John Deere (February 7, 1804 – May 17, 1886)


John Deere was an American blacksmith, inventor and manufacturer who founded Deere & Company, a company which grew and developed into one of the largest leading agricultural and construction equipment manufacturing businesses in the world. Deere invented the first commercially successful steel plow in 1837.

John Deere was born on February 7, 1804, in Rutland, Vermont. After a brief educational period at Middlebury College, he began an apprenticeship with Captain Benjamin Lawrence at the age of 17 in 1821. Eventually Deere began his own trade in 1826 and soon became a successful Middlebury blacksmith. He married Demarius Lamb in 1827 and fathered nine children.

For twelve years, Deere traveled to various cities in Vermont offering his blacksmith services but when business slowed in 1837, the 33-year-old Deere headed west to Illinois. There, Deere finally settled in Grand Detour, Illinois and opened a 1,378-square-foot (128 m2) shop which allowed him to serve as a general repairman in the village, as well as a manufacturer of tools such as pitchforks and shovels. At the time, Deere had no difficulty finding work due to a lack of blacksmiths available in the area. Among the varied blacksmithing services he offered, Deere found himself repairing a large number of field plows for farmers. He also noticed a recurring trend in the wood and cast-iron plows he was repairing. He found these plow designs were more practical for the soft, sandy soil of the East and less durable for the thick, heavy prairie soil of the Midwest.

Deere soon came to the conclusion that a plow made out of highly polished steel and a correctly shaped moldboard (a self-scouring steel plow) would be much more durable and better suited to handle the harder soil conditions of the prairie, especially its sticky clay.

Deere experimented with different versions, materials and designs as the inspiration for his now famous steel plow. One version recalled the way the polished steel pitchfork tines moved through hay and soil. Another version utilized an old saw blade that had been polished from years of use.

Deere developed and manufactured the first commercially successful cast-steel plow; a wrought-iron framed plow with a polished steel share. This design worked better than other plow designs of the time and proved ideal for working the tough soil of the Midwest. By early 1838, Deere completed his first steel plow and sold it to a local farmer, Lewis Crandall, who quickly spread word of his success with Deere’s plow. Subsequently, two neighbors soon also placed orders with Deere. Little did he know that these initial sales would spark one of the most successful farming equipment manufacturing and distribution businesses in the world. By 1841, Deere was manufacturing 75–100 plows per year.

Deere had very high standards and only insisted on making the highest quality equipment. He once said, “I will never put my name on a product that does not have in it the best that is in me.”

In 1843, Deere partnered with Leonard Andrus to increase production of his plows to meet growing demand; however, the partnership soon became strained over money issues and due to both men being extremely stubborn. That year, Deere and Andrus produced nearly 1,000 plows. Deere wanted to expand the business to customers outside Grand Detour. On the other hand, Andrus firmly opposed a proposed railroad line through Grand Detour which would have made it possible to easily ship plows to other parts of the Midwest.

In 1848, Deere dissolved his partnership with Andrus and moved to Moline, Illinois because the city was a freight transportation hub on the Mississippi River. 

Deere soon began importing British steel, which successfully sped up the manufacturing process. His company made 1,600 plows in 1850 and began to also produce other tools to complement its line of plows. Deere’s next move was to contract with Pittsburgh steel manufacturers to develop comparable steel plates, thereby avoiding all the troubles and extra costs associated with overseas importation. 

By 1855, Deere had sold more than 10,000 plows. Deere’s plow became known as “The Plow that Broke the Plains” and is commemorated as such in a historic place marker on the Mill Street location of Benjamin Lawrence’s original blacksmith shop where Deere first apprenticed.

In 1858, the United States experienced a financial crisis resulting in the economy and businesses throughout the country experiencing less demand and slipping sales, including Deere’s. Despite the financial struggle, Deere continued working to create and manufacture more efficient and reliable equipment in the agriculture and blacksmith trade. John Deere tirelessly created, promoted and perfected farm equipment which made it possible for farmers to cultivate more land; growing more crops faster and easier than ever before. This increase in food production helped promote population growth and a subsequent increase in the number of settlers migrating from the East Coast into the fertile lands farther out West. It could be said Deere’s inventions not only made it possible for more farmers to prosper, but they also played a very important role in helping the country as a whole to grow and flourish. 

As Deere’s company grew, so did his imagination & ingenuity. In 1863, Deere invented the first ride-on plow and called it the Hawkeye Riding Cultivator. It was the first horse drawn plow. This innovation provided another huge leap forward in productivity for farmers, who could now plow more land in less time; and not only raise enough crops to feed their families, but also have enough remaining to sell at a profit. This elevated a large number of previously poor farm families from level of bare subsistence to being well-off & contributing to the eventual overall economic boom of the Second Industrial Revolution.

As business improved following the Panic of 1857, Deere left the day-to-day operations to his only surviving son Charles. In 1868, Deere incorporated his business as Deere & Company. Charles Deere continued on with his father’s business in Moline, IL, still the current location of the company’s headquarters.

Once the company was firmly in his son’s hands, Deere turned his attention to the civil and political affairs in Moline. He was elected Mayor of Moline and also served as the president to the National Bank of Moline, as well as the director of the Moline Public Library. His involvement in the public affairs of his community and his influential work as an inventor established Deere as a respected and reliable member of his community; someone the American farmer trusted. The John Deere Company also briefly manufactured a line of bicycles in the 1890s.

Increased competition during the early 1900s from the new International Harvester Company led the company to further expand its offerings in the implement business, but the production of gasoline powered tractors has come to define and distinguish Deere & Company’s operations during the entire 20th century.

As of 2018, Deere & Company employed approximately 67,000 people worldwide, half of which reside in the United States and Canada; and is currently the largest agriculture machinery manufacturing company in the world.

Deere remained on as president of his company in a symbolic capacity until his retirement in April 1886 but he died one month later in May 1886. He passed away at his home in Moline (known as Red Cliff) on May 17, 1886, at the age of 82. ✪

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