The King of the Riding Plows

Reader Contribution by Sam Moore
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Somewhere in Chester County, Pennsylvania, a baby boy named Gilpin was born on October 27, 1831, to blacksmith Hibbard Moore and his wife Jane. The boy went to school in Pennsylvania until he was fourteen years old, although Hibbard Moore had removed to Rock Island, Illinois, when little Gilpin was seven and it’s unclear whether both the boy and his mother remained behind or if Gilpin stayed with relatives. In any event, the boy joined his father in Rock Island in 1845 and, until he was eighteen, worked in his father’s blacksmith shop while also attending school.

Gilpin Moore had by this time demonstrated that he had exceptional mechanical ability and determined to learn the mechanician, or machinist’s trade. To that end, he apprenticed himself to a large machine shop in Rock Island. At the end of the apprenticeship, Moore had so excelled that he was appointed superintendent of the entire shop and became well known as a meticulous and resourceful workman and an inventor of uncommon ability.

In March of 1853, Moore married a Miss Ludica Crisswell and they had four children, two boys and two girls. In 1864, Moore went to work for Deere & Company in nearby Moline and four years later became superintendent of Deere’s iron works and a partner with a 6% interest in the company. During much of the latter part of the 19th century, of the five principle managers of Deere & Company, Charles Deere, CEO; Stephen Velie, secretary; Moore, head of the iron works; Charles Nason, head of the wood and paint shops; and George Vinton, general sales agent; only Moore wasn’t a member of the Deere family.

From the time of his hiring until he retired in 1890, Moore was issued thirty-one patents in his own name, along with four others jointly held with a Deere & Company partner. Few of these were for little piddling improvements to existing products — most were for new implements that, when produced, added significantly to Deere’s bottom line.

One of the most important of these inventions was a sulky plow that soon became known as the “Gilpin Sulky” and inspired a famous painting of Old John Deere himself, dressed in plug hat, overcoat, tie and cane and with his adoring dog looking on, watching a young man on a Gilpin Sulky turning a perfect furrow behind three spirited steeds.

A Gilpin sulky plow (not painted correctly) that sold for $11,000 at the Carl Ebbersten Estate sale, June 22-24, 2006. Photo by Steve Barr.

Gilpin Moore’s sulky wasn’t the first wheeled, riding plow; Frederick S. Davenport from Jerseyville, Illinois, patented a successful gang riding plow in 1866, and at a public field test of plows at St. Louis in 1873, there were sixteen sulky plows entered in the competition.

Moore’s sulky was patented on June 29, 1875, and had an iron beam and frame, as well as iron-bound wooden parts, making it very strong. It was easy to operate with only one lever to control the plow.

Soon after the introduction of the Gilpin sulky plow by Deere, an Iowa dealer wrote to Charles Deere: “I took it (the Gilpin) to our county fair, and put it into a trial with the Crosley.” He describes the trial field that contained partly smooth prairie, partly rough ground, and a piece covered with “…weeds as high as a man’s shoulders.” In order to show how easily the Gilpin operated, he “…got a lady who had never run a plow before to mount the Gilpin, while a man of a good deal of experience run the Crosley.” The dealer bragged about the work the Gilpin had done; “Much better than any man could do with any hand plow,” and said: “The Gilpin buried the tall weeds entirely out of sight, while the Crosley left them sticking out of the ground.”

Charles Deere took a Gilpin to the Paris Exhibition in 1878, along with the new Deere gang plow, where both won high honors. Deere, of course, took full advantage of the awards in its advertising and the Gilpin soon became one of the most popular sulky plows in the United States.

In 1881, the Gilpin was improved by the addition of a power lift that used the forward motion of the plow to raise the bottom from the ground. Deere called the Gilpin “The King of the Riding Plows” and made them into the 1920s.

“Head-hunting,” or raiding competitors for corporate talent isn’t a 21st century phenomenon; the popularity of the Gilpin sulky plow had made Moore’s name and plow-making abilities famous throughout the farming and farm implement communities, and tempting offers began to come Moore’s way. In spite of his 6 percent interest in the company, Gilpin Moore wasn’t an entirely happy man; during the early 1880s he became dissatisfied with some of the royalties he was getting for some of his inventions from Deere & Company and apparently decided to go elsewhere.

In 1888, the factory of Buford & Co., a plow making firm in Rock Island, burned to the ground. A new plant was built and the firm was reorganized under the name of the Rock Island Plow Co. A handbill was distributed announcing the new plow manufactory and it listed Gilpin Moore, “…who for the past twenty years, has been superintendent of Deere & Co.’s Moline Plow Works,” as a member. This was the first inkling Charles Deere had of the defection of his partner and trusted colleague, and he was extremely upset.

Deere finally persuaded Moore to stay with Deere & Company and he finished out his career with the firm, retiring in 1890.

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