Drainage Contractor

Forty-year flashback: Continuing education for drainage contractors

July 29, 2013  By Melville Palmer

July 29, 2013 – Drainage Contractor magazine is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2013, and to celebrate, we’re taking a look back at what made the headlines 40 years ago with Forty-year flashback, a series of articles from the magazine’s first few editions.

The following feature was contributed by Melville Palmer, an extension agricultural engineer at Ohio State University, and was published in the 1975 edition of Drainage Contractor.

Drainage technology has come a long way in the United States and Canada since 1835. That was the year when John Johnson, a pioneer in farm drainage, installed his famous drain tile in western New York State. At that time, trenches were normally dug by hand and grade was established by the flow of water. 


Progress has been particularly rapid in the pas decade as evidenced by new machines, new materials and new grade control systems. A number of factors has contributed to this fast progress, including research and development, education, international co-operation and the improved expertise of drainage contractors. 

I have enjoyed working with drainage contractors in Ohio, and elsewhere, for the past 20 years. It has been a real inspiration to see many young men start out as equipment operators and advance into full-time professional drainage contractors. 

These men, and often their wives as well, have kept up-to-date on developments in the dynamic drainage industry through participation in numerous continuing education activities, as have competent engineers, doctors and others who require special knowledge and skills. I will elaborate on some of these activities that I feel have been significant. 

An easy, yet important, form of continuing education is reading suitable publications relating to drainage. Many famous people in a variety of fields have become knowledgeable through this simple, self-teaching method. 

However, a contractor’s education can be greatly expanded through participation in workshops, short courses, conferences and association meetings where there is a free exchange of ideas among contractors, equipment and material suppliers, engineers and others who have a common interest in the field of drainage. 

Here in Ohio, it was my privilege to be a student, and later a colleague, of professor Virgil Overholt from 1953 until he retired from the Ohio State University faculty of agricultural engineering in 1956. Professor Overholt was affectionately known as “Mr. Drainage” among his many friends in Ohio, and elsewhere, because of his great drainage expertise, unique teaching ability and interest in people. 

One of his many successful projects was the development of a short course for drainage contractors in the early 1950s, in co-operation with Soil Conservation Service engineers and the Ohio Drainage Contractors’ Association (now the Ohio Land Improvement Contractors’ Association). We have continued this annual short course for more than 20 years, and it has become a cornerstone of our continuing education program for drainage contractors. 

The drainage contractors’ short course originally ran for two weeks (Monday through Friday). The first week was devoted to surveying and layout of drainage systems and the second week dealt with advanced topics such as topographic mapping, drainage system design, souls, welding and business management. 

In recent years, the short course has been one week in length, emphasizing surveying, drainage system layout and calculation of grades and cuts. Many topics formerly covered in the second week are now part of programs conducted in various sections of Ohio, since as contractor workshops and the OLICA annual meeting. 

Short course enrollment is normally limited to 25 or 30 contractors in order to provide adequate individual instruction, particularly for field work, which takes up about half of the time. More than 500 contractors are graduates of the short course, and they have come from all sections of Ohio as well as from eight other states and Ontario, Canada. 

It has been encouraging to have numerous father-son teams in the program, and six such teams participated in a recent short course. The 1974 president of the Land Improvement Contractors’ of America, Fred Galehouse of Doylestown, Ohio, has helped in teaching the short course since the early years and his son, Rick, is now also working with us. The short course is continuously updated to include innovations like the laserplane system of surveying and new drainage materials such as corrugated plastic drain tubing. 

Future plans include use of the metric system of measurement and the design, surveying and layout of home sewage disposal systems. A surveying short course for septic tank installers and sanitarians was recently conducted on a pilot basis. 

In evaluating the Ohio contractors’ short course for the past 20 years, a number of favorable results are apparent. Contractors are taught how to use the same (Elevation) method of surveying as is used by engineers and soil conservation technicians. 

This has enabled many contractors to do more accurate work with little supervision and direction, to expand their contracting opportunities and to appreciate the importance of high quality workmanship. The success of a drainage system depends to a large extent on the quality of work done by the contractor, even with a good drainage plan and good drainage materials. This is particularly the case with corrugated plastic drain tubing that is now widely used in the United States and Canada. 

Population growth here and abroad results in a continuous need for more food production, and there is now a threat of food shortages due to climatic extremes of drought and floods in many parts of the world. Vast areas of the United States and Canada require improved drainage to meet these food needs. The future looks very bright for the professional drainage contractor who keeps abreast of new developments in technology and business management, and who continually upgrades his education.

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