John Dagworthy had a problem. By the end of the French and Indian War, he had acquired over 20,000 acres of land bordering on the Great Cypress Swamp; but much of this land was covered by forests and wetlands.
According to historian Richard Carter, “With his large number of slaves, Dagworthy cleared his lands and grew tobacco, corn, wheat and other crops in the new fields. He established grist mills and saw mills and tanneries, built ships and used them to carry lumber and shingles from his thousands of acres of forest land to Philadelphia and Trenton.”
He is also believed to have dug ditches.
Much of Dagworthy’s land, as with most of southern Delaware land, was level and covered with fertile soil that could produced profitable crops.
The land near the Great Cypress Swamp lacked the elevation to generate good drainage, and thousands of acres of otherwise good farmland was particularly vulnerable to flooding. When it rained, normally a godsend for farmers, the land became permeated with water that took weeks, if not months, to dry out. Waterlogged land was a farmer’s worst nightmare.
After weeks of backbreaking work to clear a field of trees, bushes and other unwanted vegetation, 18th century farmers planted their crop and prayed for rain. The rain would enable the seeds to sprout; but if the field failed to drain properly, the waterlogged land would cause plants to rot and destroy an entire season’s crops.
To provide adequate drainage for southern Delaware fields, Dagworthy and other farmers dug drainage ditches, which evolved into “tax ditches.”
Around the time of the American Revolution, Delaware landowners began to band together to dig drainage ditches for their farms. Farmers whose fields were served by these ditches were taxed an annual fee to maintain the ditch.
These drainage ditches became a permanent part of the Sussex County landscape. By the 20th century, some of these ditches had become clogged, and Civilian Conservation Corps, formed during the Great Depression to provide work for young men, helped clean a number of ditches in southwestern Delaware.
On July 4, 1935, the Smyrna Times, commented, “Farmers and land owners have been advised … to organize drainage projects on a tax ditch basis, in order that the ditches may be kept in good condition after they have been properly owned and cleaned by the camp force.”
After World War II, the Delaware General Assembly enacted the 1951 Drainage Law to regulate the establishment and maintenance of tax ditches, which are formally known as “Drainage Organizations.”
On May 24, 1956, the Smyrna Times explained, “A Tax Ditch is a chain of cooperating agencies. The group of farmers desiring outlets for their drainage, petition their county Soil Conservation District for assistance through the State Soil Conservation Commission. The Soil Conservation Service, a federal agency, provides the technical assistance for survey, design and construction supervision. Local banks loan the money needed by the farmers’ tax ditch companies.”
The tax ditch company repaid the money borrowed from the bank by taxing each farmer according to the number of acres served by the ditch, hence the name “Tax Ditch.”
Today, there are over 200 tax ditches in Delaware; ranging in size from two acres to the mammoth 56,000 acre Marshyhope Creek ditch that slices across northwestern Sussex County. A number of tax ditches are on land once owned by John Dagworthy, who nearly 300 years ago, dug the first ditch to improve the drainage on his Sussex County fields.
Smyrna Times, May 24, 1956.
Smyrna Times, July 4, 1935
Carter, Dick. The History of Sussex County. Rehoboth Beach: Community News Corporation, 1976, p. 43.
This article originally appeared on Salisbury Daily Times: John Dagworthy drained his fields and started a 'Tax Ditch' trend