The Journey of William Deering

Let's Talk Rusty Iron: From Army trousers to McCormick-Deering equipment.

| August 2003

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    A Deering ad.
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    An 1890 Deering ad.
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    William Deering.
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    1900s Deering catalog.
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    Sam Moore

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Even though he was one of the most-instrumental figures in American agricultural equipment development before and after the turn of the 20th century, William Deering's contributions to the industry remain an enigma to some collectors. He never designed a single piece of machinery, but Deering managed to turn other people's ideas and inventions into an empire that eventually became International Harvester Co.

William Deering was born on April 25, 1826, in South Paris, Maine, a small town about 40 miles north of Portland. His family owned a wool mill in South Paris, where young William apprenticed earning $18 per month.

A resourceful man, he eventually rose through management ranks. He worked at the mill until 1850, when he traveled west to invest in land in Illinois and Iowa. Like many pioneers of his day, the frontier didn't suit him. As a result, in 1856 Deering returned to Maine, where he opened a dry goods store in Portland.

When the Civil War erupted, William Deering quickly won a contract to supply uniform frock coats and pants, or trousers, as the Union army called them. Today, most Civil War re-enactors use reproduction uniform pants made after the so-called William Deering pattern. Deering apparently became quite wealthy selling uniforms to the government, and at the end of the war he opened a large wholesale dry goods business in Portland, Maine, called Deering, Milliken & Co.



Meanwhile, in another part of America, Charles and William Marsh, of Illinois, developed a method of binding freshly reaped wheat. The system involved movable canvases coupled with a platform and table that allowed one or two men to ride a reaper while tying the cut grain into bundles. Before that innovation, cut grain was raked off the reaper in gavels, (or straight piles) and then men who followed the machine, gathered each gavel and tied it into bundles. The Marsh brothers patented their device in 1858, but farmers were slow to accept the new machine, despite its usefulness.

William Marsh went to Piano, Ill., in the winter of 1860, where he formed a company with John Hollister to build the Marsh harvester. At first, men refused to work on the machine. Farmers called it a man-killer and claimed that the grain came at them too fast to tie. To prove that the machine was indeed user-friendly, the Marshes located a few young and vigorous farm girls, taught them to bind grain, and put them to work on the harvesters. The girls soon put the reluctant male harvest hands to shame, and business gradually picked up during the 1860s as word spread about the harvesting machine.



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