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Tiles transform wasteland into profitable farm land

This magazine clipping is reproduced from the Aug. 9, 1919 edition of Country Gentleman magazine. William A. Rinehart, as of that date, had lead a tile crew in installing 2,500,000 pieces of tile in order to transform swampy farmland north of Hannibal into productive, fertile land. Click here to see the story and photos as published in the magazine.


William A. Rinehart certainly left a legacy along the Mississippi bottomlands north of Hannibal and east of Palmyra. In 1904, the land – 5,000 acres in all – was newly protected by the Charles Bay rock dams installed by the federal government, and by a long earthen levee system subsequently installed through an initiative undertaken by landowners.

While the land was protected by direct influx of the Mississippi River, it was still subject to flooding from the tributaries and streams that naturally flow through the region. Farming the land was considered “risky” according to a comprehensive story on the subject written by Freeman Tilden and published in the Country Gentleman magazine, and subsequently reprinted in the Palmyra Spectator (Aug. 27, 1919,

Before moving to Palmyra to take over management of the land, he had meticulously installed a tile system in 2,000 acres of bottomland in Schuyler County, near Queen City, Mo., converting the land from worthless to valuable.

Using the same concept, starting in 1910 he took on the much larger challenge of the 5,000 acres in Marion County. He and his wife moved to Palmyra, where the childless couple would spend the next 26 years.

Simply put, his concept was to install drains in the lowest areas of the farm, and connect the drains by tile pipes, which would carry water from the field to the Charles Bay, which was already in place.

When the bay is full, water is pumped out toward the river.

David Bleigh, a member of the South River Drainage District, explains that the current pump house located at the south end of the bay (near Clear Creek) was installed in the 1930s. Prior to that – in Mr. Rinehart’s day - there was a pump station located around the corner and about a half mile to the east from the current pump. Wood was burned in order to make steam to provide power to the pump.

At the time Mr. Tilden interviewed Mr. Rinehart in 1919, the process of tiling the fields had been in place for nine years. Half of the acreage was now protected from flooding.

The process

There was no special machinery used to install these early tile pipes. It was all done by manual labor, during the growing season. Men dug trenches, connected the pipes and refilled the ground.

There was rail access along the property, where a station was established. Tile came in by rail, and was unloaded right there, where it was needed, so there was no additional moving cost.

“’In the first place,’ said Mr. Rinehart in 1919, ‘I’ll tell you that up to the present time I have laid better than 240 miles of tile in various sizes. That is to say, somewhere round 2,500,000 pieces of tile. Of course the end of my tiling is not yet in sight. We tile here right through the year, whenever tile and labor are available.’”

Mr. Tilden was surprised to learn that all of the work was done by hand.

“Yes, all hand word. I’ve never used a ditcher on it. I suppose they are all right, but it seemed to me that the work could be done better, the lines run straighter and evener, by hand,” Mr. Rinehart said. “Anyway, that’s the way we have done the 2,500 acres now drained by tile. I’m a believer, by the way, in having some open ditches on this sort of land. You see, during a two or three inch rain it relieves the tile of the burden of all that extra water. I started tiling this place in 1910, so you see it has taken eight years to get the two and a half million tiles into the ground.”

Unfortunate accident

Trenching and tile installation was still ongoing in September 1937, on what was then known as the Rinehart Ranch. The Palmyra Spectator ( reported on the near tragedy.

“While G.T. Carmichael was at working digging a trench for tile on the Rinehart ranch, a cave-in occurred covering him completely in a ten-foot ditch,” the newspaper reported. “He was buried alive from ten o’clock in the morning until four in the afternoon and was accidentally discovered by John Jansen, foreman of the tile gang. There was a slight opening in the earth, barely sufficient for him to obtain air, but he could not move and had given up all hopes of being rescued. He was badly bruised and it was several days before he could leave his room.”

New drainage

David Bleigh said that much of the old tile still exists on the river bottoms. “There’s tile all up in that area that is really old. Every year someone is putting in new drainage,” on the farmland, he said. His uncle, Paul Bleigh, moved up to the bottoms to farm in 1932.

An old relic

A relic of the old days up on the farmland is a grain bin, located between the railroad tracks and Route 168.

“It doesn’t look like much now, but that is where they loaded grain into railroad side cars,” Bleigh said. “It was conveyor run; it was the way they did things,” he said.

Growing up

near the Bay

Hannibal-area native Jean Moore tells a story passed along to her by her mother, Ussie Thomas Otten, who lived on Route 168, which used to be known as Bay Road.

“My mother told a story about the Thomas kids. Early spring when birds were first laying eggs, the kids robbed from the nests built in the haystack and scrambled them. The birds tried to replace lost eggs, thus providing a good supply.

“A good haystack is built with an under structure of fencing. Four poles were set into the ground at a good location to last for a year. Fencing was strung around three sides and across the top. The threshing machine blew the year’s straw over it making a nice shelter. The animals munched on the straw from the inside as well as the outside - finding a bit of missed grain. What a great place to nest if the pesky kids would go away. In the spring farmers would plow in the remainder providing tilth to the soil.

“Another way, if shelter was near, was to stack unthreshed oats in a stack to provide grain for the winter - a little snack when the animals couldn't go out and forage.

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