Deere & Co.: From Plowshares to Stock Shares

John Deere company namesake set the course for the farm equipment giant

| February 2004

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.

Pioneer plowmaker

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.