Who Was Charles Deere?

John Deere’s son, Charles Deere, guided the fledgling company through early challenges, setting the stage for growth and innovation after 54 years with the company.

| July 2018

  • Charles-Deere
    “Charles H. Deere … believed that the plow was the most important, material factor in the building of human prosperity.” – Charles H. Pope
    Illustration by the Farm Collector staff

  • Charles-Deere

Charles Henry Deere, born in 1837, was the second son of plow magnate John Deere. The same year Charles was born, his father discovered the secret to making a plow from polished steel that would “scour” in the sticky gumbo soil of northern Illinois, a discovery that launched the elder Deere into the plow-making industry.

The first born of John Deere’s nine children, and the first of only three sons, was Francis Albert Deere, born in 1828, some nine years older than his brother Charles. Francis was groomed from the start to follow in his father’s footsteps and to eventually take over the business. However, in 1848, as John Deere moved the family and business from Grand Detour, Illinois, to Moline, Illinois, Francis suddenly died from the flu (the third son, Hiram, died at age 2). John Deere’s only surviving son was then expected to take his place in the family business.

In 1853, Charles Deere graduated from the prestigious Bell’s Commercial School in Chicago. At just 16 years of age, he then joined his father’s company as a bookkeeper. He proved to be a quick study in the world of business – quite a transformation for a young man who, as a youngster, had been an indifferent student at best. He quickly advanced to the marketing side of the business and became head salesman. He reveled in going on the road to demonstrate plows to potential customers, and took deep pleasure in hitching horses to plows and carving furrows in the soil.

Rising to the challenge

The first several years with his father’s company were good ones for Charles. Then, in 1857, the nation’s economy took a significant downturn. In an era before limited-liability corporations were allowed, business owners’ personal assets were highly vulnerable. What became known as The Panic of 1857 threatened not only John Deere’s company, but his personal fortune as well.

National unrest tied to discord between the states over the issue of slavery was followed by a bitter and contested election of James Buchanan as president of the U.S. in 1856. At the same time, overbuilding of railroads and over-extension of bank credit contributed to a sharp but short-lived financial crash in the summer of 1857.

As a result, farm commodity prices fell steeply, causing farmers to refuse to sell. In turn, farmers did not have the cash to pay for equipment already delivered. Manufacturers such as Deere were unable to pay for materials they had already bought. Everyone owed everyone else, but there was no cash to flow.


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