Who Was Charles Deere?

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

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.

In order to avoid personal as well as corporate bankruptcy, on July 1, 1857, John Deere’s plow company was reorganized into partnership with four partners: John Deere, Charles Deere, Luke Hemenway and David H. Bugbee. The name of the firm was to be John Deere & Co.

The purpose of the partnership was to separate, so far as possible, John Deere’s personal estate from that of the company. John Deere retained the title of president, but Charles Deere, as vice president, was general manager. As such, the 21-year-old took it upon himself to approach an old family friend, now in the bank business, for a loan. Charles Deere offered accounts receivable as collateral. The banker, John Gould, an ex-partner of John Deere, took the deal and the company was saved.

Less than one year later, on March 13, 1858, the 1857 partnership was dissolved. The company reverted to a single proprietorship, once again controlled solely by members of the Deere family.

Introduction of the branch house

Over the next 46 years, Charles Deere’s innovation transformed the American farm equipment business. His major accomplishment was the branch house form of marketing. From selling directly to the customer, a system of branch houses grew under his direction.

The main branch houses were at Omaha, Nebraska; St. Louis, Missouri; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Kansas City, Missouri; Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada; and San Francisco, California. Representing a substantial volume of business, these new administrative centers allowed the company to take many of its traveling salesmen from the field and to put them to work in the branch house.

What Charles Deere had done was to connect the farmer and the company. The farmer would tell the company what else Deere could make for him. This diversification of industry would soon transform Deere & Company (incorporated for the first time in 1868) into the world’s leading supplier of farm implements, not just plows, although Charles Deere’s motto was, “Let us not forget, our first duty is to the plow trade!”

In that way, Deere & Company was the forerunner of the corporate franchise of the 20th century. Charles Deere did not invent this business model, but he may have been influenced by Isaac Singer, who was then selling his sewing machines using a similar method all over the country.

New practices propel company forward

Under Charles Deere’s leadership, the marketing of Deere’s product line took a dramatic turn. Elaborate catalogs were issued every year and the branch houses often issued their own. Those catalogs sometimes included products, such as tractors, produced by other manufacturers before Deere entered that field of endeavor. The branch houses also showcased the Deere brand at state and local fairs with professional displays and exhibits.

Even many years after his death, Charles Deere is still well thought of in Moline. His charitable work and investment in the community and its industries are well known there. Not everything he touched turned to gold though: He once joined an ill-fated partnership that ventured into the fledgling automobile industry. Only about 100 cars were made before the company folded.

In the end, when you talk about John Deere and Charles Deere, you really can’t talk about the one without the other. If John Deere had not invented the self-scouring plow, there would be no company for Charles Deere to save. Through Charles Deere’s business acumen, that company survived and eventually became a global leader.

“His sterling worth …”

In failing health, Charles Deere died at age 72 on Oct. 29, 1907, after 54 years with the company. He had brought his son-in-law, lawyer William Butterworth, into the company first as treasurer, and then, as Charles Deere’s health declined, as general manager. Shortly after Charles Deere’s death, Butterworth was named CEO. He would guide Deere & Co. for the next 29 years, during which time the organization made the transition into the tractor business.

Today, Deere & Co. ranks among the 500 largest companies in the world with facilities in 30 countries. The corporate headquarters remains in Moline, Illinois. In addition to a full line of agricultural equipment, Deere also produces a variety of industrial construction equipment, as well as lawn and garden tractors and tools for the homeowner. Although the industrial equipment is painted yellow, all of the rest wears the iconic John Deere green with yellow wheels, a color scheme that is recognized throughout the world.

At the time of Charles Deere’s death in 1907, the Deere board of directors entered a statement into the official minutes of a board meeting commenting on the affection and admiration they had for him. It read in part: “We who were his associates for many years thus record our regard and testify to his simple, strong and manly character, and his sterling worth.” FC

After 36 years in the aircraft industry, Bob Pripps returned to his first love and began writing about tractors. He has authored some 30 books on the subject and several magazine articles. Pripps has a maple syrup farm near Park Falls, Wisconsin. In harvesting the maple sap, he relies on a Ford Jubilee and a Massey Ferguson 85.

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