Digging Up Drainage Tile

A drainage tile collection tells the important story of the solution to farm drainage problems.

Manufacture of drainpipes

The manufacture of drain pipes. Source: The Manufacturer and Builder, April 1881.

Image courtesy of The Making of America Digital Collection; Cornell University library

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Most collectors find their treasures at auctions, swap meets or antique shops. Wilfrid Vittetoe, though, literally digs up his relics. Wilfrid, who lives in Washington, Iowa, collects old drainage tile.

Compared to a collection of tractors, engines or memorabilia, clay drainage tile has to work overtime to get a second look. But what tile lacks in eye appeal, it makes up for in describing an important chapter in American agriculture.

Digging by hand

In wet years, planting was routinely delayed in low-lying farm ground. If rain persisted, an entire season’s crop was lost. The middle of the 19th century saw the advent of early tile systems, particularly in the Great Black Swamp of Indiana and Ohio. Farmers took notice. By 1900, tile systems gained widespread acceptance as a way to deal with agricultural drainage problems and increase production.

With 65 years’ experience with tiling systems – he installed his first project in the spring of 1948, after planting his first crop as a farmer the year before – Wilfrid is well familiar with the history of the industry in Iowa. Tile was produced at a factory just outside of Washington as early as 1885. Drainage tile was installed on his granddad’s farm in 1918.

Although steam-powered trenchers became available in the early 1880s, such equipment was beyond the means of the average farmer. “In this area,” Wilfrid notes, “most tile work was done by hand into the late 1920s. People back then were content to do it.”

On a neighboring farm, Wilfrid says hand-dug tiles were found at a depth of 8 feet (in order to get sufficient fall) extending 80 rods (440 yards). “Can you imagine digging that in by hand?” he asks. “You’d never have to worry about that tile being hit by anything.”

Seasonal work

By 1920, tiling was a common practice in southeast Iowa. “The old-timers told me that when the work was caught up in the summer, some farmers would go into the corn fields, on the side hills where corn was drowned out or stunted and yellow, and use a walking plow to mark where tile lines needed to be,” he says. “They’d make a furrow 8-10 inches deep, then dig two spades more (using the top and bottom spade) and lay 3-inch clay tile lines.”

Each summer they would tile several hillsides, eventually eliminating wet spots. Some of the old-timers, though, simply seeded wet ground. “They’d just buy more cows and turn it in to a cow pasture,” he says.

In the 1920s and 30s, Wilfrid says, it was not uncommon for crews of 25 to 30 men to descend on the area in the spring. “They’d be there all summer,” he says. “They did nothing but dig tile in fields where crops had drowned or oats had been harvested.” Tile was also installed when fields were rotated to pasture or in the fall after harvest.

Tile fit right into a rounded space created by the curved cutting edge of the bottom spade. If needed, a crumber was used to scrape and smooth the ditch. Tile was hauled to the site in a wagon and strung out along the trench. A tile hook was used to lay tile in the trench. Some farmers used a plow or disc to close the trench, “or maybe a team of horses with a single disc,” he says.

Mechanizing the process

Wilfrid’s first experience with a mechanical digger in the Washington area came in 1948. “It was an Army jeep with a digging attachment on the back,” Wilfrid recalls. “The machine was winched with the cable hooked to the tractor for an anchor. Four-inch clay tiles were laid in the ditch with a tile hook. That was the start of my tiling projects.”

By then, clay tile was hauled on flatbed trucks. “The tile was usually offloaded onto a hayrack and pulled alongside the tiling machine. Then it was put in a small cart pulled alongside the digger,” he says. A man rode in the ditch crumber, manually placing one tile at a time in the ditch, and then pushing it with his heel to keep it tight. Later, clay tile was delivered on pallets. “Then we used a tile cart in the field,” he recalls. “That saved lots of hand labor.”

When plastic tile first came on the scene, some contractors just used it to make connections with the old lines and in places with sharp bends or elevation change. During the first few years Wilfrid used clay tile, all connections were made by using a pipe wrench to chip away at the edge of a clay tile to get the correct angle. “It was very time consuming, especially if the tile broke while you were chipping it,” Wilfrid says. “Then you had to start over. When clay tile chain-cutters came on the scene in this area in the 1960s, we thought we had died and gone to heaven. With those, we could get any angle we needed.”

In the early years, before contractors had backhoes, the tiling machine would cut a trench across to the old line and the area for the connection was hand-dug. “One time, we ran a tile that had to cross a new woven wire fence,” he says. “Rather than take the fence apart, we dug through the fence area by hand.”

All flatland tiling needed a grade elevation. That was done by setting stake hubs every 100 feet and using a transit to sight elevation. Targets were set by each hub, and cross-arms were adjusted by measuring from hub to height needed. The operator of the tiling machine sighted over the rod attached to the digging wheel and over the target arms to get the correct elevation. “You needed at least two targets to sight over for accuracy,” Wilfrid says. “It was very time-consuming.”

Building a collection

Wilfrid started his collection before he knew it was a collection. “I always saved tile I dug up, if it was salvageable,” he says. “There are always places we needed to patch in old lines, so I looked to find a tile to fit that spot.” The inventory grew steadily. “I had tile stashed all around this place,” he says. “There was a lot more than I thought, just laying around. I never threw any away.”

Tile was produced in many diameters, from 1-1/4 inch up to 12 inches. “The 1-1/4-inch tile was really a baby,” he says. “I’ve only found that in one line. It wouldn’t take much to plug that up; a mouse nest would do it.” Three-inch tile was the primary size used in hand-dug lines. Later, 4-inch tile became the standard for laterals; bigger sizes were used for mains.

Wilfrid’s collection includes tile in many sizes, as well as unusual pieces like interlocking ceramic tile he believes was produced on a potter’s wheel and tile with a ribbed bottom used in flat ditches.

For the most part, clay tiles age well. “Animals will damage it, and trees are especially a scourge,” he says. “Willows can have roots 50 feet long, and those would plug a line quickly.” Clay tile was available into the 1970s before it was replaced by plastic. “I doubt you could still find clay tile today,” he says.

Evolving technology

Tiling has been a big part of Wilfrid’s farming career. He’s used several methods to find, mark and lay out tile systems. In the spring, when ground conditions are just right, he looks for dry areas that indicate the presence of tile. When he sees tile chips, he’s used a spade to look for mixed dirt, especially below the plow depth. He’s studied aerial maps for tile shadows, and used a tile probe and flags to mark the line.

“I saw the benefit early and never stopped tiling,” he says. “We put in 20,000 feet one week last fall.” Today, the process is conducted with state-of-the-art technology. “They put in tile now with GPS systems, using a computer to control grade,” he says. “It just blows my mind, especially when I think back to the days when we made tile connections by hand.”

Wilfred has gained a strong skill set in 65 years of tiling projects. “Over the years I’ve worked with a number of tiling contractors,” he says. “Some have said that I must be able smell a tile, because there have been times I’ve told them where to dig and the tile is found there. They just shake their heads.

“Tiling has been a big part of my farming career,” he says. “Today you can’t read a farm magazine that doesn’t have a big story about the benefits of tiling. It’s nothing new to me; I knew that 60 years ago.” FC

The hand tiler at the end of an era

“In the fall of 1945 I was going to be a junior in high school. That summer, I worked for a local farmer. Some of his fields had big open ditches where the tile lines had washed out or were non-functioning. He wanted to fill those in and make grass waterways, but first he had to dry up the ditch.

“He hired an old tiler from Washington who dug the ditch and laid tile by hand. He did not drive, so the farmer let me take him home in the old International pickup. I would then stay at my house overnight and in the morning return to pick him up.

“In the morning we’d go to Freshwater’s Coal & Tile Yard and load enough 4-inch clay tiles in the back of the pickup for him to lay that day. Then we’d drive out to the farm, and way back, in the far field, we’d unload and string out the tile on the line where he would dig.

“He wore a primitive hearing aid with a wire and microphone clipped to his bib overalls. When we got to the field, he proceeded to take it off and put it in a cigar box that he set next to his lunch bucket and water jug.

“I’d leave then, returning in the late afternoon to take him home. If I was late, he would be sitting on a pile of dirt, waiting patiently. I did this routine for at least a month, until he finished the project. You wonder what his thoughts were all day, not hearing anything and being all by himself. Today nobody would do that kind of work, especially being alone with no contact with anyone else all day long.”

–Wilfrid Vittetoe

Trenchers shoulder the load

In 1944, Daniel Przybylski, Winona, Minnesota, invented an affordable, portable ladder-type trencher for use in building drainage tile systems. A few other ditch-digging machines were on the market at that point, but they were either too expensive or not versatile enough to be used by the average farmer or contractor. Przybylski’s aptly named Badger trencher, unveiled in 1944, weighed only 3,000 pounds and could dig a ditch 6 feet deep and 16 inches wide at the rate of 250-300 feet per hour. One hour’s operation by the machine was estimated as the equivalent of 30 man-hours of labor.

–Leslie C. McManus

On par with the Panama Canal

From an article in the Sept. 22, 1910, issue of the New York Times:

“So quietly that the fact has not become known widely, Iowa farmers have been arranging for drainage improvements in their lowlands at a cost that will come within $85 million of equaling the expense of building the Panama Canal. The general public has little conception of the extent of the enterprise, which will increase the value of Iowa lands by millions of dollars. Total expenditures now planned in Iowa in these improvements is figured at $307 million. This service will result in reclaiming thousands of acres of the most valuable land in the world … ”

For more information:

- Wilfrid Vittetoe, (319) 653-2720.

Leslie C. McManus is the editor of Farm Collector. Contact her at LMcManus@ogdenpubs.com.