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Jan/Feb '00
The Ezine for and about Concord, Massachusetts

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What's So French about French Drains?
And Other Musings on Concord Agriculture

By Deborah Bier, publisher and editor of this ezine. If you would like to wade into another punny article on a 19th century topic, drift over here.

windmill draining fieldsThe French drain. Sounds exotic, continental, elegant, sophisticated, oui? Brings to mind the way the farmers, vintners, and orchardists of Provence drain their water, n'est pas? Pretty slick name for that simple, efficient drain around the perimeter of some basements, oui, cherè?

Just a Sip from Farm Drainage

"No child, who ever saw a cellar afloat, during [an] inundation, will ever outgrow the impression. You stand on the cellar stairs, and below is a dark waste of waters, of illimitable extent. By the dim glimmer of the dip-candle, a scene is presented which furnishes a tolerable picture of "chaos and old night," but defies all description.

"Empty dry casks, with cider barrels, washtubs, and boxes, ride triumphantly on the surface, while half filled vinegar and molasses kegs, like water-logged ships, roll heavily below. Broken boards and planks, old hoops, and staves, and barrel heads innumerable, are bouyant with this change of the elements; while floating turnips and apples, with here and there a brilliant cabbage head, gleam in this subterranean firmament, like twinkling stars, dimmed by the efflugence of the moon at her full. Magnificent among the lesser vessels of the fleet, "like some tall admiral," rides the enormous "mash tub," while the astonished rats and mice are splashing about at its base in the dark waters, like sailors just washed, at midnight, from the deck by a heavy sea.

"The lookers-on are filled with various emotions. The farmer sees his thousand bushels of potatoes submerged, and devoted to speedy decay; the good wife mourns for her diluted pickles, and apple sauce, and her drowned firkins of butter; while the boys are anxious to embark on a raft or in tubs, on an excursion of pleasure and discovery.

"To avoid such scenes as the above, every cellar which is not upon a dry sandbank should be provided with a drain of some kind, which will at all times, secure." 4

ditch digging

Non, mon ami. You're all wet if you think French drains have anything whatsoever to do with France. In fact, they were invented in Concord by Henry French, father of sculptor Daniel Chester French, whom we must flood with congratulations for their effectiveness.

Henry French was a judge and farmer, and as the latter a veritable fount of information on drainage. He was a great local source to tap on the subject, one which farmers with wet fields, barns, and roads lapped right up. In fact, his knowledge was so deep and unsinkable, he wrote a lengthy book on the subject, one whose subtitle is so long it takes a moment to fully drink in:

Farm Drainage
The Principles, Processes, and Effects of Draining Land with Stones, Wood, Plows, and Open Ditches and Espcially with Tiles< Including Tables of Rain-Fall, Evaporation, Filtration, Evcavation, Capacity of Pipes; Cost and Number to the Acre, of Tiles, Etc, Etc.1

dutch watter wheelPublished in 1859, one might anticipate this as being rather dry reading. And while there are sections which left this reader a tad parched, it is a surprisingly finely written work. Full of poetry, humor, allusions to and quotations from the great writers throughout history, it is pleasantly filled to the brim with smooth, flowing verbiage of high quality (see sidebar at right for a sample).

Drains a la French are a simple affair (for more info and a diagram, read here):

"a trench is cut in the cellar-bottom, two feet from the wall, a foot deep at the farthest corner from the outlet and deepening towards it, round the whole cellar, following the course of the walls. In this trench, two-inch pipe tiles are laid, and carefully covered with tan-bark, and the trenches filled with the earth. This tile drain [is] connected with the outlet drain 18 inches under ground, and the earth levelled over the whole."2

Emersonian Connection
French, who no doubt knew him personally, sprinkles "Farm Drainage" liberally with Ralph Waldo Emerson quotes. What torrent of knowledge, might you ask, did the Sage of Concord have to share about this subject? Emerson is effusive about the importance of drainage techniques to the development of this country. Quoted in French:

"'....in this year, a very large quantity of land has been discovered and added to the agricultural land, and without a murmur of complaint from any neighbor. By drainage, we have gone to the subsoil, and we have a Concord under Concord, a Middlesex under Middlesex, and a basement-story of Massachusetts more valuable than all the superstructure. [Drainage] Tiles are political economists. They are so many Young-Americans announcing a better era, and a day of fat things.'"3

We sink to pondering Emerson's famous "Concord Hymn," composed for the 100th anniversary of the Concord Fight at the Old North Bridge. Was it more than mere happenstance that he writes of "the embattled farmer" and "rude bridge that arched the flood?" Perhaps Emerson was much more in the swim about wet fields and the need for drainage than most would have credited him.

Emerson's splashy dedication at the bridge did not need a French drain, though it did merit a French statue: the Minuteman statue, Judge French's son Daniel's first sculpture. The dark waters of history do swirl with the ineffable eddies of coincidence.

The Concord Farmer's Club
French may have hit a high-water mark with his book, but his work should be seen in context of the larger sea of research and writing on agriculture taking place in Concord at that time. Made up of working farmers, the Concord Farmer's Club (1852-83) existed to encourage experimentation, discussion, and the pooling of practical information. The ancient aquaferorganization met regularly to present manuscript essays for discussion. They had 12 standing committees (such as Manures, Hoed Crops, Root Crops, etc.), and additional committees were formed as the tide of need came in. 5

It may take a moment to soak in how the ground-swell of strong, contemporary literary activity in Concord may have saturated this club. These farmers, many of whom did not have the high level of education found among the literati (though French was Harvard educated), nonetheless kept the pipes awash with information in this rather undiluted academic format. Did the tidal wave of work by the great Concord authors steep the farmers in the writing tradition? Somehow, the two worlds were bridged.

While French was an active member, he was not the most prominent, and his contributions were but a drop in the bucket when compared to the whole. Our public library's Special Collections contains an ocean of the club's records, including dozens of member essays, committee reports, meeting minutes, and clippings on a variety of topics of interest to farmers. Bouying the reputation of the organization, Concordians Simon Brown, Ephraim Wales Bull, John Brooks Moore, and Minot Pratt were flush with their own successes, making major contributions beyond our town to this and related fields.


Photos and drawings on this page: Methods of drainage which have been used all over the world: some ancient, and some still in use today. All courtesy of ArtToday.

Notes:
1French, Henry F., "Farm Drainage". New York: A.O. Moore & Co. 1859.
2Ibid, p.354.
3Ibid, p. 15-16.
4Concord Free Public Library. Concord Farmers' Club Records finding aid, 1999. (Available in Library or on-line at here)
5/SUP>French, op.sit, pp. 252-3.

Text: ©2000 The Concord, MA Homepage
Images: Drainage methods throughout the ages, including some still used today. Courtesy of ArtToday.

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