The Journey of William Deering

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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

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.

The Marsh brothers withdrew from the Plano group about 1869, and started their own plant in Sycamore, Ill. Elijah H. Gammon, a relatively wealthy man and former Methodist preacher, was soon involved with the firm. That was great for the Marshes, because the reaper business required a lot of capital to operate. In 1870, their business got an added financial boost and a new partner in the person of William Deering.

Apparently tired of the dry goods business, and with $40,000 burning a hole in his pocket, William Deering arrived in Chicago looking for a place to invest his money. Gammon was originally from Maine and knew Deering, who immediately agreed to sink his money in the new firm. Two years later, the company thrived. Records show it had $80,000 in profit on the books. Realizing the successful venture was only the beginning, Deering asked to be made a full partner, although he still lived in Maine. When Gammon became ill in 1873, he asked Deering to come to Plano and take charge of the enterprise. Deering accepted the offer to serve as the new manager of Gammon & Deering Co.

Deering was a good candidate to manage the operation, especially considering his successful wool business in Maine. Yet, he later admitted, “… at the time, I didn’t know the appearance of our own machine.” Although he had no farm experience or mechanical background – and didn’t even know what his own company’s reaper looked like – William Deering was a successful businessman. Most of all, he was obviously able to sense future commercial possibilities for the company’s equipment and had the courage to take risks in the agricultural market.

With a new manager and a growing market for the company’s product, the business prospered. James Gordon had patented a wire-tie, grain-binding attachment for the Marsh harvester in 1868, and after several improvements, the Gordon binder showed promise. Deering saw the binder as the wave of the future and ordered Gammon & Deering Co. to build at least 100 Gordon binders for the 1875 harvest. When the dust settled, 113 machines were built. Unfortunately for the business, all the binders failed to work properly and were returned to the factory where they were rebuilt. The remanufactured binders were sold the following year along with many more, and the modifications proved successful. The company’s wire binder sold well for a few years, but that momentum didn’t last. Farmers, millers and cattlemen soon turned against the wire-binding method because small bits of metal found their way into the product and eventually proved lethal to livestock that ate the grain.

Many designers experimented with using twine for tying grain bundles at the time, but without success. Then in 1869, a New Yorker named John Appleby obtained his first patent for a twine-tie binder attachment. Appleby continued to improve his binder, and in 1878, Deering witnessed an Appleby twine-tie binder in action at the Parker & Stone Co. factory in Beloit, Wis. Deering immediately bought two of the machines and shipped them to Texas for tests. The machine proved so promising that Deering purchased shop rights to the device. Again, Deering’s good business sense allowed him to foresee the demise of wire and the vast promise of twine before most of his contemporaries. The company built 3,000 twine-tie machines for the 1880 harvest, and all were sold. Deering’s fortunes grew along with the twine-tie binder’s popularity, and he supposedly cleared $400,000 in profit.

Elijah Gammon sold his share of the binder-business to Deering in 1880. Gammon allegedly balked at Deering’s plan to build 3,000 twine machines, which led Deering to build a large factory in Chicago and move the business there. Although the company was a newcomer to the farm equipment business, Deering’s company posed a definite challenge by 1890 for the old master of the industry – the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co. – for supremacy in the harvester business. Deering likely achieved his success by out-smarting the competition. He foresaw trends and constantly introduced innovations such as the first all-steel binder and the first use of roller and ball bearings in mowers and binders. Deering was instrumental in reducing the price of binder twine, and he started his own steel plant while he also acquired huge timber and iron ore reserves.

Bitter competition between Deering and McCormick – two titans of the harvester business – convinced both magnates that merger was the only way to halt the brutal profit drain that resulted from the harvester wars. In 1902, George Perkins, a partner in J.P Morgan & Co., negotiated with the five major harvesting machine companies to sell their assets to a new corporation called the International Harvester Co. The five firms included Plano Manufacturing Co., Milwaukee Harvester Co., Warder, Bushnell & Glessner Co., McCormick Harvesting Machine Co., and Deering Harvester Co. Cyrus H. McCormick, son of the original Cyrus who died in 1884, was president of the new corporation, and Charles Deering, William’s son, was chairman of the board. William Deering lived to see the business prosper before died Dec. 9, 1913, in Coconut Grove, Fla.

International Harvester continued to make machines under the names of the original companies and even maintained most of the original dealers until the early 1920s, when it introduced a new line of machinery named McCormick-Deering. The McCormick-Deering name was used until the end of World War II, when Deering was dropped and the logo just carried the name McCormick. FC

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. Now, he lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. 

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