Friday, June 8, 2012

Drainage tile, anyone?

You never know when history is going to happen to you. I went outside the other morning and started clearing up a junk corner my wife and I had targeted for extinction. One item I picked up was a hollow burnt-orange cylinder with walls about half an inch thick -- a drainage tile.

It's very easy not to know what a huge role this piece of ceramic hardware played in the process of turning the often-swampy Midwestern prairie into productive farms connected by actual roads. Not only did it require the technology of creating standardized tile (these days I think they use continuous rolls of corrugated flexible black plastic), but the laws and organization necessary to create drainage districts, because the process won't work unless all the neighbors agree on it.

Tile was just as essential, but less charismatic or conspicuous than barbed wire, because once the fields are drained there's nothing to see. But eastern Illinois, western Indiana, and northwestern Ohio (just to name the parts I'm personally familiar with) would look entirely different if our ancestors and relatives hadn't participated in this process.

This process was not without controversy, then or now. A diverse prairie ecosystem was destroyed and replaced by what are now monocultures of corn and soybeans, dependent on annual doses of oil and chemicals to produce high yields. (In some places those once universally despised swamps are being re-created.)

Law professor James E. Herget wrote a thorough legal account in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society back in 1978; Englishman Hugh Prince's 1997 book Wetlands of the American Midwest: A Historical Geography of Changing Attitudes, at least part of which is available on a German offshoot of GoogleBooks, is more wide-ranging and even-handed.

How much have people used drainage district records in genealogy? Well, it's not unheard of. The Illinois State Archives holds some such records, and some relevant court records have been abstracted on US GenWeb for Stoddard County, Missouri. I'd love to hear more if anyone has gone beyond staring at an old piece of clay tile.

James E. Herget, "Taming the Environment: The Drainage District in Illinois," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society vol. 71, no. 2 (May 1978):107-118; digital image, Northern Illinois University Libraries Illinois Historical Digitization Project, "Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society," [1950-2006] ( : accessed 4 June 2012).

Hugh Prince, Wetlands of the American Midwest: A Historical Geography of Changing Attitudes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).

Harold Henderson, "Drainage tile, anyone?" Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 8 June 2012 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

1 comment:

becky said...

I'm on the board of directors and am an active volunteer at one of those little prairie bog areas (actually, we're a fen) in Ohio - Cedar Bog Nature Preserve. In 1942 dedicated activists managed to save it from further drainage and got the Ohio Historical Society to purchase the land. In the 1970s another group of activists took on the government (and angry farmers who stood to make lots of money from the sale of their land) and stopped a major highway from going through about 100 yards from the Bog. "Hey," said the government officials, "the highway won't hurt the Bog!" Yeah, right!