Published in Green Magazine, 1987
HE GAVE TO THE WORLD
By Neil M. Clark
THE STEEL PLOW
FIRST DAYS IN GRAND DETOUR
John Deere brought the tools of his trade with him, or at least those most essential; for no sooner had he arrived, than he was asked to repair a broken pitman shaft in the sawmill on Pine Creek nearby. He needed a forge for this, and there was none. So he built one in a hurry, using stones picked up along the river; clay serving for mortar. Within two days, the shaft was repaired and the sawmill was running again, ripping out boards for the homes waiting to be built; and the community had learned that it now had a mechanic who knew how to use tools and should be able to serve them well.
Right from the first, the Vermonter had all the work he could handle. Farmers who had been wishing for a blacksmith but had done without because of the 40-mile trip to the nearest shop, dumped their broken clevises, trace-chains, etc., on his floor for prompt repair . He built a little shop in Grand Detour, and near it a small snug frame house, 18 X 24, divided into five rooms, with a fireplace in the living room, a steep stairs, two upstairs bedrooms. The house, restored, still stands. It reminds a visitor strongly of a white cottage in some New England town. To John Deere's wife, who made the long journey to join her husband in 1838, it must have seemed cozy, comfortable, homelike, even on this far, strange frontier. There is a tradition concerning her arrival. She did not come by canal, as he did, but in a mover's wagon from Hancock, Vermont, to Buffalo, New York, thence by lake steamer to Detroit, and thence overland by wagon again; and most of their household goods and her brother- in-law, William Peek, came too; also the three daughters and two sons of John Deere. It was a terrific, six-weeks' journey. Stepping down at last from the wagon that brought her, she handed her husband a bundle that squirmed.
"Here, John," she said, "you hold him a while. I've carried him all the way from Vermont!"
It was their year-old son, Charles, whom John had never seen. The baby was to grow up and play an important part alongside his father...
Very soon plows began to absorb more and more of John Deere's attention, for the reason that the plow was the all-important implement of settlers; and the plows they had were giving trouble. In the winning of this continent from Atlantic to Pacific, the man with a rifle came first. He walked softly; the thunder of his gun soon faded; he left few traces of his passing. Next came the man with an axe and a plow. The land changed under his hand. It was only when these forerunners had gone ahead and prepared the way, that the pioneers with steel rails, the merchants, manufacturers, and, all others who constitute modern civilization, began to pour into the wilderness and fill it up.
At first, the axe was all-important. The eastern part of the country, as far west as Ohio and Indiana, was densely wooded, and the trees had to be cleared or killed, before the plow could do its part. The prairies, however, were different. They were not forested, except in scattered groves and along the rivers.
Even the groves, when the first settlers arrived, were clear of underbrush, kept so by annual spring fires. The eye traveled straight ahead with little obstruction through marching rows of tree trunks. There was ample timber, however, for building, for fences, and for firewood. An early writer says, of the country in the immediate vicinity of Grand Detour, that in addition to the river timber,"...which extends from one end of the county to the other, on either side of the river there are 21 groves, containing from one-half to six sections, or from 350 to 3,840 acres of timber each; and so distributed over the whole as to accommodate every township in the county...
"An ideal arrangement, a delightful-seeming land to settlers who had known the hardship of clearing every acre and pulling hundreds of stumps in order to have a few acres free for the plow. Here a plow could travel almost as far as the eye could see, over a gently- billowing landscape, and never turn out for a stump or strike a buried tree root.
But in every ointment there must be a fly. The prairie farmers' ointment had a big one!...
Plows, like most other agriculitural implements shortly before that time, were but little better than their medieval predecessors. Much of the early plowing in the United States was done with implements that were hardly more than pointed sticks, or tree roots trimmed to shape and pointed with crudely-hammered iron shares. But at about the beginning of the nineteenth century, invention turned to the improvement of the plow. Considerable advances were achieved. The record shows that the first cast-iron plow in America was produced by one Charles Newbold, about the year 1796. He is said to have spent a fortune developing his plow, and to no personal advantage; for farmers conceived the strange notion that cast-iron poisoned the soil, impaired fertility, encouraged weeds.
This notion gradually wore itself out, and other inventors took up where Newbold left off. Versatile Thomas Jefferson interested himself in working out what he considered the proper design for a moldboard; however, he never incorporated his ideas in an actual plow. Daniel Webster, momentarily forsaking oratory, tried his senatorial hand at the design and actual construction of an improved plow. Notable practica1 designers were Jethro Wood and David Peacock. "Clute" and "Wiard" were other familiar names on early plows that served their purpose more or less well in the East and found their way to the West, usually securely tied to the side of the covered wagon. Wood's plow, in particular, marked a great advance, because of the assembly principle; he made the iron portions in three parts instead of one - share, moldboard, landside - so that if a part were broken, it could be replaced without buying a new plow.
Now for the fly in the western settler's ointment, Prairie soils were different from those of the East. The latter, as a rule, were loose and somewhat pebbly. The earth fell away from the cast iron share and moldboard, causing little trouble. The prairies, however were composed of a sticky muck. Instead of falling away, the earth stuck, great gobs of it, like balled snow on a man's bootheel, till the plow could no longer move in the furrow. John Deere paused often with hammer poised over hot iron, to hear talk between farmers like this "These prairies are fine and dandy to look at with the eye. But they're no good to a farmer if he has to plow as I did today."
"How was that?"
"Two teams of oxen, and a paddle. The beasts pulled till they could pull no more. Then I'd yank the plow out of the furrow and clean it with the paddle. That soil, I tell you, sticks like brother Jonathan's gluepot. I spent a whack more of my time cleaning, I reckon, than I ever did plowing."
"I believe you. These prairies will never be farmed till we have a plow that scours."
"And that, to my thinking, will never-"
And as the poised hammer finally fell on hot iron, it must have been singing a strange refrain to the blacksmith from Vermont:
A plow that scours-
A plow that scours-
A plow that scours.
A practical man, this blacksmith. One who thought in terms of present needs and materials, but of a product a step in advance. Could this thing that all the farmers wanted, be made? Could a mechanic who knew his trade thoroughly, build a plow that wou1d scour? If so, how? Not a paper-and-drawing board plow, but one built in frontier shop, for frontiersmen to use behind sweating oxen, of materials such as might be found in a frontier community? . . .
It was a challenge.