Published in Green Magazine January, 1987
HE GAVE TO THE WORLD
By Neil M. Clark
THE STEEL PLOW
JOHN DEERE'S ARRIVAL
Wait! Who was this blacksmith, Deere? Whence had he come? What was he doing on a frontier where so short a time before, the Indian war whoop had curdled the blood of far-scattered first settlers?
To be brief about it, he was a Vermonter who was born on February 7, 1804, in the village of Rutland, the son of William Ryland Deere, a merchant tailor who had come to the United States from England, and of Sarah Yates Deere, the daughter of a British soldier who fought the Yankees in the Revolutionary War but stayed to become a citizen among them when the war was over. Though Rutland was John Deere's place of birth, he lived from the beginning of conscious memory, and during a11 his early formative years, and until he was of voting age and past, in Middlebury, a few miles from Rutland, northerly down the valley of Otter Creek. Here, the boy grew up and became a man. Here his character was set in the mold it was to take and keep. Vermont shaped him . . . before the West took him.
John Deere was eight when his father left his family at Middlebury and set out for England. Why he did so is not entirely clear. One tradition is that he went to claim an inheritance; another, that he went to buy goods for his tailoring shop. No matter. He went. While waiting at the port for his ship to sail, he sat down, perhaps with a tight lump in his throat, to write a letter to his little boy, John, youngest of his four children.
"Take good care of your mother," he said.
The letter, quaint and formal, has been preserved. It was the last word the family ever received. William Deere's trunk arrived in Eng1and. But he himself was not aboard. Was he swept overboard in a gale? Did some other strange mishap overtake him in those days when vessels spent weeks, sometimes months, crawling across the treacherous Atlantic under sail? Neither widow nor son ever knew.
Sarah Deere carried on her husband's shop. When John was a grown man, Sarah died, in 1826. But long before her death, he had begun to take his destiny firmly into his own hands. Unknown to her, he obtained work grinding bark for a Middlebury tanner, and surprised her by bringing home a pair of shoes and a suit of clothes as pay. She had wanted him to study at Middlebury College which was one of the two higher institutions of learning in Vermont at that time; and he did so for a very brief time. But a sense of the practical rather than the theoretical asserted itself in him strongly even then, and almost at once he chose another kind of training by apprenticing himself to a certain Captain Benjamin Lawrence of Middlebury, to learn the blacksmith trade.
Earlier, we commented briefly on the importance of the blacksmith in the economy of the nation a hundred years ago. He was as ubiquitous as the garage mechanic of the present day, and even more necessary; for he forged the tools needed for the very maintenance of life. He shod the oxen - hoisting them clumsily aloft in his ox-frame, and fastening their vicious hoofs during the process. He made the ox-shoes, even the nails. He did the iron work on wagons, carriages, stagecoaches. Whatever was to be wrought in iron, he wrought. A community was fortunate to have a blacksmith who, having learned well his trade, honored it by honest practice.
Captain Lawrence was such a blacksmith, a strict master, but the kind for a boy to have; and John Deere proved an apt apprentice. His wages were such as were paid to apprentices at that time; $30 for the first year, and $35, $40, and $45 respectively for the succeeding years. Under his master's eye, he acquired the art of making his forge fire neither too great nor too small. He learned the maxim, "Strike while the iron is hot"- and the reason for it. He discovered why it was better always to finish a job on the first heat, if possible, and to avoid reheating. He learned that it was not how hard the blow of the hammer that mattered, but how true. Skilled workmanship was the master's creed, and became the boy's delight. He gained proficiency in sharpening farmers' plowshares, shaping axeheads, repairing scythe knives. He took even more pleasure in fashioning new tools, better adapted for familiar tasks. He could, in a word, do more than make sparks fly from the anvil. He cou1d create...
John Deere's apprenticeship ended in 1825, and for the next ten years he worked for others or in shops of his own in various parts of Vermont, never staying very long in one p1ace, and never straying very far from his birthplace. His first job was with Wm. Wills and Ira Allen of Middlebury, and his wages were $15 per month. The following year, he traveled north as far as Burlington, then a mere village, where he was employed to do the wrought-iron work on a sawmill, and later on a flaxmill. After that, he was a partner for a while in a shop at Vergennes, a busy town of stone stores and the pleasant sound of industry along the waterfront; it was located near the mouth of Otter Creek and the shore of Lake Champlain, and proudly called itself a seaport. And then he had shops of his own at Leicester and Hancock. It was during these years of frequent moves that he more or less broke from the strict routine of ordinary blacksmithing (shoeing horses "al1 around" for $1) and began to design and make tools not only to order, but also for sale, foreshadowing what was to come later. The United States was emerging into a new industrial era; John Deere moved on the manufacturing tide. His shovels, hoes, and pitchforks were coveted by Vermont farmers because they were sturdy and handled easily. Late in life, on a visit to that state, he was delighted to discover some of the very shovels he had wrought, and to learn that they had seen steady service for nearly three-score years. He also made hay forks and manure forks, anticipating demand and keeping them in stock.
At Burlington, at Vergennes, and often in the travels occasioned by his trade, John Deere looked out over the waters of Lake Champlain, saw the black smoke of early steamboats, caught in his nostrils the scent of wide lands beyond. In his shops, on the road, he often heard news about the canal which had been dug, and of boats which sailed direct from Whitehall on lower Lake Champlain, to Waterford or Troy on the Hudson; and of the still greater canal with which it connected, the Erie, which DeWitt Clinton had pushed boldly right across the state of New York, connecting the city of New York with the Great Lakes by water, reducing freight rates fabulously from $100 per ton to $5, carrying uncounted thousands of settlers into the great fertile West, bringing golden tales back as well as wheat, flour, pork, potatoes, lumber, and other products of the market-hungry west. Vermont heard these tales; many were stirred with a vague unease of their own hard climate and soil . It was slow, hard getting ahead in that grim region. John Deere heard the tales, and he, too, was stirred.
Then, of a sudden, the West was brought very close to him, A Vermont ex-major, Leonard Andrus, sold his store and went out to Illinois in search of better health and a sight of the country. Andrus struck out with a party bound from St. Louis to the famous lead mines located in the northwestern part of the state,
at Galena. But he left them about midway. In the neighborhood of the Rock River, he touched a section of country in which scarcely any white man then was dwelling. He decided to explore it. He may have smoked a pipe with John Dixon, who kept the ferry and a combined tavern and store at the junction of Kellogg's Trail and the trail from Chicago; and from Dixon, he may have gleaned much information about the Indians and how they had been pacified, and how the land was rich and hungry for settlers. He paddled on up-river, past wooded islands and bluffs and, eventually, landed at the spot which even then was called Grand Detour. He saw the abandoned shack of an old-time fur trader, one LaSallier; but no other white man's dwelling. Friendly Winnebago Indians gathered around while he cooked his supper. The peace of the prairies entered into his soul. Their promise persuaded him.
"Here," he said to himself, "I will build a city."
That was the year 1834.
He went back to Vermont and told friends many glowing tales of what he had seen, and of the particular spot he had chosen for a settlement. A few of them were induced to come out with him when he returned the following year to this new Eden, One of these was the man who became his father-in- law, Amos Bosworth. Now, Amos was the owner of a stagecoach and freighting business, and John Deere did work for him. They were close friends. They talked the venture over together. If Amos Bosworth could pick up and go in this fashion, why not he? ... Thus, from man to man, passed the contagion of the new West.
All details of John Deere's trip to the West, which he undertook in the year 1836, are lost in the terse description which he himself gave of it many years later- "by canal and the lakes to Chicago." Yet, that trip must have been as full of color and vivid life and strangeness for him as was the first exploration of Antarctica for Admiral Byrd.
He went alone. He had been married, in 1827, to Demarius Lamb, a girl from the town of Granville over east of the Middlebury Mountains. But he left her at home while he went ahead to see whether he should bid her follow.
The blacksmith from Vermont, thirty-two, mighty of muscle, steady of eye, fired with ambition and hope, stood along the canal-boat rail en route and heard such conversation as this:
"It's powerful easy on these waters for you and me today, stranger. We just float an' git thar. But I can tell you we sweat in the building of the big ditch a dozen years ago."
"Aye. I had the contract for this very stretch. Shovels, axes, spades, wheelbarrows, scrapers- that's all we had to work with, an' they was too benightedly slow for us. We had to cut through matted tree roots two inches thick. Millions of 'em. Yes, sir! I myself, sir, had a plow built-"
"A plow, sir, the like of which was never seen before. With a colter ahead of the share, Took three teems of oxen to draw it. A regu1ar master of a plow. Oh, we went through. But the grief we had! The colters and shares we ruined!"
A better plow. The blacksmith was interested in that . . .
Beyond the Erie Canal, John Deere sailed up the lakes past Detroit, through the Straights of Mackinac, down to Chicago. ... He hurried on by the westerly road, the road that was little more than the wagon ruts worn by the Army during the Blackhawk War. And so, some time in 1836, he arrived at the settlement founded by Andrus and his friends at Grand Detour. ...
To his new home John Deere came, perhaps on a summer evening, while a black crow in the twilight winged toward a lightning-riven oak. Perhaps a whippoorwill called. Gentians, blue and purp1e, and snowy-white asters bloomed underfoot. Dim candlelight glowed from the windows of the tiny settlement. Men in homespun gathered in eager talk on the stoop of the store. Over all, like a blanket, hung the quiet of the great prairies. A quiet, however, that was quiveringly aware of the kick of the future in the womb of the present. A century has passed since his coming. Grand Detour is still a tiny village snuggled in the bent elbow of the river. It drowses now, whether under summer suns or winter snows, asking only to be undisturbed. But then, it lay in the direct path of a United States coming of age, in the very rip tide of invincib1e advance...