February 9, 2007

John Deere

And the man behind the brand is...
John Deere

The life expectancy of a blacksmith shop in the early 19th century was roughly akin to that of a wagon wheel shouldering a two-ton load through a rutted mountain pass. If the cinders from the iron filings didn’t spark a fire the intense heat from the forge constantly jeopardized the wooden structure.

In 1831 the 27-year old John Deere realized a lifelong dream when he opened his own blacksmith shop in Leicester Four Corners, Vermont. Deere had begun apprenticing as a blacksmith ten years earlier for $30 a year. By 1825 he was an experienced journeyman with a reputation across the countryside for his fine-tined pitchforks.

Deere’s quality work attracted an investor, Jay Wright, who helped set him up in his own shop. But shortly after he opened for business the small shop burned to the ground. He started again and again the shop burned. Frustrated. Deere gave up and took a job repairing iron parts of stagecoaches.

When Deere again tried to start a blacksmith shop, Wright filed a writ to recover money lost in the original venture. Thus stymied in business Deere left Vermont in November 1836, leaving his family behind in Rutland.

Deere left with only a few tools and $73.73, making his way West by canal boat and stage. He headed for Grand Detour, Illinois where other Vermonters had settled by an odd bend in the Rock River. The prairie land here was rich and the water power plentiful.

It was hard to figure that in less than one year, from these unpromising beginnings, the young Vermont blacksmith would create the foundations of the largest agricultural machinery manufacturer in the world.

In Illinois Deere found his smithing skills immediately in demand and he was able to rent some land and erect a small shop. He was kept busy seven days a week hammering, welding, casting and assembling farm implements. When time allowed he peddled some of his hand-made goods to merchants.

The prairie soil was rich, certainly, but did not release its bounty willingly. Farmers using cast iron plows had to carry paddles and stop every few yards to wipe the blades clean of the black, sticky soil. Deere reckoned that a steel plow might help the situation.

In 1837 he fashioned a plow that would “scour” the soil from a discarded sawblade. Deere polished the surface with thousands of cutting strokes. It did the job perfectly. The plow literally “sang as it sliced through the black gumbo soil. The next year Deere quit general blacksmithing and started making plows exclusively. He turned out ten that first year and made enough profit to construct a house and send for his family.

After that Deere could sell all the plows he could make: forty in 1840, seventy-five in 1841 and one hundred in 1842. By 1843 Deere had settled his debts in Vermont and began buying steel directly from England. By now there were many steel plow manufacturers. Deere expanded his business with a relentless devotion to quality. “I will not put my name on a plow that does not have in it the best that is in me,” he vowed.

In 1846 Deere despaired of Grand Detour’s future with regard to transportation and shifted his factory to Moline, Illinois. He took on partners and for the first time steel was made for the specifications of his plows. Deere, Tate & Gould was manufacturing over 2,000 plows a year.

The partnership did not thrive. Tate wanted standardized plows; Deere wanted to improve constantly. The partnership dissolved in 1852. Deere did not suffer, however. The years before the Civil War were halcyon years of innovation for John Deere & Co.

After the War Deere, now in his sixties sold off most of his holdings in his company, retaining a quarter share. He farmed around Moline and served as mayor for a year in 1873, keeping order between the increasingly hostile Prohibitionists and anti-temperance factions. Deere died in 1886 at the age of 82, still renowned as the creator of the “plow that broke the prairies.”

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