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Local Column

How field tile matters in DeKalb County

Holding an early vintage drain tile manufactured by Hinckley Concrete Products is Julie Morsch, curator for the Hinckley Historical Society Museum. Inset shows a clay tile like the one on display at the DeKalb County History Center.
Holding an early vintage drain tile manufactured by Hinckley Concrete Products is Julie Morsch, curator for the Hinckley Historical Society Museum. Inset shows a clay tile like the one on display at the DeKalb County History Center.

If you visited the newly opened DeKalb County History Center you may have overlooked a nondescript artifact in a display case near the far wall from the entrance. It contains a metal seat from a Marsh Harvester, and behind that, a red clay drainage tile from Hinckley Concrete Products, which was first known as the Hinckley Tile Factory when it was started in 1878.

Bob Pritchard wrote a lengthy essay on how the tile factory shaped Hinckley and farming in general. It will appear in the summer issue of “Cornsilk,” published quarterly by the DeKalb County Historical-Genealogical Society. He shared his draft with me and this led to more research on my part into the subject.

With the help of Marcia Wilson and Rob Glover of the Glidden Homestead, I was able to track down a story showing the importance of tile to this area. John Glidden, nephew of Joseph Glidden and brother to Annie Glidden, graduated from DeKalb High School, then earned a degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in mechanical engineering.

When he returned home to help on the farm, he used his education and skills to install drainage tiles on the Glidden farm. They were placed so as to drain onto the property now occupied by Northern Illinois University, creating a 40-acre lake which is today the NIU lagoon. Most likely, that tile was purchased from the Hinckley factory.

As an aside, John Glidden was awarded the franchise in 1891 to build a power plant and electrify the city of DeKalb. He also built a steam-heating system to heat the downtown area through a network of steam pipes and tunnels. Part of the deal was to heat municipal buildings for free.

Getting back to field tile, the farmers in the area and across the country soon realized the value of draining their cropland and installed tiling to enable them to plant more acreage. The subsurface water would seep into the loose-fitting tile and run off into ditches or creeks. Later, plastic pipe with perforations or slots replaced the old clay tiles and today farmers install miles of coils of piping to help crops grow better by giving plants better aerated soil instead of excess moisture, which would stunt their growth.

Talking to Maple Park farmer Norm Larson, I learned that this year the drainage pipes are overwhelmed in many areas trying to absorb the excess water. This causes blow holes where the pipe is ruptured and topsoil is sucked into the broken pipe, then swept away through that pipe to a creek or holding pond.

In his article, Pritchard explains how field drainage aided in the development of DeKalb County as a premier provider of agricultural products. Because the below-ground tiling is invisible to the eye, people have no idea what lies beneath the surface that results in many more acres planted and crops harvested.

But sadly, this year many of the fields with tiling have been inundated with unprecedented rain, causing a great hardship for farmers who can’t get their crops into the ground, which also affects the food chain where corn and soybeans are the lifeblood of so many industries and products on store shelves. I recall seeing a bumper sticker that said “No Farms, No Food.”

It could also be stated: “No crops, no cash, no commerce.”

• Barry Schrader can be reached via email at barry815@sbcglobal.net or through the mail at P.O. Box 851, DeKalb, IL 60115. His past columns can be found archived on his website at www.dekalbcountylife.com.

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