Digging Up Drainage Tile

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

| August 2015

  • 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
  • Rare drainage tile
    Wilfrid Vittetoe believes this vitrified clay drainage tile was produced on a potter’s wheel. Dug up in Washington County, Iowa, it is a rare find. This section of interlocking tile measures 3 inches by 18 inches. “It’s pretty uncommon,” he says.
    Photo by Leslie C. McManus
  • Tile spades
    Other pieces from Wilfrid’s collection. At right, a clay tile spade. The 20-inch spade has a hand-carved handle made from one piece of wood. At left, a tile spade used in gumbo (sticky black soil), also with a handle made from one piece of wood.
    Photo by Leslie C. McManus
  • Small diameter tile
    Small-diameter clay tile Wilfrid dug up when putting in new tile lines.
    Photo by Leslie C. McManus
  • Twelve-inch tile
    Twelve-inch clay tile.
    Photo by Leslie C. McManus
  • Drainage tile diagram
    Subsurface drainage title is typically placed at depths of 3 to 4 feet in poorly drained soils.
    Image courtesy the Farm Collector staff
  • Drainage tile display
    Part of Wilfrid’s display of drainage tile.
    Photo by Leslie C. McManus
  • Tile diggers
    Tile installation on the Johnston farm in Will County, Illinois, in 1938. “All of the fields around Wilmington have to be drained using buried tile,” an early account notes. “The only tools used were spade, shovel and a rounded tiling shovel for shaping the bottom of the trench.”
    Image courtesy www.nejohnston.org
  • Buckeye traction ditcher
    The Buckeye traction ditcher was a traction engine, on the rear end of which was mounted a large wheel with excavating buckets fastened to its circumference. The excavating wheel was an “open wheel” as it had no axle, but revolved on roller wheels placed just inside the rim of the excavating wheel.
    Image courtesy the Farm Collector staff
  • Tile making machine
    Benjamin F. Whartenby used a tile-making machine to produce 180,000 drain tiles in 1848, and 840,000 tiles in 1849.
    Image courtesy the Farm Collector staff
  • Badger trencher
    Daniel Przybylski Patent no. 2,472,758.
    Image courtesy the Farm Collector staff
  • Washington County Fair
    Wilfrid with his display at the Washington County Fair.
    Photo by Leslie C. McManus

  • Manufacture of drainpipes
  • Rare drainage tile
  • Tile spades
  • Small diameter tile
  • Twelve-inch tile
  • Drainage tile diagram
  • Drainage tile display
  • Tile diggers
  • Buckeye traction ditcher
  • Tile making machine
  • Badger trencher
  • Washington County Fair

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.”