July 1994

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The Mike Weaver

Drain Tile Museum

in the Home of John Johnston


Bill Treichler

Marion "Mike" Weaver found an odd-looking tile in 1950 which he took home and saved. That was the beginning of his collection that grew to over 500 pieces. Many people contributed drainage tiles to Weaver. Some of these items went to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, and others to the Waterloo Museum in Waterloo, New York. The remainder of his collection of tiles and documents relating to agricultural drainage he donated to the Geneva Historical Society in 1993.

Land drainage is the process of removing excess water to allow air to enter the spaces between soil particles. One way to remove this water is to form an underground channel that allows moisture to seep into a tunnel and then run away. Tile drainage uses buried hollow cylinders of fired clay to form a water course. The ground water enters the tile tube through the spaces between the tiles.

The real beginning of farm drainage is obscure. Cato wrote of it in 200 B.C. It was accomplished by ditching and sometimes placing brush, straw, poles or stones in the bottom of trenches and then filling with surface soil.

Pliny suggested the use of roof tiles for land drainage in the first century. These evolved into tiles with the cross-sectional shape of a horseshoe which were laid on boards or ceramic soleplates. Most of the early horseshoe tiles were formed around a pole. A machine that extruded clay into a tube was developed in England in 1843. After this time drainage tiles were made in many shapes with sales pitches to go with them.

There is evidence that drain tiles were in use in New Jersey in 1834. Seneca County farmer John Johnston first tried the practice on his farm in 1838. He had witnessed the use of drain tiles as a boy in Scotland, and remembered his grandfather saying, "Verily all the airth needs draining."

Johnston was born in Knockknolling Dalrys, Dumfrieshire, Scotland, in 1791. He came to the United States in 1821 and purchased 112 acres near Geneva. He built a house there for his wife Margaret and their children in 1822. They called their farm "Viewfields."

Sheep were the Johnstons' farming mainstay. In 1837 they purchased 407 acres in the town of Italy, Yates County, for pasturing sheep. As many as 1,000 sheep were driven 37 miles from that place to the home farm each fall.

The soils at "Viewfields" were moderately deep to deep, laying on 3% to 8% slopes; some fields tended to be too wet. Remembering what he had seen and heard as a boy in Scotland, Johnston sent back for two pattern tiles in 1835. These he took to Benjamin F. Whartenby, a crockmaker, at Waterloo, New York. Whartenby made 3,000 tiles and Johnston installed them in 1838. He eventually had 72 miles of tile drains on his 320 acre farm when he retired.

John Delafield, a banker from New York City, bought a farm adjoining Johnston's and he became president of the Seneca County Agricultural Society in 1848. The Society during his term arranged for a tile-making machine to be brought from England, and it was placed with Whartenby who then made 180,000 tiles in 1848, and 840,000 in 1849. By 1871 there were 10 factories in the Waterloo area, and by 1882 there were 1140 factories in the United States.

Johnston made field trials with drains and other new farming practices and wrote many articles on farming for newspapers and magazines. He had been president of the Seneca County Agricultural Society in 1844. John Johnston traveled to other farms to give advice on tile drainage and tirelessly forwarded good farming at every opportunity.

Robert Swan, a New York City boy, came to Johnston's farm as an apprentice in 1848. He married Johnston's daughter Margaret and they moved into the Greek Revival mansion on adjoining Rose Hill Farm. Swan started tile drainage on his farm in 1851, and in 1852 hired labor to complete 91,000 feet of trenching, tile laying, and backfilling. It was all done in 100 days.

An article by Liberty Hyde Bailey in the March, 1893, American Gardening said:

…By 1851 Johnston had laid sixteen miles of tile on his own farm (by that time 320 acres), and in 1856 there were over fifty-one miles!…Robert Swan…was also attracted by this new farming: for a time he lived with Johnston and married one of his daughters. He bought the adjoining farm, Rose Hill…and there consummated the first consecutive and ideal system of farm drainage in this country…the Johnston Farm and Rose Hill…are together perhaps the most important spot in American agriculture…The clay farm began to improve rapidly with the laying of tiles…draining is said to have paid for itself as it progressed. The wheat, which was John Johnston's leading crop, jumped at once from indifferent yields of fifteen and twenty bushels to over thirty, and often over forty, bushels…the gain was not all due to tile-draining…Johnston was a good farmer in every direction. He believed in excellent preparation and liberal manuring.

John Johnston became known as "The Father of Tile Drainage in America." He was an active farmer from 1821 until 1877; Johnston died in his 90th year in Geneva on the 24th of November, 1880.

Mike Weaver was born in Indiana in 1911. His family moved to Hammondsport in 1915. From 1936 until 1966 he was an engineer with the USDA Soil Conservation Department. Following this for twenty years he was a drainage, irrigation, and dam building consultant. In 1964 he wrote the book, History of Tile Drainage.

Mr. Weaver has been collecting drain tile and tools and materials connected with land drainage for more than forty years. The collection contains tiles Johnston brought from Scotland, Whartenby tiles and many others made of clay, wood, stone, and also concrete including glass-lined concrete tiles.

The Mike Weaver Drain Tile Museum and the Home of John Johnston opened this year. The house contains an Introductory Room on Agricultural Draining, A Research Room, a Tile Display Room, and the Johnston Room with many original furnishings. It is open from May 1 until October 31, by appointment only, for a fee of $1. It is located east of Geneva, New York, on Route 96A at the junction with East Lake Road, 1.5 miles south of Routes 5 & 20. For admission call 315-789-3848 or 315-789-5151, or visit Rose Hill Mansion.

The Mike Weaver Drain Tile Museum, located in the Home of John Johnston, is a division of the Rose Hill Mansion, a property of the Geneva Historical Society.
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