Historical deforestation and forest recovery in the northeastern United States holds important implications for ecosystem services and social conditions. Bridging natural and social sciences perspectives, and incorporating both quantitative and qualitative analysis, we contribute to a rich, multidisciplinary literature on US forest change by documenting at a fine scale changing land-cover patterns, identifying their key geophysical and social driving forces, and evaluating the strength and character of the on-going forest transition. The interpretation of five sets of aerial photographs – spanning the period 1936–2008 for a town in central New York State – shows that 25.8 per cent of the land area reforested. Two approaches explain the trend: (1) spatial analysis of landscape features (e.g. soil type, distance to road) and (2) a land-use history analysis based on secondary and grey literature as well as interviews with longtime landowners. Findings underscore the importance of cross-scalar analysis, with key explanatory variables ranging from local topography to national development patterns. Twentieth-century forest recovery is linked primarily to well-established inter-decadal processes: a decline in the farming sector, changing life and livelihood goals within farming families and associated land abandonment on areas marginal for agriculture. In contrast to historical trends, recent forest recovery is occurring on high-quality soils; in 2008 approximately 15 per cent of all forest occurred on such soils, which may hold implications for biodiversity. In addition, landowners are increasingly engaged in a mix of new land uses, including energy development, and there is a steady rise in the number of amenity-oriented rural residents. The Eaton study contributes detailed mapping of forest-cover change in an understudied part of the northeastern USA. It also informs debates about forest transition theory and the prospects for a ‘regressive tertiary stage’ for the study region.