The Van Trump Report

What You Might Not Know About John Deere, the Man Behind the Tractor

John Deere’s name is synonymous with the tractor and equipment manufacturer that still bears his name. Nearly 136 years since his death in 1886, the one-time blacksmith would probably be quite astonished at how his cutting-edge plow has evolved. Beyond his talent for invention, Deere was also a savvy businessman and it was these perhaps lesser-known qualities that helped lay the foundation for his namesake company to eventually become one of the most successful equipment manufacturing and distribution businesses in the world.  

John Deere was born in Rutland, Vermont, on February 7, 1804, the third son of William and Sarah Deere. His father left for England around 1808 in hopes of claiming an inheritance but was never heard from again, presumably having died at sea. As a result, Deere and his six siblings were raised solely by his mother. Their less-than-ideal financial circumstances meant he received a pretty rudimentary education. At age 17, he became an apprentice to a prosperous blacksmith named Captain Benjamin Lawrence.

By the age of 21, Deere had set up his own business, traveling around to different Vermont cities to offer his blacksmith services. He married Demarius Lamb in 1827 with whom he had nine children. In late 1836, at the age of 33, Deere was forced to leave Vermont for Illinois, facing bankruptcy and a faltering economy that would later become the Panic of 1837. With just $73 to his name and facing debtors prison in Vermont, it took him three weeks by canal boat, steamer, and wagon to arrive in Grand Detour. Luckily, business was brisk in his new city and within a year he’d paid his debt and sent for his family.

As he built his blacksmith business in this new part of the country, he observed that he was repairing a higher number of plows made with wood and cast-iron. He concluded that cast iron – designed for the light, sandy soils of the eastern U.S. –  wasn’t properly suited to the sticky clay prairie soils. Deere began experimenting with new designs. The first was crafted from a broken steel saw blade which he found worked well in the thick soil.

While his experiments produced many iterations, all of them were fashioned from steel, which was much stronger than iron designs. Just as importantly, and unlike cast iron, the dense soil didn’t stick to the steel, which saved farmers the hassle and time spent cleaning them off. His first steel plow was ready for sale by early 1838, which he sold to a local farmer, Lewis Crandall. His rave reviews helped convince two neighbors to place orders, capping the only three sales Deere had that first year.

Deere kept experimenting, producing 10 improved plows in 1839 and 40 new plows in 1840. Perhaps slow by today’s standards, word about how well the new design worked also continued to spread and by 1841 Deere was manufacturing 75–100 plows per year. In 1843, Deere partnered with Leonard Andrus to help increase output, which was struggling to keep up with demand. The original factory in Rock River, Illinois, was named the “L. Andrus Plough Manufacturer”. However, the partnership became strained as Deere wanted to sell to customers outside Grand Detour but Andrus was opposed to having a railroad run through Grand Detour. Recognizing that Grand Detour didn’t have the transportation capacity necessary to grow the business he wanted, Deere sold Andrus his share in the business and moved to Moline, Illinois, in 1848.    

In Moline, which was located on the Mississippi River, Deere started off using imported English steel. However, he soon worked out a deal with Pittsburgh manufacturers for the development of comparable, though much-less-expensive steel plate. He was selling north of 1,600 plows a year by 1850 when he began to manufacture and sell other agricultural equipment as well, including planters, cultivators, and wagons. By 1857, annual output of “The Plow that Broke the Plains” had risen to 10,000. In 1858 Deere took his son Charles into partnership and stepped away from day-to-day operations, though he remained president of the company for the rest of his life.

Deere made sure his son Charles got the best education he could afford, having not had much of one himself. Charles attended private schools in Moline, went to Iowa College in Davenport, Iowa, and then further studied at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. He completed what was the equivalent of an MBA at the prestigious Bell College in Chicago, Illinois. Charles originally joined the company at age 16 as the company’s bookkeeper and was just 21 when he took over the company, which he would go on to run for 49 years. Charles Deere also proved to be an outstanding businessman and expanded the business with his concept of independent wholesaler networks. Called “Branch Houses,” they helped to market and supply independently owned and operated retail outlets. The firm was incorporated as Deere & Company in 1868.

Later in life, John Deere focused most of his attention on civil and political affairs. He served as President of the National Bank of Moline, a director of the Moline Free Public Library, and was a trustee of the First Congregational Church. Deere also served as Moline’s mayor for two years. He even spent some of his time during retirement on a farm raising Jersey cattle and Berkshire Hogs. He died at home (known as Red Cliff) on May 17, 1886 at the age of 82. More than 4,000 people attended John Deere’s funeral to pay their final respects.

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