Areial Photos: New York Rural History From Above

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aerial photograph centered in Syracuse Onondaga County New York 1938Aerial photos can be helpful research tools for historians. Google Earth, which provides access to a vast collection of aerial photography stretching back 20 years, is just a sampling of the many aerial photos that have been made since French balloonist Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, known as “Nadar”, took a photo over Paris, France in 1858.

Much of New York Sate was photographed with the camera pointing straight down, an oblique presentation that is less useful to some historians. An effort to capture all of New York in an orthophotographic perspective (corrected to a uniform scale) started in 1936 with a contract to C.S. Robinson of Ithaca, NY. These images are particularly valuable resources for historians of all stripes.

Most county clerks will have the complete photo collection, but obtaining digital copies may be difficult. In a recent trip to the Cortland County Clerk’s Office, I discovered a tall stack of these photos. I asked about the opportunity to photograph them and was told that I could only purchase photocopies.

Another source for these photos is the US Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency. They have used these photos to map out farm crop areas and for environmental surveys and have held onto many of the oldest collections. The public domain photos for the Cayuga, Cortland, Onondaga, Seneca, Tompkins and Wayne counties are available online at Cornell University:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGoogle Earth 2012 View of Casey Farm








At the ending of World War II, a few pilots began photographing rural farms and homes in a low angle (oblique) perspective. These efforts were in the hopes that the rural land owner would want to purchase an image. The photographer would develop the photo and venture door to door displaying a photograph. If they did not make a sale, the prints would be destroyed. Many photographers also did not archive the negatives if the prints did not sell. There are two photographers that did retain their negative collections.

Vintage Aerial has digitized many of their 25 million photos and has developed a website that allows a salesperson to display the collection on your computer. By going to their website at, you can enter in your location and a salesperson will make an appointment to display the photos of your property along with those in the general area. If you are quick with the cut and paste, you can capture history while you are taken on a tour of the surrounding properties. Some major drawbacks to their collection are that the photos start in 1980 in New York State and the prices that they charge are quite high.

DeWolf stampAnother major aerial photographer was Henry DeWolf, the proprietor of the company Aerial Surveys. DeWolf was actively photographing from 1950 to 1978 and the majority of his early work was in New York State.

DeWolf’s collection consists of over two million negatives. Anyone owning one of these photos can still purchase reprints at very reasonable prices, so long as the photo has a photo number written on the back (the collection was never indexed and cannot be searched). I am attempting to develop an index by requesting those who hold Aerial Surveys photos to share with me the photo location and number. My email contact information is listed below. With the help of many contributors, I have started an index online here.

Below is a “Farm History” established using aerial surveys to provide an idea of the kind of details that can be discovered using these unique photographs. This first photo was taken prior to 1950 by either Aerial Survey or Mason Bros Flying Service.

1950 Casey Farm Aerial Surveys or Mason Bros Air PhotoThis next photo taken on Sept 7, 1957 by Aerial Surveys.

1957 Casey Farm reprinted from Aerial Surveys PhotoAnd this one on July 30, 1968, again by Aerial Surveys

1968 Casey Farm reprinted from Aerial Survey Photo 5x3And a final one taken in 2009 by American Aerial Scenes.

SONY DSCPhotos above: An aerial photograph taken in 1938 showing Syracuse in Onondaga County and the Casey Farm in 1936 (left) and via Google Earth in 2012 (right). Photos by Aerial Surveys and American Aerial Scenes reprinted with permission.


17 thoughts on “Areial Photos: New York Rural History From Above

  1. Roberta

    Your attempt to index DeWolf’s collection is to be congratulated and the farm history series of photos shown is very interesting.

    But I have seen earlier aerial postcards of farms and villages in our area. Does “aerial” mean that the subject is seen from above or that the photographer was airborne? I’m reasonably sure that our Mr. Tucker [and his horse and buggy] was not airborne.

  2. Christopher K. Philippo has a lot of aerial images; be sure to click the “Data Sets” tab and click the checkbox for at least “Aerial Photo Single Frames”. For most locations that I’ve looked at so far images only go back to 1952, but I did see one from the 1940s.

    I’ve seen a commercial website that takes USGS’ topographical maps and aerial photos that stamps their own copyright on those images and charges people for copies without the copyright watermark. Presumably the people who use that site and pay for the images don’t realize they’re free on USGS’ website!

  3. Paul Mays

    I have a aerial survey photo taken by Henry DeWolf ( business stamp as above) # D – 666 – 297, I would like to know what year it was taken, I’m thinking mid 70’s, But I would like to know for sure. Thanks Paul Mays,

  4. Mark Parker

    Bill, As you know I use to work for Henry DeWolf Aerial Surveys back in the early 70s until I started my own bussness America Aerial Scenes in 1978. I had sold many of Henrys aerials all over the Northeast and he even had me and some others guys out in Arizona a couple winters selling. At the end of each week I would mail in all my sales on a specific cash out sheet with the photo # and the customers name who purchased the photograph along with the persons address. So unless Joyce tossed out all of those old salesmans sheets (which she probably did) the addresses of those customers were all written down so they could be refered back to as far as where the farm or that penticular price of property was located. In the past few years I use Lat and Long coordinates so it makes it much easier finding the properties. Henry would write down where the name of the town, village and where the roll would start and usually start with an over shot of the town and say what roads and little towns were encompassed on that certain roll and where the roll would end. If he had to make a jump to a different area because he backed himself into a corner or ran out of subject matter in that penticular area he would take a general overall shot of something that someone would recognize maybe a four corners or something similar (we refered to those as indicator shots) and resume shooting from there. If we had a problem finding a place all we would do would be to ask the previous customer you sold to where the next pic would be and most likely it’s there neighbor a short distance away. The farmers usually always could help you out in locating a place you had a tough time finding because they all knew there neighbors back in those days. The cameras that Aerial Surveys used would hold 100′ foot rolls of double perforated film so they would get 530 shots per roll and each photo was numbered from #1 to #530. The theory was once you found the 1st photo on the roll the following image would be the next place down the road and so on and so forth because they were shot in sequence. Basically what the salesman was doing when he was out there selling these pics was just following the track of the airplane when it originally flew the photo mission. Now days we use GPS. Much easier. So ask Joyce if she happens to still have any of those old salesmans cash out sheets and if she still does BINGO. I guarantee they will identify where a lot of these
    images live and who knows maybe I was the salesmen who originally sold it many years and years ago. I hope this helps you to identify some of these lost aerial photographs. Good luck, Mark Parker/American Aerial Scenes
    Pompey, New York

    1. Victoria

      Hello there!
      I have recently found a family photo of the old farm and would love to see if any copies are kicking around. The picture was taken in Columbia county New York. It was taken of a farm in east Chatham New York. My family owned it. The back of the picture has the numbers 568-200. I wasn’t sure if you would possibly remember it or if it was even around that time or possibly before. Any info would be great. Thanks so much!

  5. Mary

    We have an old photo and have been looking to get another of it or at least find out the date it was taken.
    The number on the back is C278-72. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks

  6. John Springer

    Good morning. I have two undated color Henry DeWolf aerial photos that appear to be from the ’60s to mid ’70s. M810 140 depicts a view of the southern half of the Village of Port Jefferson. Yuo can see Main and East Main Street, the former First National Bank of Port Jefferson building (on the National Register of Historical Places) and other prominent structures still in use today. The second one, M810 138 depicts the waterfront of Port Jefferson Harbor. It shows the Port Jefferson ferry dock and the lot where Danfords Hotel and Marina now stands. I’m interested to know if the index numbers would help identify other aerial views of Port Jefferson Village from this flight that we might view and possible purchase for our historical society?

  7. Renee Charbonneau

    Hello! I have torn photograph of my childhood home with Henry DeWolf’s info on the back and would love to get more copies made for my family or somehow obtain a scan of the entire photo.
    Info is as follows: HU-2-5564. And handwritten on the top is “660-16”.
    Can anyone help me with my request?

  8. Jane Herman

    Hello – We had a photo that was taken around 1977 – 1978 hanging on the wall in the home where I grew up. In 2015, my mom sold the house and moved to Florida. The movers we hired were not good people and delivered only 50% of my moms boxes (all of which were smashed) and unfortunately, the picture was not there. I’ve been trying to find the photographer who took the picture and I suspect it may be Henry DeWolf or you. The property was in Catskill, NY (Greene County). I know I’m grasping at straws but I figured that this is worth a try. Any advice or direction would be welcome. Thank you!!!!

  9. Alan Meyers

    Henry DeWolf Photo # T40-5

    Rural Route 2
    Shippensburg, PA 17357
    Cumberland County
    Penn Township

    The photograph I have is a black & white of my grandfather’s farm. The farm was approx. 150 acres. The photo shows the house, barn and out-buildings and there are some vehicles in the photo too. My parent’s 53 acre farm where I grew up was right next to my grandfathers and I WOULD LOVE to buy a photo of my home place if by any chance it was also photographed along with an enlarged photo of my grandfather’s farm.

  10. Corey kennedy

    Hi, my family has an aerial photo from henry dewolf anf am trying to determine a date. The number on the back are as follows: M714 (printed), and 366 (written).

    Also, any chance of obtaining a digital copy?

    This print is of the Wetherby Farm on west street in fair haven, VT.


  11. Dan McCool

    Good afternoon, Like may of the post before mine I am looking for De Wolf aerial photos of my grandparents farm and adjacent properties in northwest NJ, Sussex county. I have several photos in poor condition with series of hand written numbers all beginning with 640-.
    Can anyone help me find the archives of these photos?
    Thank you,

  12. Sandra Green

    I would like to request a reprint of an aerial photo taken by Henry DeWolf which I believe was taken between 1950-1954. The photo is of the Ingersoll Farm, South Otselic, NY. I believe the photo number is 25-85. There is also another number on the back which is 2650. I believe it reads H.A. Milton 2650 but is not very legible.

    Please advise if this is obtainable.


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