Back in 1964, Leo Mills Sr. and his wife, Dorothy, weren't much for going out to dinner.
A land surveyor for Karl Squires Engineering in Palmetto since he'd graduated from high school 16 years earlier, Mills earned just $21 a week, which didn't leave much for a night out.
But when Squires told Mills Sr. that the he and his wife were taking them out for a couples dinner, he couldn't say "no" to the boss. He didn't know it would be the last time Squires would give him an order.
"In the middle of the whole thing he gives me a set of keys. They were office keys," said Mills Sr., now 84. "He had turned the whole business and everything over to me."
The episode fulfilled a promise Squires had made to Mills years earlier, when he told his then-unschooled protege: "We're going to build this thing up and you're going to get it."
He didn't underestimate Mills' ambition. Over the next 50 years, Mills and his son, Leo Jr., continued to build the business into the oldest and one of the most prolific surveying companies in Manatee County.
Along the way, the elder Mills took a turn as the county's surveyor, surveyed the land for the then-brand-new Port Manatee and figured the boundaries for scores of housing developments. The work the company did became the basis for a sleepy farm county to turn itself into a destination for light industry, tourism and retirees in search of their warm weather dream homes.
One of about 990 surveying mapping firms in the state, Leo Mills & Associates has distinguished
itself by assembling the oldest set of privately owned surveying documents in the county at its 620 Eighth Ave. W. office in Palmetto. Complete sets of records go back to the 1940s. The oldest documents on file are from the 1800s.
For a business that relies on information drawn and written on paper, those documents help company surveyors and technicians make sense of decades of boundary line changes. There's fair demand for that now as the county's new housing market takes off again.
"There are all kinds of funny little things that get involved sometimes," said Leo Mills Jr., who has been running the business alongside his father since getting licensed in 1979. "We're instructed to try to follow in the footsteps of the previous surveyors."
Todd Boyle, Manatee County's surveyor, said the Mills' have also allowed the county to use the company's library. This can be helpful, as his division reviews every new subdivision plat prior to them being put up for approval.
"To Leo's credit, when we've been in need of information, he's been generous to share those documents as we work to serve the public," Boyle said.
The senior Mills retired from the surveying business three years ago, turning it over to Mills Jr. and daughter Rea Sellars. But for years, father and son gave shape on paper to lands both walked before they had houses, factories or farms on them.
Even as the county heads toward a future which Mills Jr. sees bringing more manufacturing, tourism and working-age people to the area, he still remembers a time when today's urban and suburban landscape seemed like fantasy.
He said he remembers being 14 and hearing from a friend's father about plans Schroeder Manatee Ranch had made to build a town on thousands of acres of East Manatee -- land he only thought was good for cattle and hunting.
"We would look around as kids and we would say maybe he's been sitting too close to the campfire," Mills Jr. said with a chuckle.
Up and down housing, surveying market
The peaks and valleys of the county's land development market shaped the fortunes of Leo Mills & Associates. Squires, an engineer from Miami, moved to Palmetto in the 1940s to start a business he felt would be more relaxing. He hired Mills Sr. part time as a high school student in 1946, eventually employing him full time and encouraging him to go to school and get his surveying license.
A quiet land and development market in the 1950s made it tough to earn a living, but Mills Sr. stuck with Squires through the decade. After taking over the business, Mills Sr. started seeing more clients coming through his door. They hired him for mortgage surveys, multifamily developments and to plot out farmland.
The acceleration of the housing industry in the late 1990s and early 2000s was a factor in the company's growth. During those years, homesite surveys in subdivisions provided a substantial portion of the company's work. The company's workforce grew to 24 employees and operated a second office for a few years.
But when the housing market collapsed between 2007 and 2009, the Mills' had to cut back. The company now has nine full-time and two part-time employees.
"We were lucky to survive," Mills Jr. said. "We had to let people go who'd been with us for 15 years."
The company repositioned itself as a specialty surveyor after the collapse, doing more consulting, feasibility surveys, floodplain management and work related to land litigation. Mills surveyors take on three to four new jobs every day.
One of the business's oldest clients is custom home builder Whitehead Construction of Cortez. Brent Whitehead, the company's owner, said he has used Leo Mills & Associates for more than 30 years to do environmental surveys at the waterfront properties his clients tend to favor.
He said the recession only made the relationship between the two companies closer.
"We all had more attention to give to all of our customers," Whitehead said.
Marilyn Evers, executive director of the Tallahassee-based Florida Mapping and Surveying Society, said the Mills are unusual in their ability to pursue their business in an industry that sees independent firms regularly purchased by national and international concerns.
"They would be one of the oldest surveying firms in Florida," she said.
More specialized than some larger surveying firms that also do in-house engineering, landscape architecture and environmental consulting, Leo Mills & Associates will likely remain a small to mid-sized player in the surveying game.
At 64, Mills Jr. still runs the business full time. He said he doesn't know whether he will ever retire. But when and if he does, he plans to pass ownership to his nephew, Brian Sellars.
Leo Mills & Associates can be contacted at 941-722-2460.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.