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The Deere & Webber Company

Sam MooreAwhile back, someone said they had seen a sleigh with a brass plate saying it had come from the Deere & Webber Company and they were looking for information on the firm.

In 1851, John and Demarius Deere's third child, Ellen Sarah, aged 19, married Christopher Columbus Webber, a 32-year-old business man in Rock Island, Illinois.

After grave financial problems, caused partly by the panic of 1857, and partly by poor management, John Deere turned over leadership of his firm to his 21-year-old son Charles. The younger Deere seems to have brought his brother-in-law, C.C. Webber into the business as a partner. A correspondent for the Mercantile Agency (forerunner of Dun & Bradstreet) wrote at the time: “Webber has some considerable (property), (but) his reputation as a bus. man is decidely (sic) bad, for tho he may be responsible, he is not prompt to pay – but prompt to collect.” Webber died in 1865, leaving Ellen with five small children, including his 6-year-old son, Charles C. Webber.

Young C.C. Webber began as a mail boy at Deere & Company in 1877, and before long became a traveler (salesman) representing the firm. Charles Deere went into partnership in 1880 with a man named Dean to establish a Deere branch house in Minneapolis. A year later, C.C. Webber joined Dean in running the branch house and, about 1883, took over as manager, a position he held for over 60 years. Dean retired in 1893, and the branch house was reincorporated as Deere & Webber Company.

During the last decades of the 19th century, each of the several Deere branch houses was a semi-independent company, usually owned by Charles Deere and the local manager in partnership. The branch houses set their own prices, and often paid the parent company different prices for the same implements. The branch houses could, and did, routinely sell competing products; For example, Alvah Mansur, manager of the St. Louis branch sold the Albion, Coates, Greensburg, New Gleaner, and Tiffin hay rakes, in addition to the Deere sulky rake.

James First, a German immigrant, briefly worked as a blacksmith for John Deere in 1853. Feeling he wasn’t being paid enough, First quit and started his own shop, where he built wagons to order. In 1869, First and a couple of partners formed the Moline Wagon Company. In 1881, the Moline Wagon Co. bought into the Deere branch house in Council Bluffs, Iowa, called Deere, Wells & Co., and began selling their wagons through that branch.

By 1909, the Moline Wagon Company had sold more than a million wagons and was cranking out a new wagon every six minutes. Such success prompted Deere & Company to buy the Moline Wagon factory, which was renamed the John Deere Wagon Company and then the Wagon Works.

Alvah Mansur’s St. Louis branch had been selling Mitchell and Old Hickory wagons from about 1880, and soon was offering several lines of buggies from various manufacturers. About 1891, the Mansur & Tebbetts Carriage Co. was formed to build buggies, carriages, sleighs and other passenger vehicles, which were sold through the St. Louis branch, along with Moline wagons.

When Mansur died in 1898, Deere & Co. bought the St. Louis branch house outright, along with the Mansur & Tebbetts Carriage Co. The vehicle business was good and, in 1903, Mansur & Tebbetts Carriage Co. built a new 150,000-square-foot factory with a capacity of 30,000 vehicles per year.

Mansur & Tebbetts used a white elephant as their official logo and bragged in their ads that they were the “Sole Makers (of) White Elephant Vehicles.” Today we think of a “white elephant” as something of value that can't be sold because no one wants it. However, in the Buddhist faith, the white elephant is a symbol of fertility and knowledge. The story goes that on the eve of giving birth to the Lord Buddha, his mother dreamt that a white elephant came to present her with a lotus, the symbol of purity and knowledge. The “Three Worlds,” a Buddhist text says:

“The magnificent king has seven things: a perfect wife, an able treasurer, a wise chief minister, a swift horse, a wheel of the law and a precious gem to guide his actions: and the most noble of white elephants.” While I doubt that anyone in the Mansur & Tebbetts organization was Buddhist, the white elephant apparently was deemed a good luck symbol by someone responsible for naming their products.

In 1913, the firm’s name was changed to the Reliance Buggy Co., and the vehicles were sold under the Deere name. Reliance built vehicles were carried by most of the branch houses, including the Deere & Webber Co. in Minneapolis, which is undoubtedly where the sleigh in question was originally sold.

By 1923, the automobile had taken over the bulk of the transportation duties in the United States and the buggy business had shrunk to the point that it was no longer profitable for Deere & Company. The annual message to stockholders for 1923 contained the following statement from Deere & Company president William Butterworth: “Owing to the falling off in the buggy business, the Company has discontinued the operation of the Reliance Buggy Company in St. Louis.” Progress had claimed another industry.

Charles C. Webber lived to the ripe old age of 85, dying, still in harness, in 1944. He served Deere & Company for 67 years, with more than 58 of those years on the firm's board of directors and 51 as a vice-president – quite a record of service.

– Sam Moore

Deere & Webber advertisement