Published in Green Magazine November, 1986
HE GAVE TO THE WORLD
By Neil M. Clark
THE STEEL PLOW
1837 - RUMBLES OF PROGRESS
The United States which the blacksmith, John Deere, knew in 1837, the year of the incident just narrated, was very different from what it is today, after a century has passed. And, though neither he nor anyone else guessed it, the blacksmith, by his own efforts and what came of them, was to be responsible for some of the amazing changes that occurred.
The country, at that time, was literally growing like a weed. New Englanders by the thousands had packed up and headed for the sunset. From overseas, from Germany, Ireland, and the Scandinavian countries particularly, more were coming on every ship. The great West, with it's lure and promise, and with more than 1ittle boisterousness, had burst with full force upon the consciousness of the older part of the young nation. Already it had given the uneasy and more conservative East a president, in the person of Andrew Jackson. "Old Hickory" was even then completing his second term in office.
In Illinois, Indian warfare was only just over. Barely five years before, a physically powerful but ungainly captain of volunteer troops raised to repel the tomahawk-and-fire invasion of the old Sac chieftain, Blackhawk, had marched through country very close to where the blacksmith's forge in Grand Detour stood; and once, not knowing the proper command to deploy his men upon approaching a narrow gate, had relied on the wit of the prairies and said:
"This company is dismissed for two minutes, when it will fall in again on the other side of the gate."
That captain's name, unknown as yet to more than a few, was Abraham Lincoln ...
The right or wrong of slavery was more and more being discussed. Abolitionists were crying their fiery wares. When certain citizens of Maine allegedly abducted a slave from Georgia, and the governor of Maine refused to surrender the abductors to the governor of Georgia, the Illinois Legislature took official notice of the incident by resolving: "that...a free state or it's citizens ought not to interfere with the property of slaveholding states."
Travel was still mostly by wagon or horseback, stagecoach, canal boat, lake or river steamer, and sailing schooner. Railroads were just beginning. Projects for them were in the air everywhere. "Internal improvements" was a magic phrase with legislators, and millions of dollars had been voted or were about to be voted in Illinois for canal construction, river improvement, railroad construction.
Life had begun to be speedier, more exciting than in the Colonial period. Men stepped faster. Most of them dreamed of fortunes waiting to be made by anyone who "struck it right." Boasting was becoming almost a universal habit; braggart talk hit the sky and bounced. The land speculator had his day and lived in pink clouds of glory. "100 Town Lots," one of them, named Gay, advertised in the 'Sangamo Journal' on August 5, 1837, hoping to lure buyers to his private town, Huron. "In the event of the construction of the canal," the optimistic real estater declared, "Huron will possess the advantages of an immense water power that cannot fail to build it up at once into a flourishing and populous town." (Today, this place of fabulous possibilities does not exist on the Illinois map!)
But men, like trout, rose greedily to such lures. Land hunger was universal. It was reckoned the speedy way to wealth. Those who had capital to invest, bought large tracts and held for the rise that an influx of population was expected to bring. There was high precedent for the practice. George Washington, himself, at one time had held more than 200,000 acres of western lands, anticipating a speculative return. Patrick Henry's land holdings made him wealthy. Robert Morris, Financier of the Revolution and the country's second-richest man, bought millions of acres and multiplied his fortune by selling on the advancing market.
For those who had little or nothing to invest, save muscle and will, it was a hard, pioneer life. Charles Dickens, making his first American tour in 1842, was appalled and disgusted at the swampy villages he saw, the practice of tobacco spitting, and inconvenience (to him) of stage coaches, canal boats, river steamers, frontier hotels. The great novelist failed to comprehend the epic movement under these crudities. Peter Cartwright, famous itinerant Methodist minister of that day in northwestern Illinois, eyed them more sympathetically. He described the life; "New settlements, formed and forming; hard, long rides, cabin parlors, straw beds and bedsteads made out of barked saplings, and puncheon bedcords. But . . . the men were a hardy, industrious, game-catching and Indian-driving set. The women were also hardy; they would think no hardship of turning out and helping their husbands raise their cabins, if need be; they would mount a horse and trot ten or fifteen miles to meeting, or to see the sick and minister to them, and home again the same day."
If talk among these poorer folk who did the spade work of pioneering was often big, it helped to bolster spirits like whistling in the dark. And besides, the dullest could see that under the froth was substantial drink, behind the bragging was enough glittering performance to persuade each newcomer that he might receive fortune's next kiss. Even a poor man might become rich if he were a good picker. Had not Astor, who landed almost penniless in New York, died worth $20,000,000? Had not miserly Stephen Girard amassed $6,000,000? Town lots in the mudhole called Chicago might sell at the utterly ridiculous figure of $100 per front foot, but who could say that even that was too high a price to pay? Had not Gurdon S. Hubbard, ex-Vermonter, in 1835 became part owner of an 80 acre tract there, near the center; and had he not, a few months later, sold half of it for $80,000? The wildest dreams might not be too wild. . .
Already, too, the era of invention, which was to make the Nineteenth Century so notable, had begun. Fulton's first steamboat had traveled successfully up the Hudson in 1807, and a quarter of a century later the tonnage of steamboats operating on the Mississippi and tributary western waters, was nearly half that of the whole British empire. Eli Whitney's cotton gin was revolutionizing the South's chief agricultural industry. The telegraph had not yet arrived but was soon to come. Trains built to travel at the dizzy speed of ten mi1es per hour, were already hauling thousands of adventurous spirits who dared to ride on them. The first postage stamp, early symbol of a new era of more rapid communications, was issued in England in 1840, and the idea was to be adopted in the United States seven years later.
Yet, despite all the bustling activity, the transformation later credited to invention and industrialization had little more than begun. Manufacturing was in it's infancy. New England factory owners worked girl employees twelve and fourteen hours, from five in the morning till seven at night, and piously protested against any reduction in hours, saying that the morals of the girls would certainly suffer "if longer absent from the wholesome discipline of factory life"! The hardware store of today was still a thing of the far future. Hundreds of machine-made articles utterly common now were unknown then. Kitchen knives, and nearly all utensils of household and everyday use, were still made to individual order by the local blacksmith. Indeed, the blacksmith was one of the most important individuals in every community, ranking but little below the flour miller and the sawmill owner.
The nation was still overwhelmingly agricultural, too. Three years later, in 1840, the census was to show a total working population of 4,798,000, of which 3,719,000 were engaged in agriculture; and even so, the nation was not agriculturally self-sufficing. The time was yet distant when the efforts of a single farmer, multiplied many-fold by machinery, could produce enough to support far more people than the members of his immediate family. In 1840, a farmer plowed only about an acre a day; he could cradle and bind only about an acre of wheat; and he did other work at a similar rate. Figures have been compiled to show that in the year 1930, assuming that a farmer used the most modern equipment available in that year, the major operations in growing and harvesting an acre of wheat yielding 20 bushels, required total labor of but 3.3 man-hours. But in 1830, with the most modern equipment then available, the same production called for 7.7 man-hours of labor. These studies also show that if the price of wheat were $1 per bushel in both years, the farmer's 1930 net cash return per acre was $6.06, whereas his 1830 net cash return was only 34.7 cents.
Such changes a century-an invention-were destined to effect.
The fact is that, in 1837, agricultural implements were little changed from ancient and medieval times. A plow-man of the time of Christ, scratched the soil of Egypt or Roman Italy with an implement not much cruder than many farmers were using for plows in the United States in the years when Andrew Jackson was president. The harvesting of crops then and in ancient times was also about equally crude. The wheat farmer used a walking plow, a sack over his shoulder instead of a drill, brush instead of a harrow, a sickle, flail, and forks for threshing and stacking, and shovel, sheet, and measure for winnowing. But . . . the rumble of great changes had begun to be heard. Invention was about to wave it's magic wand. Already, in the year 1831, Cyrus McCormick had invented a mechanical reaper to cut grain, and it actually worked. And, in the year 1831. in the little village of Grand Detour, on the banks of the Rock River in Illinois, John Deere in his tiny blacksmith shop . . .