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Johnston House

“The Johnston Farm and Rose Hill...are together perhaps the most important spot in American agriculture.”

Liberty Hyde Bailey, Cornell University, 1893

John Johnston:

"The Father of Tile Drainage in the United States"

John Johnston was born in Knockknolling, Dalrys, Dumfrieshire, Scotland, on April 11, 1791. He immigrated to the United States, landing at New York City in April of 1821. The following year he purchased 112 acres of farmland in Seneca County and built a house there, which he called "Viewfields." Later he added several more parcels to the farm, bringing the total size to 320 acres.

Due to abundant underground springs in the area, Johnston’s farmland retained a great deal of moisture. Although imperceptible on the surface, the excessive water damaged crops over the growing season. Familiar with the use of tile drainage in Scotland, Johnston knew of its ability to increase the yield of heavy, wet soils like his. He sent to Scotland for two pattern tiles in 1835, which he took to Benjamin F. Whartenby, a maker of crockery, in Waterloo, N.Y. Whartenby made 3,000 tiles that Johnston laid down on his farm in 1838. The process was so successful that by the time he retired from farming he had 72 miles of tile drains on his 320-acre farm. Whartenby continued making tiles, producing 840,000 in 1849, and Waterloo was home to ten tile drainage factories by 1871.

A prolific writer for newspapers and magazines, Johnston promoted tile drainage at every opportunity, even traveling to advise other farmers on the technology. Because of his ceaseless advocacy he became known as “The Father of Tile Drainage” in the United States. Johnston’s son-in-law Robert Swan also adopted the technology for Rose Hill farm, helping to make it the premier farm in the state in 1858. Johnston died November 24, 1880 in his ninetieth year, having changed the course of agriculture in the United States.

The Johnston Family and the Business of Farming

John Johnston was not the only resident at the Johnston House. His wife Margaret, their seven children, and a variety of hired workers also impacted life on the farm while they lived there. Johnston's only son died in infancy, but he and his wife had six daughters who were an integral part of life on the farm. The Johnstons farmed their land during a transitional time in American farming. During the 18th and early 19th centuries most American farms were worked on a subsistence basis. All members of a family participated in the labor to grow crops, maintain livestock and, occasionally, produce goods for trade. The aim of the subsistence farmer was to provide food for his family, rather than to produce crops for sale. During the first decades of the 19th century more and more northeastern farmers began to hire labor and produce for the market, rather than exclusively for home use. The experience of the Johnston family demonstrates this shift in western New York.

Tile Drainage

The Mike Weaver Drain Tile Museum is comprised of a collection of over 500 drain tiles ranging in date from 500 B.C. to plastic “tiles” of recent times. Marion "Mike" Weaver was an engineer in USDA Soil Conservation who donated his extensive drain tile collection to the Geneva Historical Society in 1994 in recognition of the area’s connection to the development of this important technology.

The Mike Weaver Drain Tile Museum at the John Johnston House chronicles an important innovation in American agricultural development, the introduction of tile drainage to American farming. By laying curved tiles or pipes just under the soil’s surface, a farmer can drain excess water off of the land, thereby increasing crop yields. This a technique which has existed for millennia, but which was not widely used in the United States until John Johnston laid down tiles on his Seneca County farmland in 1838.

The origin of tile drainage is obscure. In 200 B.C. Cato described the use of brush, straw, poles, stones, boards and tile to drain fields. Pliny in the first century A.D. suggested the use of roof tiles in drainage. Eventually farmers realized that curved drainage tiles were more effective than flat ones and used poles to form horseshoe-shaped tiles. The tiles were handcrafted until the invention of the extrusion machine in 1843 in England, which allowed the manufacture of tiles in a myriad of shapes.

The Weaver collection also includes letters, papers, pamphlets and books on tile drainage. These are available for viewing at the Geneva Historical Society Archives. For more information, please call the Society at 315-789-5151.

The Johnston House is located east of Geneva, New York, between New York State Thruway Exits 41 and 42. The house is at 3523 East Lake Road at the junction of Route 96A, 1 ˝ miles south of Routes 5 & 20. GPS Coordinates: 42.8554 -76.9340

The Johnston House is open Saturdays, 10am-4pm, and Sundays, 1-5pm, May 1 to October 31.

Admission is free with admission to Rose Hill Mansion. Donations appreciated.

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