TBT: Breaking through

Woman stands with original steel plow at
the Smithsonian in the late 1930s
An Illinois farmer 200 years ago may have wondered if it would someday be possible for Illinois to be an agricultural powerhouse. It was conceivable that the state could one day be among the nation’s leaders in production of crops like corn and soybeans. With miles and miles of wide open prairies and a temperate climate, there was certainly the potential that Illinois might one day be known as one of the leading farm states in the young nation.

That is, if the farmers could just find a way to break through the ground.

In Illinois’ first 20 years of statehood, and for generations before, small subsistence farms had been the norm. Native Americans followed by settlers from the rocky Appalachians and the sandy eastern states had come into Illinois and worked their small plots, scraping out a living, but had not been able to farm huge plots of the prairie. Part of the blame went to their incorrect belief that the soil that produced the tallest trees had to be the most fertile, causing some to avoid the open prairies that cover most of the state. But there was another, larger problem that had stymied Illinois farmers for years.

As farmers from the east coast began moving to new land on the prairie, they found their cast-iron plows were ineffective against soil unlike any they had seen. Soil in the eastern United States tended to be light and sandy. This Illinois soil was denser, and stuck to the blades of the plow like clay. It would clump onto the blades, tiring out the team of oxen and forcing the farmer to stop and clean off the plow over and over again, an enormously time-consuming process that severely limited the amount of ground a farmer could plow in a day. An innovation was needed if Illinois was ever going to become a leading farm state.

John Deere
Born in Vermont in 1804 and trained as a blacksmith, John Deere worked his trade in his home state during his early adulthood. Among the merchandise he produced were polished pitchforks and shovels that were effective in breaking the ground of the Green Mountains. But competition was intense, and soon Deere saw the need to relocate. Like so many Americans of the time, he heard the call to move out west.

He brought a few tools with him to Illinois in 1837 seeking new business opportunities. Deere settled in Grand Detour, on the Rock River near Dixon. Soon he found the opportunity he was looking for. Setting up his own blacksmith business in the small town, he met some of the local farmers; some of them transplanted Vermonters like himself; when they brought in broken cast-iron and wooden plows that had not been designed with the thicker Illinois soil in mind.

Sometimes he met the same farmers over and over because their plows kept breaking.

Deere wondered if he could come up with something better, and remembered the polished pitchforks and shovels that had been so successful in Vermont. In 1838 he produced his first plow, made of steel from a broken saw blade. A local farmer named Lewis Crandall tried it out and found that the soil did not stick to the steel blades the way it had gummed up the other plows. Word spread, and in that first year Deere made and sold three of his new plows. A few more followed the next year, and then a few dozen the year after that. Deere soon partnered with Leonard Andrus, “in the art and trade of blacksmithing, plow-making and all things thereto.”

The innovative new plow had the potential to transform Illinois agriculture, but Deere wasn’t finished. He disdained the practice of awaiting orders and then manufacturing the requested item. Instead, he built several of the new plows and offered them to the farmers to buy. This new business practice was an advance in manufacturing, and it also helped advertise his extraordinary new product. By 1846, Deere was manufacturing as many as 1000 steel plows. A decade later, it was ten times that.

Demand for the invention skyrocketed, and it became difficult to keep up. Acquiring steel and shipping it to Grand Detour was proving to be a significant challenge. Deere moved to Moline in 1848, using the Mississippi River both as a source of power and a method of transportation. The business had 16 employees the next year. They produced two kinds of plows, a one-horse model that sold for somewhere between $6 and $9, and a larger plow, called a “breaker” for $23.

Gentlemen stand with a trailer full of original plows. Photo from deere.com
He continued to experiment, using imported British steel, before connecting with a company in Pittsburgh that could produce the necessary steel plates for the plow. He also expanded his operation into additional tools for farm equipment.

While rolling out plow after plow, Deere insisted on a dedication to quality. “I will never put my name on a product that does not have in it the best that is in me,” he said. Once, a business partner reproached him for this devotion to quality when he could just offer a product to farmers on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. He replied, “They haven’t got to take what we make and somebody else will beat us, and we will lose our trade.”

The business was formally incorporated as “Deere and Company” in 1868. Deere’s son, Charles, became Vice President of the company and took over its day-to-day operations. Meanwhile, John Deere remained engaged in the community, including a two-year term as Mayor of Moline. He died in 1886, having revolutionized farming in the Midwest and opened the door (and the ground) to Illinois agriculture.

Farmer cuts alfalfa with John Deere #4 horse drawn
enclosed gear mower, 1937. Photo from the Abraham
Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
Charles Deere continued his father’s path of innovation. He set up a network of branch houses, John Deere retailers across the country. He also led the business to further expand into additional agricultural implements. Charles and his successors continued the growth of the company as it acquired other equipment manufacturers and started making tractors in the early 20th century. By the time the 100th anniversary of John Deere’s first steel plow rolled around, Deere and Company reached $100 million in sales, even though the country was still ensnared in the Great Depression. By 1955, Deere and Company had become one of America’s top 100 manufacturers.

Today, Illinois-based Deere and Company is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of farm apparatus, as well as equipment for construction and forestry. The past, present and future of John Deere is cataloged at the John Deere Pavilion in Moline, while the company offers tours of the facilities in Moline and East Moline where combines and planters are still manufactured today.

Last year, as part of the Illinois Top 200 contest, Illinoisans determined that John Deere’s invention of the steel plow was the top choice in the category of inventions and innovations. It was an acknowledgement of the way in which the blacksmith from Grand Detour revolutionized agriculture and changed the course of Illinois history.