, and Sewickley Manor including Sewickley and Mt. Pleasant townships - which the government gave to the Penn family.

After about 10 years of lunch hours and free time, Wendling said, the office workers completed the project.

'It really was astronomical,' he said of the effort.

To make sure the new map was of practical use, Wendling said, the patent map was done to the same scale as the tax map and printed together. That way, he said, a genealogist can see not only where a family's original patent was, but also what is on the ground now.

As an added bonus, his office collected references to grist mills, forts and meeting halls and added them to the combined patent-tax map.

Once that job was done, Wendling turned his attention to the development of roads throughout the county, using records that had been stored then forgotten for years in the Clerk of Courts office - since those records had nothing to do with that office's primary function of recordkeeping for the criminal courts.

Opening one of the dusty boxes, Wendling took out a letter-sized envelope containing the yellowed, brittle remains of a surveyor's description of a road, more often than not, he said, a developed trail from a farm to a mill.

'We took these descriptions, plotted them and compared them to roads of a U.S. Geological Survey map,' he said.

Taking the scrap of tracing paper with a line drawn on it that looks like a battered, elongated number 7, Wendling laid it on top of the U.S.G.S. map and moved it around until it matched one of the roads.

'There it is!' he said.

Another piece of Westmoreland County's puzzle was solved.

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