History of Delaware County through its soils


In digging through file cabinets and bookshelves, I found a gem entitled, Soil Survey of the Westerville Area, Ohio, dated 1906. I was supposed to be cleaning, but the soils nerd in me got easily sidetracked by this 19-page document and map, produced by the USDA Bureau of Soils. What a fascinating trip down memory lane!

Delaware County was formed from Franklin County in 1808, with the first settlement about five miles below where the city of Delaware is now located. Most of the settlers came from Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, and the New England states, choosing sites along water courses where the most desirable farm lands were located. The heavily forested countryside, poor roads, and reliance on river travel limited growth in the area. Wheat was the principal crop and to grind the wheat into flour, pioneers had to travel 45 miles to the nearest mill in Chillicothe until a small mill was built in Franklinton. The advent of the National Road through Columbus to Indianapolis, the Ohio Canal, and the first passenger rail in Columbus meant that merchandise and mail could be accessed in nearby Columbus rather than Chillicothe.

By the early 1900s, much of the natural forest was cut, leaving only about 10% of the land in woodland, making room for dairying and grain fields. Farmers commonly grew corn followed by wheat or other small grain such as oats, then grass for hay (timothy and clover) for one or two years, then back to corn to start the cycle again. Alfalfa was also grown in areas where drainage and flooding weren’t an issue.

A comparison of 1906 to present day is quite an eye-opener:

• Corn grown in 1906 averaged 40 to 75 bushels to the acre. Per acre, Ohio’s 2020 yields came to an average of 171 bushels, with 200 bushels common for drained soils in Delaware County. Ohio ranks in the top 10 corn producing states today.

• Hay production in 1906 averaged about 1.5 tons per acre compared to 2.2 tons in 2020. The average for alfalfa is 2.9 tons per acre.

• Wheat averaged 25 bushels an acre in 1906. The average per acre in 2020 was 71 bushels, with Ohio ranking 13th in the nation for wheat production.

• In 1906, the average cash rent was $3 to $5 per acre which has risen to an average rate of around $162.

• According to the Soil Survey of the Westerville, Ohio, “Farm hands are scarce and demand moderately high wages, the maximum being about $22 a month, including board, and in some instances, the maintenance of a horse.” In current times, I think most farm hands would prefer a pickup truck rather than a horse!

• Conspicuously absent in the crop rotation of 1906 is the popular soybean. While some soybeans were grown in 1906, the United States didn’t emerge as a major producer until the 1930s. In 2020, Delaware County planted 75,600 acres to soybeans.

The 20-by-30-inch soils map that accompanies the narrative is quite striking for several reasons. The first is that there is only one soil name, Miami, but it is delineated in four colors on the map legend as gravelly loam, loam, clay loam and black clay loam. With significant scientific and technological advancements, as well as changes in land use, a new Soil Survey of Delaware County was published in 1969 with 31 different soil series described in detail together with 56 pages of 11-by-17 maps. Further refinements brought an updated book and maps in 2006 and a web version. From 1906’s focus on farming, the soil survey now encompasses soil suitability for woodlands, construction materials, homes and commercial sites, along with many physical and chemical properties. To learn more, visit the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s free Web Soil Survey at https://websoilsurvey.nrcs.usda.gov.

A second noticeable difference is that the map outlines the major river basins, (Scioto, Olentangy, Alum Creek and Big Walnut Creek) but our big lakes are absent. O’Shaughnessy Reservoir, Delaware Lake, Alum Creek Lake, and Hoover Reservoir were all constructed between 1925 and 1974, providing our area with recreational opportunities, drinking water supplies and flood control.

In 1906, the map shows what is now the city of Westerville as merely a handful of streets sandwiched between Alum Creek and the Cleveland-Akron-Columbus railroad line, all within Blendon Township, Franklin County. Today, Westerville has more than 41,000 residents on 12,741 square miles, some of it located in Genoa Township in Delaware County.

In spite of all of the changes throughout the last 100 or so years, some things remain the same. The historic text indicates the natural drainage is “usually deficient, and to improve this condition a great many miles of open ditches and tile drains have been put in.” That is still true and addressing drainage calls is an important focus of the Delaware Soil and Water Conservation District. The “intelligently cultivated and well-equipped farms, excellent educational advantages, and college or university training within the area and nearby towns,” favorably describe Delaware County and the Westerville area, then and now.

Check out Delaware SWCD’s programs and events for 2022, including our annual tree and shrub seedling sale, by visiting our website or finding us on Facebook.


By Bonnie Dailey

Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District

Bonnie Dailey is deputy director of the Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District. For information, go to https://soilandwater.co.delaware.oh.us/.

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