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The Man Behind the Plow

by Sam Moore


Tags: history, John Deere, book review, 19th century, Sam Moore,

Sam Moore   
Sam Moore   

I recently read a neat little book titled The Man Behind the Plow: Robert N. Tate, Early Partner of John Deere.

Written by Connie Fairfield Ganz, Tate’s great-great-great-granddaughter, the story is based upon extensive diaries kept by Mr. Tate. These diaries covered events from his birth in England on May 31, 1804 (written much later), through Jan. 7, 1883, about three years before his death on March 7, 1886.

The account chronicles Tate’s early life in England, where he learned the “trade of whitesmith and bell hanging.” He sailed from England to Canada in 1830, and then traveled overland to Michigan where be began to work as a blacksmith. A year later, Tate traveled to New York City, by foot, ferry boat, stage coach and canal boat.

In New York City, Tate worked in a foundry, married and had children. However, after the hard times caused by the Panic of 1837, the Tate family decided to go west. They settled near Dixon, Ill., and Robert Tate became a homesteader. For several years he struggled to eke out a living on the farm. In the spring of 1841, in dire need of cash, Tate went back to New York by himself and resumed work at the foundry. While returning to Illinois in the fall of 1842, Tate’s steam ship was wrecked on Lake Erie. He, however, survived and soon was home and farming again.

In 1845, Tate traveled to Grand Detour to do machine work and came to the attention of John Deere and Leonard Andrus, in whose factory he had installed a steam engine and a power lathe. Tate began to work in the Deere and Andrus shop making hoes. In 1847 or 1848, “Deere took it into his head to dissolve partnership (with Andrus), which they soon after did.”

Deere and Tate moved to Moline and became partners in Deere & Tate Co. Neither of the two men had much of a head for finance, so John M. Gould was made a partner and the firm became Deere, Tate & Gould. In 1852, the partnership was dissolved, and Tate began making plows and wagons on his own, until 1856, when he took on Charles Buford as partner. That partnership lasted until 1865, when Tate sold out and retired with $25,000 (almost $350,000 in today's money). Buford & Tate became the Rock Island Plow Co. in 1884.

Tate lived in retirement in Illinois until 1872, when he and his family moved to California, where he died in 1886.

Robert Tate was a keen newspaper reader and observer of current events, and he made many references to those events in his diary. Ms. Ganz has done an excellent job of researching these references and includes detailed descriptions of them in the book. This not only brings Tate’s diary entries to life, but helps the modern reader to understand some of the more obscure references.

While the book doesn’t contain much detail about farm machinery, it gives a fascinating glimpse of life in this country during the nineteenth century. It was quite interesting to an old history buff like myself.