Edible History Lesson: John Johnston, Father of Farming Tile Drainage

Most people don’t know that 56 million acres of farmland in the United States have underground tile drainage. Even fewer know that tile drainage in this country began in Seneca County in the 1830s.
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By John Marks, Curator of Collections and Exhibits at the Geneva Historical Society

Most people don’t know that 56 million acres of farmland in the United States have underground tile drainage. Even fewer know that tile drainage in this country began in Seneca County in the 1830s.

What is tile drainage? Dense clay soil, low spots in fields, or underground springs can create a high water table. In the spring, farmers delay plowing and planting when the fields are wet. Also, plants stop growing downward when they reach water. In hot summer months, the water table goes down but root systems can’t adapt and suffer from lack of water.

Underground drainage, installed below the frost line, artificially lowers and stabilizes water tables. Parallel drain lines direct water downhill to main pipes that empty into ditches or bodies of water. Farmers can get onto their fields earlier in the spring. Crops develop deeper root systems that will see them through the dry months of summer. Homeowners may be familiar with this system as French drains that reduce groundwater around their basements.

John Johnston (1791—1880) is credited as “the father of tile drainage in America.” Emigrating from Scotland in 1821, he came to the Finger Lakes seeking farmland. He purchased a small farm on the east side of Seneca Lake opposite Geneva and began to improve the land. John was a firm believer in spreading manure and adding lime to his soil, practices not widely used at the time. While his crop yields improved, he felt his land would benefit from draining.

In 1835, John wrote to family back in Scotland for two pieces of horseshoe-shaped clay drain tile that he could show to local potters. Benjamin Whartenby in Waterloo made the first batch of tile which John installed on a ten-acre field. His neighbors thought he was crazy for burying crockery in the ground. They thought the clay would poison the soil or break the first time a wagon went over the field. That fall, John’s wheat crop on the drained land jumped from five bushels to 50 bushels per acre.

Drain Tile Today
Companies made clay drain tile in many shapes, and each said their design was best. Since the mid-1960s, corrugated plastic tubing replaced clay; small slots in the tube collect water in the line. If you pass a huge roll of plastic tubing in a field or on a truck, that’s drain tile. Another sign of drainage at work is a pipe emptying into a roadside ditch.

Tile drainage is at the heart of Finger Lakes agriculture. Every crop grown in this region, from grapes to soybeans to tree fruits, has higher yields on well-drained soil. Drainage helps crops withstand erratic weather conditions and, in turn, helps farmers. Whether you buy vegetables at a farm stand or enjoy a bottle of wine, drain tile makes it possible.

John Marks is the Curator of Collections and Exhibits at the Geneva Historical Society, whose properties include the Johnston House and Mike Weaver Drain Tile Museum. To learn more, go to genevahistoricalsociety.com.

Edible History Lesson is a monthly column by a Finger Lakes historian. It uncovers a historical topic relating to the region’s foodshed that is still relevant to this day.

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