The cast aside, broken saw blade represented nothing more than downtime to most workers at a back-water mill in rural Illinois.
When a 33-year-old blacksmith eyed the broken blade, however, he sensed untapped possibilities. In 1837, that saw blade – brightly polished by repeated log cuts – was used to build a self-scouring plow. That young blacksmith, a transplanted Vermont native named John Deere, went on to build the foundation of a company that today is the world’s foremost manufacturer of agricultural equipment.
From failure to frontier
Deere was born 200 years ago, on Feb. 7, 1804, in Rutland, Vt. Nothing in his formative years suggested the success he’d know by mid-life. The son of a tailor of modest means, Deere attended public schools before signing on as a blacksmith’s apprentice at age 17. After completing the four-year apprenticeship in Middlebury, Vt., Deere worked as a journeyman for two years before moving to Burlington, Vt. There he worked iron for a saw and oil mill, and earned a reputation as a capable mechanic and ironworker.
In 1829, married and the father of a son, Deere used his savings to buy land and build a blacksmith shop near Leicester, Vt. Disaster struck not once but twice as fire destroyed his first two blacksmith shops. After those setbacks, Deere was forced to take what work he could find, first as a stagecoach ironer, and later as proprietor of his own blacksmith business, this time in Hancock, Vt. Despite his ambition, the young Deere ultimately faced harsh realities. Poor economic conditions and a substantial western migration strangled his business. In November 1836, Deere left his wife (then 6 months pregnant) and four children in Hancock. Carrying little but his tools and a few household goods, he set out for Grand Detour, Ill.
Happily, when Deere arrived in Grand Detour, the town needed a blacksmith. He went to work immediately, and built a simple forge and chimney from stone he quarried, and mortar made from clay. His first job was repair of a broken-down sawmill. Two days later, the mill was up and running, which cemented his reputation as an ironworker.
Farmers around Grand Detour generated ample work for the new blacksmith. But his thoughts were not limited to the iron pile at his feet. As Deere repaired broken trace chains and clevises, worn-out bull tongues and shares, “his mind dwelt upon the improvement of the plow, the implement of the greatest importance to the pioneer,” a writer noted in a 1937 issue of Farm Implement News.
Attracted by vast and fertile farmland, farmers migrated in droves to the Midwest in the 1820s and 1830s. Once settled, however, they quickly became frustrated by their inability to work the land. Iron plows like those developed for use in the East were ill-suited for the prairie sod. They entered the ground with difficulty, clogged easily and failed to scour themselves clean.
Deere’s plow – the one crafted from the broken saw blade – wasn’t the first steel plow. John Lane, Lockport, Ill., for instance, developed one in 1833. Yet, perhaps the plow’s unique shape ensured Deere’s design was one of the first to successfully self-scour. Deere relentlessly continued his quest to perfect the sod breaker, and made constant modifications and improvements.
The plow was well received, and Deere’s fledgling plow operation grew steadily, if modestly. In 1839, according to the Farm Implement News, Deere produced 10 plows, among other accomplishments in the area.
Deere also enjoyed the support of his family. His wife, Demarius, and five children – including infant Charles, born a few months after John Deere left Vermont – arrived in Grand Detour in 1838.
Business improved, and by 1840, Deere installed a second anvil and hired a full-time worker. Together, they produced 40 plows that year. In 1841, while producing 75 steel moldboard plows, Deere constructed a brick building to house the operation. The next year, production in the improved facility rose to 100 plows.
Then, in 1843, Deere entered into partnership with Leonard Andrus. The partners erected a two-story brick building, added horsepower to turn the grindstone, established a small foundry and built 400 improved plows that year.
Still, selling the self-scouring plows remained a challenge. John M. Gould, Deere’s partner years later, recalled farmers’ skepticism about Deere’s designs:
Regardless of such skepticism, the business thrived by 1847, when Deere realized that his plow business had outgrown the Grand Detour facility. Moreover, as production numbers swelled, so did the expense of hauling coal, iron and steel 40 miles from La Salle to Grand Detour. The young company contended additionally with the expense of transporting plows to principle markets. The following spring, Deere sold his interest in the Grand Detour business to Andrus. By June 1848, Deere and Robert N. Tate had entered into partnership.
The new company was initially called Deere & Tate Co. The partners considered several sites for their company, among them, Peru, Ill., and Rock Island, Ill., but settled on Moline, Ill. The river town was well situated on the Mississippi, guaranteed adequate waterpower, abundant coal shipments and inexpensive river transportation to ship plows to market. In the fall of 1848, John M. Gould joined the business as a third partner. Gould was the finance manager, Tate was the shop superintendent, and Deere oversaw sales and marketing. By year-end, the new firm produced between 700 and 1,000 plows.
In 1853, Deere bought out his partners’ shares in the business. At least part of the dissolution was tied to basic philosophical differences regarding product quality – a fundamental value for Deere. As Gould later recalled:
Birth of Deere & Co.
With Deere back at the helm, the business continued to grow. Just three years later, 14,000 plows were produced. In 1858, Deere turned over company management to Charles Deere, then 21 years old and John Deere’s eldest living son. In 1863, John Deere’s son-in-law, Stephen H. Velie, was named a partner.
“The characters of the three men were perfectly complementary to a successful, ever-expanding enterprise, for until his death in 1886, John Deere’s great interest was in design and manufacturing, animated by a never-satisfied urge for improvement,” the 1937 Farm Implement News article continued. Velie was strictly an “inside man,” the article noted, and a master of detail and organization.
Charles Deere, the same article says, “was the outstanding salesman and sales organizer in the plow trade. Under his direction, the great Deere distribution system took form, the characteristic set-up being a combination of local capital and personnel with that of Deere’s.” The company’s first branch, Deere, Mansur & Co., was established in Kansas City, Mo., in 1869. Under the Deere & Mansur Co. name, the company produced harrows, cultivators, seeders, hay loaders, as well as corn planters, huskers and shelters.
During the last 25 years of his life, Deere had little involvement in management of the company that bore his name. In his final years, Deere became a gentleman farmer, and raised registered Jersey cattle and Berkshire hogs. He was influential as a community leader – including a term as mayor of Moline – and was generous with both his time and resources in supporting countless area organizations and fledgling business enterprises. He died May 17, 1886, at age 82. “Probably no other funeral in Moline was ever attended by so many people or drew forth the public evidence of mourning,” a local historian wrote.
John Deere is commonly – but mistakenly – credited with creating the first steel plow, also known as the first self-scouring plow. In fact, Deere’s greatest accomplishment might’ve been the way in which he projected his character onto the company he founded, and the way he impressed his values and philosophies onto the men who would lead the company through its first critical period of growth and expansion.
Unlike other important figures in American industrial history, little formal documentation of Deere’s life and business exists. He wrote no biography. Firsthand accounts by peers describe a gruff, strong-willed, short-tempered, undiplomatic, single-minded, independent and controlling man. He was poorly educated by today’s standards and often mistrusted his business partners. Still, intuitive business sense combined with a passion for quality served him and his company well. He operated the company for just 17 years before handing the keys to his son, but by then John Deere had already solidified the company foundation that endures today as an international leader in farm equipment. And it all began with a broken saw blade ... FC