The Story of the Pre-Tractor John Deere Company

If you live anywhere near a farm or field or orchard, you’ve no doubt seen one of the ubiquitous John Deere tractors at work or at rest, its green and yellow paint scheme telling you exactly what it is. John Deere collectibles are popular across the country, too, as you can find model tractors, old advertisements and hundreds or different marketing items festooned with the Deer name and logo.

John Deere alarm clock

John Deere alarm clock.

John Deere 1949 newspaper ad

John Deere 1949 newspaper ad.

And while we may know that “nothing runs like a Deere,” did you know that the original John Deere product had nothing to do with tractors? No, the story of John Deere the company begins with John Deere the blacksmith in New England at he turn of the 19th century.

John Deere was born in Rutland, Vt., on February 7, 1804. His father, William Deere, worked as a merchant tailor in England before immigrating to the United States, and his mother, Sarah Yates Deere, was the daughter of a British soldier who remained in the United States following the Revolutionary War. In 1812, William Deere died and Sarah Deere moved to Middlebury with her young son. There she continued her husband’s tailoring business, and John started working for a local tanner.

The young Deere attended Middlebury College, but that association lasted only a short time. After realizing the academic environment was unsuitable for him, John became a blacksmith’s apprentice, serving under Captain Benjamin Lawrence, a man known for his strictness and fairness. While apprenticed to Captain Lawrence, Deere learned the skills necessary to forge steel.

In the early 1800s, the village blacksmith, or “smithy,” not only acted as mechanic and repairman, but also manufactured articles to specifications. Many of life’s necessary tools came from the blacksmith shop, as everything made of iron was the smithy’s domain. Deere learned well from Capt. Lawrence, and soon had the same pride in workmanship as his master. At age 21, his apprenticeship was served, and John was hired as a journeyman by two other blacksmiths in Middlebury.

Sarah Deere died in 1826 and the following year John married Demarius Lamb. During his period as a journeyman, Deere produced many fine tools, but he began to earn a reputation with his hay rakes, with their polished tines, that forked hay with greater ease than any other available. Deere’s hoes and shovels, also polished smooth, turned the earth without any of the soil sticking to their surfaces, making them again superior to other available tools. This minor innovation was remarkable for the era, and added greatly to Deere’s reputation as a blacksmith.

Between 1827 and 1833, John and Demarius moved several times to accommodate their growing family. By 1833 they settled in Hancock, where Deere continued his blacksmithing, but by 1836, the Vermont economy was bad. Deere had an acquaintance named Leonard Andrus, who moved from Vermont to Illinois in 1835, and Deere decided to follow him there. In November 1836, Deere left this family and traveled by canal to Chicago, and then by stagecoach to Grand Detour, Ill.—about 100 miles west of Chicago on the Rock River—and set up shop in the village.

There were no other blacksmiths for many miles in any direction, and Deere stayed busy. Early in 1838, Deere sent for Demarius and their two sons and three daughters to join him in Grand Detour.

Andrus operated a sawmill in Grand Detour, and he needed Deere to repair a broken shaft for his mill machinery. It was here that John Deere saw the metal that changed his life, and the lives of farmers throughout the Mississippi River Valley.

The saw blades used by Andrus were made of Sheffield steel, imported from England. No steel mill in the United States produced the quality of metal used in these blades; they could be polished until nothing would stick to the mirror finish. This was important at a sawmill, where the sap from freshly cut trees would make a saw blade sticky in minutes, cutting efficiency and dropping productivity.

It was working with this polished Sheffield steel that gave Deere an epiphany: The soil of the Mississippi Valley is rich and fertile, but also sticky, clinging to whatever tool used to break it up. Already successful with hay rake tines, shovels and hoes, why not try this steel for plow metal? Deere resolved to make a plow that relieved some of the backbreaking toil of tilling the valley’s sticky but fertile earth.

Back in his smithy shop, Deere fabricated his plow, hoping his forge of the new Sheffield steel would create a plow that would cut and clear itself at the same time. When he finished the plow moldboard, it was shiny and smooth, just like his shovels and hoes. Deere lost no time in taking it across the Rock River to a farm owned by Lewis Crandall for a trial. No records of the trial exist, but Deere took orders for two more like it that day. The sticky earth in the Mississippi Valley met its match.

The John Deere plow factory in Moline, Ill. circa 1850.

The John Deere plow factory in Moline, Ill. circa 1850.

In 1841, John Deere produced 75 plows. The next year 100 more left the building. In 1843, 400 were produced. Deere and Andrus operated on an informal business level throughout this period, but in 1843 they decided to increase the size of the plow works, adding steam power for the added machinery. On March 20, 1843, John Deere and Leonard Andrus executed a formal partnership, and enlarged the plow works in Grand Detour. For the next three years this arrangement served them well.

Railroad transportation was developing at that time, taking business from the canals and other waterways, and when John Deere learned the new railroad in the area was going to bypass Grand Detour, he knew it was time to move his operation. Production of plows was rising, and getting them to market would be a critical factor. The partnership of Andrus and Deere was dissolved, and Deere formed a new partnership with Robert Tate. Tate, an Englishman, went to Moline immediately after the partnership was formed on June 19, 1848, and by the end of July, had erected a 24-foot by 60-foot blacksmith shop. On Aug. 31, the machinery in the building was tested, and by Sept. 26, the first 10 plows were produced.

"The Plow that Broke the Plains," an original 1838 John Deere Steel Plow, owned by the Smithsonian.

"The Plow that Broke the Plains," an original 1838 John Deere Steel Plow, owned by the Smithsonian.

Moline was located at the confluence of the Rock and Mississippi Rivers, and Deere knew a railroad would eventually reach the growing village. Until the railroad steamed into town, Deere & Tate could use water transportation to ship their plows to other points on the river serve by rail.

Late in 1848 another partner joined the firm. John Gould came in to serve as accountant and office manager while Tate ran the production shop and Deere performed as salesman and shipping expediter. This combination proved immediately successful, and in the first six months of 1849 almost 1,500 plows were produced, testing the capacity of the shop. So a new two-story building was added to the existing plant. The addition, attached to the original structure, was built to accommodate the largest manufacturing machinery available.

For the next several years, the company continued to flourish, adding new types of plows and increasing production. In the spring of 1851, stubble plows of 9-, 10-, 11-, 12- and 14-inch widths were manufactured, and breaker plows of 16-, 18-, 21- and 23-inches were offered.
Plow production reached 75 a week, but the current partnership between Deere, Tate and Gould would soon be dissolved. From 1853 through 1857, the company was simply “John Deere.”

Production figures and profits skyrocketed as Deere’s reputation for producing the finest quality and most efficient plows grew across the Great Plains. In 1853, 4,000 plows left the Deere works in Moline, and by 1857 may number more than tripled to 13,000. These were the plows that broke the Great Plains.

A portrai of John Deere

A portrai of John Deere

A portrait of Charles Deere

A portrait of Charles Deere

The following two years, major events occurred at the John Deere Company, as Deere sold his interests in the company to Christopher Webber, his son in-law. This effectively put ownership of the company in the hands of John’s son, Charles Deere, and Webber. While John turned over day-to-day operations and control of the company, he remained an active contributor. Late in the Civil War, John again partnered with his son Charles to form Deere & Company, and secured patents on casting steel plows.

The same year John Deere first divested, 1859, Joseph Fawkes appeared at the state fair in Centralia, Ill., capturing the imagination of farmers and the general public by introducing a 30-horsepower steam tractor, the Lancaster. After the fair, the John Deere—again showing his great entrepreneurial skills and ability to see the future—when back to Moline and develop a plow with eight blades designed to be pulled by a tractor.

Deere’s new plow was displayed at the state fair the following year, and Fawkes hitched one of Deer’s eight-bladed plows to his Lancaster and entered the combination in the USA Agricultural Society contest in Chicago. It emerged as the champion of the event, garnering the Grand Gold Medal of Honor. The judges, correctly predicting the future of farming called it “the machine which shall supersede the plow now used, with the greatest economy of labor, power, time, money.”

The rest, they say, is history.

The John Deere Factory in Moline had grown from that first building into a huge industrial complex by the 1880s.

The John Deere Factory in Moline had grown from that first building into a huge industrial complex by the 1880s.

—Originally published in the American Antiquities Journal

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