How drainage enabled farming here


Roger Aegerter Profile PictureJEFFERSON, Iowa, Aug. 30, 2016 – When you list the reasons that Greene County is a successful farming community, you have to include three developments that are often forgotten today – our early roads, the railroad and drainage of ponds and swamps.

Early accounts say that Greene County was almost 75 percent covered with water in a wet year, similar to the one we are having this year.

Historical accounts tell us that around 1890, some of the early land owners in this area trapped muskrats to pay the land taxes.  Their mode of transportation was not walking or oxen but a row boat!

You can learn more about how things changed in the 2011 book “The Heritage of Greene County, Iowa,” and other resources and displays that are at our Greene County Historical Museum here.

Around 1904, there was a movement to start drainage districts in Greene County.  District No. 1 was petitioned on June 9 that year in northwest Greenbrier Township, but no construction happened at that site until 1912.   The first successful drainage district in Greene County was District No. 2 in the Grand Junction area. It involved two railroad lines, two churches, a school, the city, and several acreages on the edge of town. The original tax assessment of land owners in that district by the county was 22 cents per acre for high ground, but most land owners paid 50 cents per acre.

Drainage districts were formed fast after those first ones.  There were 40 by 1910, 85 by 1913, and 155 by 1919.  At that time, half of the farms were planted with oats, hay or were pastures.

S.J. Melson was county engineer from 1910 to 1935.  Up to the 1919 economic depression, he prepared plans for 100 drainage districts.  After that depression, additional district plans slowed.  In 1999, Drainage District No. 187 was approved.

In 1919, Drainage District No. 151 was formed to drain Goose Lake, located north and west of Jefferson, which at that time was the property of the State of Iowa.  Goose Lake consisted of 642 acres, 140 of them in wetland, 50 in swamp and 452 in open water.  The open water was seven feet deep, with two feet of peat on the bottom.

In 1923, most drainage districts were in place.  About that time, the first tiling machines were being used in the county, although digging by hand was much more common – and strenuous. The men who did it were often referred to as “Iron Men.”

Many recent immigrants found their first jobs digging canals and ditches.  You didn’t need to know English to dig a ditch.  These men lived where the work was.  They cooked for themselves, eating frog legs, turtles, ducks, geese and rabbits.  Digging was their life.

A “Top Man” on a digging crew took out the first 16 inches of dirt; he was paid 15 cents per rod, a rod is just longer than 16 feet.  A second digger took out another 16 inches, measuring down; he was paid eight cents a rod.  The “Bottom Man” was the expert of the crew; he would take out the last 15 inches of dirt and put the tile in place.  He was paid 12 cents a rod.

The tile systems to drain Goose Lake involved eight miles of ditch, all dug by hand.  Total cost of the project was $53,000.  Well-known Jefferson attorney Francis Cudahy’s father was the first to farm this reclaimed land.  In 1924, he had planted 50 acres of potatoes. Three years later, he was up to 200 acres.  He gave up the land in 1928 when the state raised the cash rent so it was not profitable any more.

In 1928, road management was turned over to the county supervisors away from township trustees. In the next six years, Greene County graded and graveled over 700 miles of roads and put every farm home in the county on a gravel road. The road program, with deep ditches and culverts, helped drain surface water from farms and improved drainage throughout the county.

In 1954, the state decided to restore Goose Lake to a wildlife area.  The drainage system was partially plugged.  After a few dry years, the lake filled and has been in a similar situation that you see it today.

Now in Greene County, there are about 750 miles of drainage district tile and open ditchs in Greene County and another 2,500 miles of private tile lines.  So there is a little over 3,000 miles of tile in Greene County, stretching a greater distance than from New York to San Francisco!

The whole tiling system was a huge economic development. There were many people involved in getting the county dry.

To make the tile piping, you first had to find and dig clay.  There was a big seam of clay under the southwest corner of Grand Junction.  It was found when a small vane of coal ran out, and the clay was found under it.

Making the tile also involved digging sand and hauling it to a tile factory, and there were several around the county. The tile had to be cured with heat, then it had to be hauled to the site where it was to be buried.

First though, the land had to be surveyed, the county engineer had to draw up plans for the best drainage system, deal with the frequent legal problems, then take bids to dig and lay the tile.  Then the ditches had to be dug in very wet conditions, usually.  The tile would be placed, and then the ditches would be filled.

Clay tile pipes were practical to manufacture up to 18 inches in length. For longer tile pipes, concrete worked better. The Jefferson Cement Works was a large factory to make concrete tile and was located just north of today’s Greene County Fairgrounds. The Milwaukee Railroad served this factory, delivering cement and shipping out the “tile” pipes. There were also cement tile plants in Dana and Cooper.

There are arguments today about whether wetlands should be drained, or how much of them should be drained.  And there are concerns about how drainage systems impact water quality.

But creating the dry land opened up some of the best farm land in the world, and thus made Greene County one of the most productive agricultural communities anywhere.

The first tile pipes have been hidden for decades, and the “Iron Men” who dug the ditches are gone.  But their work and the drainage system they built forever changed not only Greene County, but all of Iowa agriculture.

You can comment on this column in the space below here, or you can write directly to the author by email at The author is executive director of the Greene County Historical Society.


1 comment

  1. Tile in the early days would have increased the flow of the Raccoon River system. Down cutting and bank erosion would have increased. The water table would have dropped and banks would have gotten higher. As the oats, hay and pasture were replaced by corn and beans (row crops) the surface runoff carried away more and more topsoil. When farmers began to use nitrogen and phosphorus to increase yields the field tiles delivered ever increasing amounts of nutrients to waterways. Sediment covered up mussels and gravel fish beds and nutrients produced algae and cyanobacteria. These problems continue to increase as demand for ethanol and animal food (corn) grows. As family farmers leave the food system and corporations take over corn, chicken, pig and cattle production, there is no reason to expect our waters to get better.

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