Most of us know the story of the young blacksmith who travelled from New England to Grand Detour, Ill., where he observed the troubles farmers were having with their plows. It seems that the sticky mid-western soil clung to the cast iron plows of the day making it nearly impossible to turn a furrow. John Deere fashioned a moldboard out of a cast-off steel saw blade, thus solving the problem and earning for himself the title: “The Man Who Gave to the World the Steel Plow.”
As a result of Deere’s so-called “Singing Plow,” his small one-anvil shop soon became a huge factory where plows and other tillage implements were made, while Deere himself became rich and famous. However, such success was a long while coming, and the Deere family was for a long time poor and deeply in debt. Here’s the story of those early years.
John Deere’s family background is pretty murky. His father, William Rinold Deere, possibly came to the the United States from Wales in about 1790. Somewhere along the way William married Sarah Yates, who may have been born in Connecticut, or maybe in England. The 1800 U.S. Census reveals that William and Sarah were living in Rutland, Vt., with two sons and one daughter all under ten years old.
William was a tailor and Sarah a seamstress. Their children were William Jr., born around 1796, Francis in 1799, Jane with no date listed, although it must have been before the 1800 census, Elizabeth in 1803, and the hero of our story John, on February 7, 1804. In August of 1807 another son, George, came along.
About 1806, William turned up in Middlebury, Vt., where he started a tailor shop. Middlebury was a bustling town and William seems to have been busy enough to advertise for “A Journeyman Tailor” to help him.
Although busy enough in his tailor shop to need help, William Deere seems to not have been doing well financially, and in 1808 twelve-year old William Jr. was apprenticed to a cabinet maker. Apparently, the senior William had hope of inheriting some money in England and prepared to return to that country. In a letter he wrote to William Jr. from Boston on June 26th, 1808, he writes, in part:
"I am now in expectation to of embarking for England the first fair wind. I have received here accounts from home, some Different to what we have heard; my Cousin that was supposed to Die at Sea is returned home to England. Consequently it will make a great alteration in my affairs but I hope to obtain the means of paying my Debts & making our family Comfortable."
There’s no record of exactly what happened but William Deere sailed for England and was never heard from again, leaving Sarah Deere to support her family by her work as a seamstress. William Jr. somehow got enough education to become a teacher. Francis died in 1822, and no one knows what became of daughter Jane. Young John seems to have received very little formal education, and at age seventeen he was apprenticed to a local blacksmith named Lawrence. The three-year apprenticeship paid John thirty dollars the first year, thirty-five the second, and forty dollars the final year, plus room and board.
During this time John met a girl named Demarius Lamb from Hancock, a town twenty miles away, but who was probably going to school and boarding in Middlebury. After his apprenticeship ended, John went to work in a blacksmith shop and in 1827 he and Demarius were married. For a couple of years, John bounced around between several different Vermont towns and blacksmiths, and a son named Francis Albert was born. In 1829, John bought some land in Leicester and started his own blacksmith shop. That shop soon burned down and Deere borrowed money to rebuild. Again, fire destroyed the shop and at about the same time a daughter named Jeannette joined the family. Badly in need of money, Deere moved his family to Royalton, Vt., where he got a job doing ironwork for Amos Bosworth, who owned a stagecoach line. Here, in 1832, another daughter, Ellen Sarah, was born.
Although John Deere still owed a lot of money, he was determined to get back into business for himself. Taking what little cash he had accumulated while working for Bosworth, Deere moved to Hancock, Vt., where in 1833 he bought a piece of land which he heavily mortgaged. Besides the usual horse-shoeing and repair jobs, Deere made shovels and hoes that were “...like no others that could be bought - scoured themselves of the soil by reason of their smooth, satiny surface.” In spite of the excellence of Deere’s tools, or maybe because of it (all that polishing had to take a great deal of time), money wasn’t exactly pouring in. In fact, the outlook for agriculture in Vermont, along with related industries such as blacksmithing, seemed to be shrinking during the 1830s.
In November of 1836 Deere’s creditors back in Leicester began to press him hard for their money. Bankruptcy and even debtor’s prison were real possibilities for John Deere. His ex-employer, Amos Bosworth, had been to Grand Detour, Ill., and possibly told John about the opportunities in the great prairies of the West. However he heard of it, Deere decided to head west to Grand Detour, leaving his debts and his family behind. He sold his blacksmith shop to his father-in-law for $200 and, probably leaving about half of that sum with Demarius to take care of the family, he took the rest of the money and his blacksmith tools and hit the road.
As Wayne Broehl says in his book John Deere’s Company, “At age thirty-two, John Deere started over."
A historical marker in Middlebury, Vt. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)