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

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.”