The roots of Central New York’s growing agritourism and viticulture economy can be traced back to the vision of a Scotsman determined to turn his county dry in the 1830s. When John Johnston immigrated to the United States from Dumfriesshire in 1821, he bought a modest farm near Seneca Lake, but sadly became a cropper when the soil proved too wet to provide profitable yields. Ever resourceful, Johnston ditched New World ideas about battling soggy soil for Old World drainage practices that stretched back to the Roman Empire.
Johnston acquired tile patterns and equipment from England and partnered with a Waterloo, New York, crockmaker who was churning out nearly a million tiles a year by 1850. Skeptical neighbors with feet of clay furrowed their brows as Johnston laid mile after mile of tile, but soon recognized him as an expert in his field as harvests burgeoned and his effluence expanded. By the 1880s, the U.S. had more than 1,000 drain tile manufacturers and an immeasurably improved agricultural output.
Years later, in the 1950s, a soil conservation engineer at the United States Department of Agriculture named Mike Weaver inadvertently began collecting tiles from the sites he monitored in the region around Johnston’s original farm. In later years, while performing the draining work of a consultant, his clients frequently asked him to cart off excess tiles. This provided an assemblage worthy of a museum, which was established in 1994 next to the Johnston House.
Today, the unassuming, one-room exhibit stands as a reminder of the enormous effect a simple clay contrivance has had on world food production. Containing samples from antiquity as well as contemporary tiles made from many different materials, the museum sows seeds of curiosity and will genuinely get visitors pumped up.
Know Before You Go
The museum is part of the Geneva Historical Society and is open on the weekends from May 1 through October 31. It is recommended that visitors call ahead to ensure staff are on site. Be sure to check out the drain tile video on the historical society’s website as well.