John Deere: Agricultural Innovator

Hometown Heroes, Made in America, People, Traditions
on April 17, 2005

The plow with its single steel blade and crude wooden handles looks so humble, but it cut a mighty path across the vast Midwestern prairie and forever changed America.

John Deere, the blacksmith who built the first successful steel plow in 1837, planted his company in Moline, Ill., a decade later. Since then, Deere’s name has become an agricultural icon, and the company he started has grown into an industrial giant, which today employs 46,000 workers worldwide.

Deere’s story is the epitome of American innovation and achievement. Down on his luck, Deere left Vermont in 1836 and headed west with a handful of dollars and a reputation as a skilled craftsman.

“He made pitchforks that were so sharp they could penetrate the toughest hay,” says Brian Holst, manager of the John Deere Collectors Center in Moline (pop. 43,768), where Deere & Co. has its world headquarters.

Within days of settling in Grand Detour, Ill., Deere was forging tools and seeing disheartened pioneers struggle to cultivate the thick mat of prairie grasses with the cast-iron plows that had worked fine in the sandy soil of New England.

“The black topsoil (of the prairie) was gummier than gum,” Holst says. “You’d go 5 feet with a plow, digging the dirt and flipping it, and then you’d have to grab a wooden putty knife to scrape it off.”

Deere, who grew up in his father’s tailor shop in Rutland, Vt. (pop. 17,292), and had polished and sharpened needles by running them through sand, was convinced that the sticky soil would fall, or scour, from a highly polished plow. From a broken saw blade, he fashioned his first steel plow—an overnight wonder. Word spread about the “singing plow” that bit the soil, which fell so smoothly without sticking that farmers claimed they could hear the plow sing.

In 1848, Deere moved his growing business to Moline on the Mississippi River. At the time, he was building 1,000 plows a year and living his philosophy: “I will never put my name on a product that does not have in it, the best that is in me.”

In 1868, Deere and son Charles incorporated the company and began establishing “branch houses” to sell their plows across the frontier. By 1889, the independently run dealerships were operating in Kansas City, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Omaha, Neb., and San Francisco, and 800 employees in Moline were building an ever-expanding line of farm implements, including plows, corn planters and shellers, cultivators and hay tools.

Today, Deere & Co. employs 6,700 workers—15 percent of its total workforce—at its world headquarters, hydraulic cylinder and planting equipment divisions in Moline; combine factory in East Moline (pop. 20,333); and construction and forestry equipment division across the river in Davenport, Iowa.

Moline owes much of its prosperity to John Deere, and the town honors its famous inventor at a complex of attractions along the riverfront. The John Deere Pavilion features historical exhibits about the world’s largest farm equipment manufacturer, the John Deere Store stocks the world’s largest inventory of John Deere merchandise, and the John Deere Collectors Center recreates a 1950s John Deere dealership, complete with a service department where collectors haul tractors to be restored. The dealer showroom is a museum of vintage farm implements, including the company’s first tractor, a 1918 model designed by Joseph Dain and one of only 100 built.

Kenneth Rahn, 72, hears stories daily from people who are nostalgic about the company’s vintage machinery. “I’ve got second-, third- and fourth-generation farmers in here wanting to see a combine being built,” says Rahn, who retired in 1985 from the John Deere Harvester Works combine factory and today leads factory tours. He coordinates the company’s Gold Key program, in which customers are invited to see their combine roll off the assembly line.

“When you’re a farmer and grow up with this stuff, it means a lot to you to see all this green paint,” says John Landis, 56, who traveled to Moline from Lewisburg, Ohio (pop. 1,798), last August to start up his new combine. Landis steered his first John Deere tractor at age 5.

Such customer loyalty earned John Deere a place in American history and keeps the company’s equipment rolling across the Midwestern prairie and farm fields around the world.

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