Rural New York, p. 79-81 (1921)

Elmer Otterbein Fippin, B.Sc. (Agr.)


In the practice of modern under-drainage by means of tile, New York was a pioneer. Drainage as an art accomplished by the use of open ditches and of stone, brush, poles, and other crude means is very old and is recorded by Cato and other ancient writers. But drainage by means of tile or short lengths of clay pipes is relatively new and probably does not date back more than 250 years to the convent gardens in Mauberg, France. In England it is not much over 150 years old.

The honor of having first systematically tile-drained a farm in America rests with John Johnston, a Scotchman; who came to America in 1821 and acquired a farm two miles southeast of Geneva, on the east shore of Seneca Lake. His farm is in part a strong heavy calcareous loam and in part a rather heavy calcareous clay. For the first fifteen years, however, he could not grow profitable crops. Then he remembered the "pottery" he had seen buried in the land of his native country. In 1835-1837, he imported some of these clay pipes from England and began the systematic drainage of his farm about four rods apart. He found it so profitable that he continued until his entire three hundred acres were all well drained in this manner. Others followed his example and a period of active tile under-drainage began. Johnston was associated with John Delafield in importing the first machine for making tile, a Scragg pattern. In 1851, Johnston was awarded a prize by the New York State Agricultural Society for an essay on his drainage operations, and in the following year a set of exquisite gold and silver pieces was presented to him in recognition of his service to agriculture in introducing tile drainage, by a group of public spirited men, among whom are a number of prominent names. Whether the Johnston farm was actually the first in America on which clay tile were used is an open question. South of the Mason-Dixon line, tile were not systematically laid until about 1875 and this was at Charleston, South Carolina. W. C. Hinson, a planter on James Island, then began using tile. It is reported that one of the English consuls stationed at a Virginia port used tile long before that date. In any event, Johnston's was the first work the results of which have been carried through to the present day, for those drains are still operating and in good form and the farm, under the progressive management of the present owner, continues to produce yields of crops far above the average of the State.

The first sections of farm drain tile carried west of the Mississippi River came from this same vicinity of Geneva. They were carried by another man who has had very large influence on agriculture in New York and also in the country at large. Isaac Phillips Roberts, first dean of agriculture in Cornell University, was born on a farm at East Varick on the west shore of Cayuga Lake. He moved to Iowa and engaged in farming. In 1865 he carried some lengths of tile back to Iowa in connection with a visit at his old home in New York. He preached the gospel of under-drainage in the new country then and later in his capacity as a professor of agriculture in the new State College of Agriculture at Ames, Iowa.

During the depression in agriculture in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, New York fell behind the Middle West in the practice of tile drainage and is just now actively resuming the art.