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Drainage on the Grand Prairie: The Birth of a Hydraulic Society on the Midwestern Frontier
Journal of Historical Geography (2012)
  • S. Imlay
  • Eric D. Carter, Macalester College

The Grand Prairie of east central Illinois was notorious for a marshy environment that prevented dense agricultural settlement until late in the nineteenth century. While recent historical–geographical scholarship has focused on innovations in drainage technology, drainage-related laws and institutions, and the ecological impacts of wetland reclamation, it has largely failed to account for the persistence of agrarian structure, and its key component, land tenure, on the Grand Prairie. Late-nineteenth-century reclamation efforts were not quite so transformative as previously believed. The same landed elite that dominated in the pre-drainage era quickly emerged atop a system of public drainage that held the key to the region’s economic future. In this paper, we extend Karl Wittfogel and Donald Worster’s theorizations about ‘hydraulic civilizations’ from the realm of irrigation to that of drainage. While drainage was indeed important in shaping the history of east central Illinois, we argue that a distinctive social order in east central Illinois emerged from, and was shaped by, an older agrarian structure that had developed in response to marshy, unpredictable conditions before drainage began in the late 1800s. The beneficiaries of the old order did not yield power easily, and instead skillfully capitalized on the new opportunities presented by drainage enterprises, to create a ‘hydraulic society’ on the prairie. The new order continued to rely on the exploitation of tenant farmers even as the landscape itself was transformed into the intensely managed and highly productive Corn Belt of today.

Publication Date
Citation Information
S. Imlay and Eric D. Carter. "Drainage on the Grand Prairie: The Birth of a Hydraulic Society on the Midwestern Frontier" Journal of Historical Geography Vol. 38 (2012)
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