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Tile mills help ‘drain the swamp’

Editor’s note: This is one of a series of articles on Paulding County history written for that county’s bicentennial celebration this year. This is the second part of a two-part series on draining the Great Black Swamp in Paulding County.

MELINDA KRICK/for The Van Wert independent

Straw’s tile mill, located on what is now Fairground Drive between Williams and German streets in Paulding, was Paulding County’s first tile mill in 1876. W.F. Straw soon expanded into brick as well as clay tile. The Great Black Swamp was drained thanks to thousands of miles of tile buried beneath the rich farmland. photos provided

PAULDING — The Great Black Swamp, once a mosquito-plagued morass avoided by travelers and settlers, was defeated by surface ditches and subsurface drainage, all accomplished by hand labor.

The early use of wood boards and sometimes saplings to create drainage channels soon became obsolete.

An alternative wooden underdrain was developed by nailing two board together in a “V” shape and placing it upside down in the trench to create a cavity for the water to drain. This method would serve the farmer about 10-15 years. The wood needed to create these drain styles was readily available in a landowner’s’ back yard. The products of the forest helped accelerate their own demise.

Installing drainage took backbreaking effort. All the trenches were dug by hand using different shaped spades and shovels. Some farmers made the first pass using a horse-drawn plow. The trenches were spaced about 100 feet apart, and sometimes had to jog around tree stumps or rocks.

It took skill to establish the line’s grade so the water would properly drain into ditches. The work typically would be done in the spring when the ground was wet and the dirt was easily shaped. The excess water was necessary to establish the grade.

The work was unpleasant for men who had to stand almost waist deep in the wet and mud all day — often in rainy and chilly conditions. 

By the end of the 1860s, more Black Swamp farms were drained and farmers were enjoying better crop yields. The value of drainage was made apparent to their neighbors. As a result, the first tile factories began operating in the Black Swamp to meet increased demand. Fortunately, the clay soil beneath the swamp’s surface proved to be valuable for manufacturing tile, while the forests provided fuel for the kilns.

Black Swamp counties had five tile mills in 1870, which swelled to between 50 and 100 factories by 1880.

Paulding County’s first tile mill went into operation in 1876. The Paulding Democrat newspaper in April that year reported: “Buildings are being erected and preparations made by Messrs. E.P. Williams and W.F. Straw of this place for manufacturing Tyle during the coming summer. As a great deal of drainage is necessary in this vicinity, it seems that the Tyle business ought to be a paying investment.”

The John Paulding Historical Society has a collection of clay drainage tiles that illustrate the evolution of design. Among them are flat-bottomed horseshoe, round with flat base, hexagonal, octagonal and the more familiar round.

The factory, located on “Flat Rock” Road (now Fairground Drive), was said to be in operation by June.

W.F. Straw won the premium for “Best Drain Tile” at the Paulding County Fair that fall.

“Tile-draining is rapidly becoming an absorbing topic with our better class of farmers, as they consider that the first crop raised will more than repay the cost of under draining,” according to the Paulding County Agricultural Society, as published in the Annual Report of the Ohio State Board of Agriculture For the Year 1879. “We have one tile factory in our county, which is doing some business. … The simple fact is (and the truth of the idea is concurred by all sensible people) that tile-draining, in an agricultural point of view, cannot be overestimated by the farmers of Paulding County.” 

The county’s report in the state agriculture board publication for 1884 stated: “As nearly as can be estimated, there are 35,000 rods [about 109 miles] of tile in place, and as much contemplated. There are numerous tile factories and brick-kilns in the county.” The writer added that “drained fields produced an average of 80 to 100 bushels of corn per acre, while others averaged from 40 to 60.”

Tiling not only drained the land, produced fertile farmland, and reduced the threat of disease, it also greatly increased land values. By 1889, wooded land was selling here from $15 to $25 per acre, while good improved land could be purchased for $30 to $40 per acre.

Soon, nearly every village had a tile mill producing clay tile and employing dozens of men. At least 20 tile mills were operating at various sites in the county in 1892.

“Our tile mills are selling a great many tile this spring, and will manufacture more this season than ever before,” said the Paulding County Republican on April 14, 1892. Many farmers began replacing their old wooden underdrains with new clay tile.

Tiling received a huge boost in 1892 when James B. Hill of Bowling Green patented the world’s first successful mechanical ditching machine. The revolutionary steam-powered Buckeye Ditcher allowed two workers to automatically dig a properly graded trench in less time than a team of 15 skilled workers by hand, according to reports. The Buckeye Ditcher proved faster and cheaper than hand labor, and within a few years it was being sold all over the world.

The Buckeye Steam Traction Ditcher was patented by James B. Hill of Bowling Green in 1894. This steam-driven machine was faster and cheaper than ditching by hand and revolutionized tiling in the Black Swamp area. The ditcher became known and used around the world.

In Paulding County, tiling unimproved land continued into the 20th century. A report from 1910 indicated the amount of improved farmland had increased by 31,500 acres since 1900, with more still needing attention.

By the 1920s, Black Swamp farmers began noticing reduced yields. Some realized the 100-foot spacing of tile was inadequate and they started installing additional tile at shorter intervals. In some cases, the original tile diameter was too small and experts recommended replacing it with larger tile. Crop rotation and planting sweet clover and alfalfa also helped boost productivity.

As the need for tile declined, so did the number of tile mills, although a half-dozen were still open in 1939. By 1953, only three clay tile factories were operating — Baughman Tile and Danger Drain Tile, both in Paulding, and Haviland Clay Works in Haviland.

The tiling industry was revolutionized again with the development of plastic drain tubing in the mid-1960s. Baughman Tile became the first distributor of the new type of tile in 1967 and began manufacturing its famous Yellow Poly-Drain in the mid-1970s. Haviland Drainage Products followed suit in 1978.

The work of replacing older drainage systems and installing new tile is a process that continues to this day. Counties and landowners must regularly maintain the network of ditches to keep the swamp at bay.

The simultaneous work of clearing the forest and draining the swamp transformed this region into one of the most productive and heavily cropped agricultural areas of Ohio. The predictions that the swamp — once freed from the wet and mud — would someday become “the garden spot of Ohio” proved right.

More information on the bicentennial can be found on Facebook at www.facebook.com/PauldingCounty200.

POSTED: 07/29/20 at 1:16 am. FILED UNDER: News