October 9th 2008
“Mr. Deere's Self-Scouring Wonder”
By: Jeffrey L. Waldron
Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley Public Library
Mr. Deere’s Self-Scouring Wonder
When they hear the name, John Deere, most people think of a big green tractor with yellow lettering. We don’t realize, however, that the John Deere company was a thriving agricultural implement manufacturer for 84 years before the first tractor bearing the John Deere logo rolled off the assembly line in 1923. John Deere was a hard working, extremely competent blacksmith who had an idea which helped change the face of agriculture, first in North America, and then the world. It is no exaggeration to say that the agricultural revolution begun by Deere and many others in the Midwestern United States in the first half of the nineteenth century forever changed the face of this country by providing assured food surpluses with ever-decreasing labor requirements. In 1790, over 80 per cent of our population was directly involved in agriculture. By 1870, that percentage had dropped to 50. Today, we only require the efforts of about 2 per cent of the population to feed the rest of us, and a good portion of the rest of the world as well.
This is the story of a particular event which took place in 1837, the creation of the steel, self-scoring plow. We will discuss the environment which created the need for that event, the early life and training which prepared Mr. Deere to manufacture the plow, and some of the factors which allowed it to happen.
The Midwest is an informal name we use today to refer to the twelve states in the upper, central part of the United States. Seven of these states lie west of the Mississippi, and were a part of the territory acquired through the Louisiana Purchase. Five of them lie east of the Mississippi and after passage of the Northwest Ordnance of 1789, were collectively referred to as the Northwest Territory before the Louisiana Purchase moved the northwest corner of the United States all the way to what is now northwest Montana in 1803. Eleven of these states are drained by the Ohio, Mississippi, or Missouri River. The boundaries of the twelfth, Michigan, are largely described by four of the five Great Lakes.
In 2006, these twelve Midwestern states accounted for 9.3 billion bushels of corn, or 89 per cent of total U.S. corn production, as well as 87 per cent of U.S. soybean production, 39 per cent of U.S. wheat production, 35 per cent of U.S. beef production, and 61 per cent of U.S. pork production. These numbers do not include the enormous productivity of the area in terms of other types of grain; dairy products; poultry and eggs; fruits, nuts, and vegetables; or different types of hay. These twelve states clearly constitute a huge breadbasket, not only for the United States, but for many other countries as well, because of the high percentage of agricultural exports from the United States—49 per cent of wheat, for example, and over 20 per cent of coarse grains, including corn, barley, and oats are exported annually.
But in the United States of the early nineteenth century, this was a remarkably flat, largely deserted, rolling, and well-watered land of prairie grass between six and ten feet tall. The northern portion of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan were mostly forest land, but tall prairie grasses covered the southern part of these three, plus most of the area of the other nine states in this area we now call the Midwest. These grasses grew from a nearly impenetrable root system which had had several millennia to establish itself in, and contribute to, the rich soil of the prairie. It was a place where hunter/gatherer groups of Native Americans eked out a subsistence existence while treading upon some of the richest soils on the planet. Had they known of the agricultural potential of the land they lived on, they would not have been able to take advantage of that knowledge, however, because their only tools were of wood and stone. Although a few of the Native American tribes did supplement their diet with the maize, squash, and beans they cultivated with sharpened sticks, the full agricultural potential of those soils was not exploited or even recognized until the arrival of the European settlers who emigrated westward in the early 1800’s. For these people too, taming the ocean of grass which greeted them presented a very great challenge indeed.
Many of the earliest European settlers, looking for good agricultural land to homestead, bypassed the tall grass prairie in the mistaken belief that the absence of trees indicated the underlying soils were infertile. These early settlers came from an area and farming tradition in the eastern United States which required the clearing of forest land to create arable fields. Cutting forest and clearing stumps was an arduous task which, if done by a young, strong, skilled, and determined worker over the space of a year, could yield as much as three acres of fields for planting crops. Once the trees were removed, the sandy eastern soils were readily tillable with the cast iron plows which were the latest technology of the day.
Soon, however, those early settlers in the Midwest began to discover the incredible richness of the soil, in spite of the absence of trees. In one apocryphal story, an early settler--no doubt having some Texas connections--wrote home that this prairie soil was so rich that after accidently leaving a crowbar stuck in it overnight, he found in the morning that the crowbar had sprouted 10-penny nails. Although the underlying soil was indeed fertile, it at first appeared to be locked away beneath a densely packed, seemingly endless system of tall grasses having a deep, and extremely tough root system. They soon found an effective, if expensive, way to deal with the overlying grasses, however.
After dying back in the fall and winter, the tall grasses could be burned off, leaving the tough, deep, root system. Although we don’t know exactly how, or by whom, a system called “prairie breaking” soon developed. Prairie breaking was accomplished with a single, very large, cast iron plow weighing between 150 and 200 pounds pulled by two to six yoke of oxen. For those of us unfamiliar with these terms, that would be between four and twelve oxen, a yoke being two animals. In addition, there was a crew of two men, or more frequently, a man and a boy--one to handle the plow, and one to drive the oxen. The breaker plow, which was pulled forward by the brute force of the large team, cut through the matted layer of roots, turning over a furrow between 16 and 28 inches wide, covering the newly cut roots with soil, and leaving them to decay. Because the plow was made of cast iron and the soil was so sticky when damp, this process could only be accomplished when the soil was relatively dry, i.e., during a window of time between the end of June, and the middle of September, if there had been little or no rain. When conditions were favorable, a prairie breaker team and crew could break about three acres per day, in contrast to the three acres per year produced by clearing forest land. The problem with hiring a prairie breaker to get your newly homesteaded land ready for farming was the cost, which in the 1830’s was between $2 and $3 per acre. That worked out to a total cost of between $320 and $480 for a cash poor farmer homesteading a quarter section of 160 acres. The cost of prairie breaking meant that most homesteaders could not afford to have it done all in one year. And, when the prairie breaker’s work was done, the farmers’ work was just beginning, for he had to prepare for planting by plowing the moist, sticky soil each spring--but, more of that later.
In the midst of this vast prairie, many small settlements began to spring up as emigrants came from the East to homestead land on which they might hope to achieve some measure of prosperity for themselves and their families. One of these early settlements in Illinois was located on the Rock River at a place the early French explorers had named Grand Detour. The French called it Grand Detour because the course of the Rock River, which begins in southern Wisconsin and flows generally in a southwesterly direction on its way to the Mississippi, at this point turns sharply back due north for about a half mile, before turning again to the southwest. This large loop of the river creates a horseshoe-shaped, peninsula-like land mass which is surrounded on three sides by the river. The Native Americans who lived in the area had another explanation, however. They are reputed to have had a common saying that the area was so beautiful that the river turned around to take another look before leaving.
Because they play so major a role in our story, it is worth pausing for a moment to consider the way our forbearers looked at rivers and streams. We rarely give them a thought as we cross them at freeway speeds on bridges lined with concrete crash barriers which block our view so that we often don’t even realize they are there. There may be a green sign on the bridge approaches at either end identifying the river’s name, but not one driver in a thousand even notices the signs. Unless we are talking about a Mississippi, Ohio, Illinois, or Missouri which are so big we cannot fail to notice, we hardly see rivers and streams at all. For our ancestors, however, rivers represented many desirable qualities we almost never think of. Not only were they a ready water source for man and beast, but in a wild, largely vacant frontier with sometimes hostile neighbors, they represented a defensible barrier. They also facilitated the movement of extremely heavy cargo, which would otherwise have to be transported overland with horse or oxen-drawn wagons at great expense in time and money. Finally, with simple dams to harness them, they represented a reliable source of power for grinding grain, sawing lumber, and many other tasks which needed to be done. On the downside, if you were traveling on foot, horseback, or by wagon in those early days, creeks and rivers represented a barrier to be crossed with some difficulty. With this last problem, however, there also came a business opportunity for an enterprising person with a few hundred feet of strong hemp rope, and the ability to construct a simple raft with readily available—if crude—materials.
Many of these simple ferries were established to facilitate westward migration in the early nineteenth century. A man named John Dixon built one at a Rock River crossing six miles south of the village of Grand Detour. A village known as Dixon’s Ferry grew up around the ferry crossing, and was the place where in May, 1832, a 23-year-old Abraham Lincoln joined up with Reynold’s Militia after volunteering to serve in a four-month long conflict we refer to as the Black Hawk War. Later, after a bridge was constructed, the ferry was dropped and the town became known simply as Dixon. As a side note, many years later this same town of Dixon was the boyhood home of President Ronald Reagan, who was born in the nearby village of Tampico, Illinois in February, 1911.
Deere’s Vermont Roots and Emigration West
Into this undeveloped land recently rid of hostile Indians, came in December, 1836 a bankrupt Vermont blacksmith named John Deere. Born February 7, 1804, in Rutland, Vermont, John was the fifth of six children born to William and Sarah Yates Deere. William had emigrated from England to the newly independent United States in about 1790, and in 1793 married Sarah Yates, the daughter of an officer in the Kings Army during the Revolutionary War who decided to stay on in the new republic. William was a tailor, and Sarah was a seamstress, and the young family appears to have thrived for fifteen years. In 1806, William moved his family from Rutland to the village of Middlebury, Vermont, 30 miles north, where their financial situation continued to improve. All this changed in 1808 when John Deere was only four, and his father booked passage on a vessel bound for England in hopes of securing an inheritance. William Deere was never heard from again, a not uncommon outcome for Atlantic crossings attempted in those days. William left behind a letter written to his eldest son, William, Jr., from Boston Harbor as he awaited the first fair wind for sailing. Though brief, the letter instructs his son in the virtues of faithfulness, obedience, friendliness, kindness, truthfulness, and honesty, which seem to be the characteristics William succeeded in leaving to his children.
One can only guess at the austere circumstances the loss of a young husband and father would have meant for his surviving family in 1808 Vermont. Never knowing the fate of her husband, Sarah Deere somehow succeeded in raising her family alone. Although we know nothing of her son John’s formal education, the grammar and spelling of his surviving correspondence suggest that his classroom training was brief, probably due to the need to help with family income as he grew older. We know that he was employed at a tannery at a young age, and that at age 17 he was apprenticed to a successful Middlebury blacksmith named Benjamin Lawrence. For the next four years as he learned the blacksmith trade, John received room and board in the Lawrence family home, clothing, and a salary of thirty dollars per year initially, increasing by five dollars per year in each successive year. John was one of seven blacksmiths employed in Benjamin Lawrence’s very substantial shop, and he seems to have had the opportunity to master all facets of the trade by the time he completed his apprenticeship there in 1825.
Now a journeyman blacksmith, John hired himself out to Messrs. Allen and Wells, two blacksmiths who had adjacent shops on Court Street in Middlebury. One year later, in 1826, Deere was hired to outfit a new sawmill and linseed oil mill at Colchester Falls in Burlington, Vermont, then a village 32 miles north on Lake Champlain. The fabrication and outfitting of the ironwork for a water-powered sawmill and linseed oil mill required a very high level of skill, as these types of mills--which, although they may seem simple by today’s manufacturing standards--contained many moving parts, mostly of wood, but tipped or banded with cast iron, wrought iron, and/or steel. We know from this part of his life, that John Deere must have been highly regarded to have been entrusted with this job at age 22, and also that he was very well-acquainted with the workings of water-powered mills, which were found in abundance wherever European settlements existed in North America at this time in history.
In January, 1827, John married Demarius Lamb whom he had met two or three years earlier in Middlebury. The young couple moved about twelve miles north to the village of Vergennes, where John went to work for another blacksmith named John McVane. The couple’s first son was born in May, 1828, and in 1829 John borrowed money to purchase land and build his own shop. However, a series of financial reverses due to a shortage of work in the area, as well as the loss of two shops to fires, resulted in his return to working for wages, this time for a Mr. Amos Bosworth in Royalton, Vermont repairing the stagecoaches used in Mr. Bosworth’s stagecoach line.
Never really content with working for others, John Deere left Bosworth in 1833 and again borrowed money to build another small shop in Hancock, Vermont, near his wife’s family. The family’s financial situation apparently declined in Hancock, because in late 1836 Deere was arrested by the local sheriff for not repaying a $78.76 loan due in October of that year. Deere was released on bail, but faced the prospect of a term in debtor’s prison since he did not have the money to repay the debt. At about this time, his former employer Amos Bosworth had returned from the village of Grand Detour, Illinois to move his family, who he had left behind in Vermont, to a new home in the West. In response to the generally depressed economic conditions in the Northeast at that time, Bosworth--as well as many other New Englanders--had gone West sometime between 1833 and 1836 in search of a better life. When he returned to pick up his family, he told his Vermont friends of the great potential for a better life in the West, and bragged of limitless opportunity for those willing to work. Deere apparently heard these stories directly or indirectly from Bosworth, who had specifically told of the absence of any blacksmiths in or around Grand Detour. Faced with a debt he could not repay, and armed with only his tools and the promise of better opportunity in the West, John sold his shop to his father-in-law for $200, left his pregnant wife and four children with her parents, and headed for Illinois, perhaps traveling with Amos Bosworth and family, although the historical record is unclear.
Much later in life, Deere spoke only of traveling west via canal boats and lakes. Although we don’t know exactly the route he traveled to Grand Detour, the Deere’s Vermont home was only about 100 miles from where the Erie Canal joins the Hudson River near Albany, New York. The Erie Canal first opened in 1825, and quickly became the primary route for westward migration. Joining this rising flood of westward movement, Deere likely traveled through the Erie Canal to Buffalo, New York, then by steamer on the Great Lakes around Michigan to the swampy, small collection of cabins known as Chicago. In the mid-1830’s, the fare from Albany to Buffalo on a canal boat was $15.62, and the fare on a lake steamer from Buffalo to Chicago was about $20.00, although you could travel in steerage, with board, for half that amount, if you could stand sleeping on the open deck of a boat in Upstate New York and the Great Lakes in late November or early December. From Chicago, Deere traveled due west by wagon across the ocean of grass to Grand Detour, a distance of about 95 miles, arriving in December, 1836.
Making a Living on the Frontier
Deere arrived with less than $75 in his pocket, to find a small village of log structures first founded in 1835 by another Vermonter named Leonard Andrus. Andrus and Deere were about the same age, and may have known each other, since Andrus had attended Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont when Deere was working there. Andrus was a prosperous, hard working widower, who, with the help of two cousins, had dammed Pine Creek and installed a water wheel which powered a sawmill and a grist mill. Upon his arrival, John discovered that there were no blacksmiths for miles around, and that there was, consequently, great demand for his services. He quickly built a simple forge of local materials on a rented lot and went right to work shoeing horses, repairing tools and wagons, and the dozens of other tasks requiring a blacksmith’s skills and tools. One of his first jobs was repairing the pitman rod in Leonard Andrus’ sawmill. For the forensic historian, the repair of this pitman rod gives a great deal of information about the sawmill design, as well as clues to the momentous events which followed this business transaction.
The pitman rod is a piece of machinery designed to convert the rotating energy or torque of a turning shaft into a reciprocating, or back and forth motion. Thus, in a hydraulic sawmill, the force of the water flowing under or over, turns the water wheel and the shaft on which it is mounted. Inside the mill, another wheel is affixed to the end of the rotating shaft, and the pitman rod is attached to the side of this wheel. As the wheel turns, the pitman shaft moves up and down, with the length of the stroke determined by the diameter of the wheel to which the rod is attached. The other end of the pitman is attached to a wooden frame or cradle which it moves up and down. Within this frame is affixed one or more long, straight, crosscut type steel saw blades about 12 inches wide. The cutting stroke is downward in order to add the weight of the cradle to the energy imparted by the pitman rod. Even though today we tend to associate circular saw blades with sawmills, they were not widely used until much later than 1837, when they could be driven by steam or even electric power, because they require a much higher rpm to operate efficiently. Today, you can see a water-powered sawmill similar to the one Leonard Andrus built in Grand Detour by visiting Coloma, California, where the State of California has rebuilt an operational sawmill of this type on the American River. You will recall that it was in the millrace of this sawmill in February 1848 that John Marshall spotted something shiny in the clear water and picked up the first nugget of placer gold, kicking off the great California gold rush of 1849.
We are probably most familiar with the pitman rod principle from pictures or actual sightings of so-called paddle wheel steamers, since some are still in operation today. On paddle wheel steamers, however, the power comes from the reciprocating end, driven by the reciprocating pistons of the boat’s steam power plant. The two long pitman rods visible on either side of the stern end of the boat convert the reciprocating energy to rotating energy to turn the wheel and drive the boat forward.
The pitman rod in Leonard Andrus’ sawmill was undoubtedly a wooden beam tipped at both ends with wrought iron straps and fittings to facilitate its attachment to the wheel at one end, and the reciprocating cradle at the other.
From his experience with outfitting the new mill at Burlington, Vermont, some years earlier, we know Deere was experienced and knowledgeable about the metal parts of mill works, and in any case, repairing a pitman rod was undoubtedly a relatively easy task for a skilled blacksmith of the time. For Mr. Andrus, however, a broken pitman rod meant that his mill was idle, and he wasn’t making any money. One can guess that he was very happy to see the arrival of this fellow Vermonter and blacksmith named John Deere.
Those early weeks in Grand Detour found Deere at his forge seven days a week to keep up with the demand for his services. He also built a simple shop around his forge, and then a post and beam house, only the second one in this village of log cabins. This home which Deere built with his own hands, survived in excellent condition until the 1960’s when the Deere Grand Detour site was declared a National Historical monument. At that time, the home was restored to its 1847 condition, and the long gone blacksmith shop and plow factory rebuilt based on the work of an industrial archeology team from the University of Illinois. Deere built the original 18 by 24, story and a half home so that it could be added onto later, as John and Demarius did in fact do. The first floor of this structure had two rooms, and the second was an open sleeping room. Although simple, the home was very well constructed, and certainly above average in size and comfort for a frontier community in those days.
Necessity, the Mother of Invention
During those long days at the forge in 1837, Deere was daily interacting with the mostly eastern farmers whose horses he was shoeing and whose wagons and tools he was repairing. He heard their complaints and concerns about the common problem they all were having plowing and preparing the soil for planting. They now knew this Midwestern soil was very rich, but it was also very different from eastern soils, and resistant to the tools they had brought with them. The predominant soils in the Midwest are alluvial and range from a silty brown loam to a rich black gumbo. This type of soil is extremely sticky and difficult to plow when the moisture content is high, which it tends to be when the frost goes out of the soil before spring plowing. The plows these farmers brought with them were of cast iron which worked well in the sandy, rocky soils of the East and Northeast. In the Midwest, however, these plows quickly clogged with the sticky, gummy soils, so much so, that the person plowing had to stop every few feet to scrape the mud off with a wooden paddle because the horse could no longer pull the load. Many farmers gave up in disgust and abandoned their land.
One day during that first year, Deere for some reason visited Andrus’ sawmill--perhaps he needed materials for the home he was constructing. While he was there, he noticed a broken saw blade made of steel lying in the corner, and had an idea. He asked Andrus if he could have the saw blade, and Andrus agreed. Deere took it back to his blacksmith shop, and decided to try to solve the plowing problem he had heard about from so many. He wondered if a plow made of steel and polished to a smooth finish would allow the soil to slide off as the plow passed through it. If so, perhaps the fine abrasives in the soil would continue to polish or “scour” the surface of the plow share and mold board, reducing the traction needed to pull it forward. Many years later, John Deere explained what happened next:
I cut the teeth off with a hand chisel, with the help of a striker and sledge, then laid them on the fire of the forge and heated what little I could at a time and shaped them as best I could with the hand hammer. After making the upright standard out of bar iron, I was ready for the wood parts. I went out to the timber, dug up a sapling and made the crooks of the roots for handles, shaped the beam out of a stick of timber with an ax and drawing-knife, and finally succeeded in constructing a very rough plow. I set it on a dry-goods box by the side of the shop-door. A few days after, a farmer from across the river drove up. Seeing the plow, he asked:
“Who made that plow?”
“I did, such as it is, wood work and all.”
“Well,” said the farmer, “that looks as though it would work. Let me take it home and try it. And if it works all right, I will keep it and pay you for it. If not, I will return it.”
“Take it,” said I, “and give it a thorough trial.”
About two weeks later, the farmer drove up to the shop, without the plow, and paid for it, and said: “Now get a move on you, and make me two more plows just like the other one.”
But Deere didn’t exactly “get a move on,” as that was the first and only plow he made in 1837. In photographs of this first plow as reconstructed, one sees a trapezoid shaped, single piece of metal, bent into a concave shape, including both plowshare and moldboard, parts which quickly became separate and distinct in later plows owing to different wear rates. It is not difficult to see in this earliest plow the shape of the 12-inch wide saw blade from which it was made. In 1838, he made two more plows, and experts are confident that one of those two 1838 plows is the one accidently discovered in a barn near Grand Detour in 1901, and which is now on display in the Smithsonian Museum. The chief problem Deere faced was that steel was a very scarce commodity on the frontier in the 1830’s. But he was slow to see himself as anything but a general blacksmith, and it now seems clear that he did not at first understand how important this very effective plow was which he had created through trial and error. Even though as a Vermont Yankee he could see this new business opportunity, it carried an unknown risk level, and in any case required capital.
In addition to his second and third plows, the year 1838 saw the arrival of John Deere’s wife Demarius and their five children in Grand Detour. Demarius traveled overland from Vermont with her brother-in-law and family in a wagon carrying all their possessions. The youngest son, Charles, now over a year old, was born after Deere had left Vermont. The family story is that Demarius got out of the wagon before they entered Grand Detour and picked up the young Charles. As the family was reunited, Demarius handed Charles to her husband with these words, “here John, I carried him all the way from Vermont.” This infant boy, Charles grew to be the business genius who successfully built the company his father founded into the dominant farm implement manufacturing giant it became.
A New Plow Manufacturer
Armed with success from his first three plows, Deere somehow managed to obtain enough steel to make ten plows in 1839, and in 1840—the first year he listed his occupation as agricultural manufacturer on the census—he made 40. The year 1840 was likely the year he first hired some help making plows, and ordered English steel to be delivered to Grand Detour. He also expanded his workshop to new dimensions of 26 by 31 feet, and added a horse-powered treadmill under a shed roof attached to the shop to provide power for the grinding wheel and bellows. In 1841 his shop turned out 75 plows, and in 1842, 100.
By 1843, Deere’s plows were gaining a reputation with the nearby farmers, who began calling them “singing plows” because of the soft whine they produced as they sliced through the prairie soil. Although he could see the business opportunity, Deere did not have the necessary capital to expand. He therefore approached his friend Leonard Andrus, with whom he formed a partnership to manufacture plows. Because the company was called L. Andrus and Company, Mr. Andrus was undoubtedly the one who put up the money to expand the small manufacturing operation. The new partnership expanded the small shop, added steam power, and quadrupled production to 400 plows in 1843. The partnership with Andrus lasted for three more successful years. Then, Deere, driven by ambition, and frustrated by the way frequent low water levels on the Rock River hampered steel shipments to Grand Detour, sold out to Andrus, and moved downriver in 1847. After traveling there the year prior, he had selected the small town of Moline, Illinois, located near the place where the Rock joins the Mississippi River for the location of his new plow plant. There, he had access to relatively easy and inexpensive shipping on the Mississippi, as well as the inexhaustible power available by damming side channels of the river.
Reviewing the corporate history and success of Deere and Company from 1847 on is outside the scope of this paper. Suffice it to say here that once established in Moline and doing business as the Moline Plow Works, Deere went through several partnerships in the process of expanding the business into all manner of agricultural equipment. The company was soon shipping equipment throughout the Midwest, and Mr. Deere became a very wealthy man. John Deere died in 1886 at Red Cliff, the mansion he built on the bluff overlooking the Mississippi and the John Deere Works. His son Charles had already taken over the company in 1858, and ran it until his own death in 1912, by which time it was many times the size of the firm at the time of his father’s death. The company produced its first tractor in 1923. It would be 1960 before Deere and Company’s board of directors would elect a chief executive officer who was not a direct descendent of John Deere.
In 1860, there were 2 million farms in the United States, 143,000 of them in Illinois alone. In response to this huge market, there were 2,100 different American companies making plows in 1860. With so much competition, success in the plow making business was anything but assured. Although he is the most widely known because of his commercial success, it is unlikely that John Deere invented the steel, or self-scouring plow. The truth is, no one really knows who was first because of the difficulty of communications at that time. There were at least a half dozen other blacksmiths working within 150 miles of Grand Detour who came up with the idea of using steel in plow shares and moldboards at about the same time, in response to the same problem. No one knows which one earned the right to be called “first,” although today, most of us can name only one of those early plow makers. Even his competitors agreed that John Deere exhibited two qualities which contributed greatly to his success—insistence on the very best quality he could produce, and a drive to constantly improve every implement design through interaction with the farmers who used them.
John and Charles Deere were involved in many lawsuits over the course of their business lives. One of the most famous was a patent infringement lawsuit brought in the mid-1860’s by Deere and Company against Candee and Swan, two former partners who went into the plow business in Moline after leaving Deere and Company. Deere and Company lost the lawsuit, primarily because John Deere had himself borrowed liberally from the designs of his competitors in order to improve his own products. The Illinois Supreme Court justice who ruled in Candee & Swan’s favor, nevertheless spoke eloquently of John Deere’s contributions in the field of agricultural implements:
“The testimony…tends to show that Deere was not the inventor of any material part of his plow, and that his great recommendation and praise is, that he had the sagacity to discern to what profitable use the inventions of others could be applied, and by a well-directed judgment he has constructed a plow not inferior to any in use in our widespread agricultural community, all of which entitles him to as much credit as if an original inventor.”
Although the self-scouring plow was one of the cornerstones of the agricultural revolution which occurred in this country during the first half of the 19th century, it was only one of dozens of agricultural inventions made during this period. With his binder patented in 1834, for example, Cyrus McCormick did for the harvest end of the agricultural cycle, what John Deere did for the planting end. In addition, many other implements such as harrows, planters, and corn shellers were developed and improved upon during this period.
Before 1910, the traction for all these farm implements was provided by animals—horses, mules, and oxen. With the introduction of the tractor powered by the internal combustion engine, draft animals quickly disappeared from farms—another revolution all by itself. Only time will tell whether the agricultural system which has evolved over the last 170 years is self-sustaining or not. It now seems apparent that any enterprise founded upon and sustained by relatively cheap petroleum and petroleum-based products is in for some serious rethinking, if not restructuring.
In many ways, the John Deere story mirrors the story of our nation. In an atmosphere of freedom and opportunity, a trained, capable, hardworking person seeks to improve his family’s circumstances and security by practicing his profession. Along the way, he has an idea for improving a product or process, and becomes wildly successful on a personal level, while also improving and enriching the lives of millions of others. We know that overcoming the problems of the future will take at least as much ingenuity as that demonstrated by John Deere and others of his generation who successfully brought about so dramatic a change in agriculture by taming a wild prairie with simple tools.
Broehl, Wayne G., Jr., 1984, John Deere’s Company, A History of Deere & Company and Its Times, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 870 p.
Clark, Neil M., & Nichols, Dale, 1937, John Deere: He Gave the World the Steel Plow, Moline, Illinois, Privately Printed by Desaulniers & Company, 61 p.
Carter, Susan B., (et. al.), 2006, Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970, New York, Cambridge University Press
Dahlstrom, Neil, & Dahlstrom, Jeremy, 2005, The John Deere Story: A Biography of Plowmakers John and Charles Deere, DeKalb, Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press, 199 p.
Jackson, Donald, (Ed.), 1955, Black Hawk, An Autobiography, Urbana and Chicago, Illinois, University of Illinois Press, 164 p.
Kendall, Edward C., 1959, John Deere’s Steel Plow, Washington, D. C., United States National Museum Bulletin 218, Smithsonian Institution, 10 p.
Sandburg, Carl, 1926, Abraham Lincoln, The Prairie Years, Volume One,
New York, Harcourt, Brace & Company, 480 p.
U. S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2008, 127 ed.
Washington, D. C., U. S. Government Printing Office, 994 p.
Key Words: plow, agriculture, Midwest, water-powered mills, prairie
Background of the Author
Jeff Waldron was born in Canton, Illinois and grew up working on farms in rural Western Illinois. He received a BA from Hope College, and an MBA from San Diego State University, and is a retired California CPA. Following 3 ½ years in the Navy, he spent the next 28 years as an auditor, retiring in 2000. Since his retirement, Jeff has been involved in various volunteer activities in Redlands, including the boards of Habitat for Humanity and the Redlands Community Music Association, where he is currently serving as president. He also serves as the Project Manager for the Mission Gables Bowl House restoration project. He is married to the former Trudy Van Dyk of Pomona, CA, who is a recently retired Redlands elementary school teacher. They have two daughters and four grandchildren.
Jeff spent the first eighteen years of his life in the village of London Mills, Illinois, located on the banks of Spoon River, a tributary of the Illinois River. Part of his home town’s name derives from the large grist mill built there on the river in the 1850’s, a mill not unlike those which figure so prominently in this story. Today, when the river level is especially low, usually in late summer, one can see scattered on the river bottom at the mill site, the large blocks of stone once used to dam the river and harness its power. When the mill was taken down in 1906, some of the major metal parts were salvaged and placed on display in the village’s Riverside Park. They can still be seen there today, rusty reminders of a bygone era.
In the first half of the 19th century, a vast ocean of tall prairie grass covered the Midwestern section of the United States. The area was directly in the path of westward migration by European settlers at this time. Although the immigrants tended to be farmers, they did not at first fully appreciate the incredible agricultural potential of the area, because the plows they brought with them were ineffective in the rich but sticky alluvial soils they found. Thirty to forty years passed without a solution. In the meantime, hoping to better his economic circumstances, a poor but capable blacksmith from Vermont joined the westward migration in the winter of 1836, and settled in the small village of Grand Detour, Illinois. There in the course of shoeing horses and repairing tools and wagons, he was exposed to the complaints of farmers unable to effectively plow their newly homesteaded land. Within a few months of his arrival, and in an attempt to solve the plowing problem he had seen and heard about, Deere took a broken steel sawblade to his forge and fashioned a steel, self-scouring plow which would plow the soil without clogging with mud, making agricultural history. This steel plow was one of the chief reasons the new immigrants were able to unlock the agricultural wealth of the region.