Published in Green Magazine, May, 1987
HE GAVE TO THE WORLD
By Neil M. Clark
THE STEEL PLOW
THE BROKEN SAWMILL BLADE
Important events do not necessarily reveal their full importance at the time. Significance grows in retrospect.
John Deere, on a brief visit to the sawmill which Leonard Andrus and others were operating at Grand Detour, spied a large circular saw blade of excellent Sheffield steel which had been broken and laid aside as of no further use. Nothing remarkable about that; but looking back, it must be reckoned a momentous event. For, instantly, into the blacksmith's mind flashed the thought that here was the material from which might be fashioned a plow that would scour. Steel! He noticed how the metal shone where it had been polished by friction with wood. Could soil, even sticky, black, prairie muck, cling to such shiny stuff? The mechanic's mind quickly visioned a plowshare and gently curving moldboard, made in one piece from the saw, from which, he imagined, the earth would fall away crisply as it was cut. He was no dreamer. He was not thinking of the far future, nor of a world-girdling business that might be founded, but of the farmers from a dozen miles around, who related their troubles in his shop. He brought the broken saw to his shop, and proceeded to fashion the plow he had seen in his mind.
In later life, so far as known, John Deere never wrote any formal account of this first plow. He was not the writing sort of man. He did tell the story more than once, however, and some of those who heard him, wrote down their recollection of what he said. Details differ. But the following is one of the most authentic of these accounts:
"I cut the teeth off the mill-saw with a hand-chisel," John Deere said. "I cut a pattern out of paper for the moldboard and share." (One account says that he bent his first plow to a form which he carved out of wood.) "I laid the pattern on the saw and cut out around it with a hand chisel, with the help of a striker and a sledge. I then laid the piece on the fire of the forge and heated it, a little at a time, shaping it as best I could with the hand hammer." (According to one story, he used a wooden mallet to avoid denting the surface of the steel.)
"After making the upright standards out of bar iron," the account continues, "I was ready for the wood parts. I went out to the timber, dug up a sapling, and used the crooks of the roots for handles. I shaped the beam out of a stick of timber" (a fence rail, in one version) "with an axe and a drawing-knife. In this fashion, I succeeded in constructing a very rough plow."
A plow has been preserved at Moline which, if not the identical first one built by John Deere, was one of the very early ones. It is a century old, now. The wood of the white-oak beam is rot-pitted and worn with age. Some of the parts have been roughly patched with wire and bolts. It is better not to look at it at all, unless, with the eye of an active imagination. For time has stolen its first magic. On that bright morning in 1837, when John Deere wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand and said proudly, "She's finished" -it was an implement that caught and held the eye; new, sturdy, but light enough for a strong man to carry on his shoulder, the sun flashing from the polished steel as light from a mirror.
Farmers roundabout had heard what the blacksmith was up to. For the most part, they were skeptical, but willing to be shown. So, some of them, together with a number of villagers, assembled to watch John Deere's promised test of the new plow. Birds sang in the topmost branches of the village oaks that morning; fat gray-squirrels chased one another, chattering, from limb to limb. On the other side of the river, shadows of wind-blown clouds raced across undulating prairie fields fenced with rails. But the little group of interested spectators paid scant attention to these familiar things. They climbed into the boat with John Deere and his precious plow, or followed in other boats, and rowed across to the far bank, calling jokes to one another, warning the curly-headed blacksmith not to be too down in the mouth when his plow proved itself no whit better than the plows brought from "back East."
John was not given to light talk, but he sent as good chaff as he received; and, single-handed, he carried the plow across his shoulder to the field where Lewis Crandall was waiting with the necessary horse, and where it was said that no plow would ever scour. This field was presumably part of the farm of 101 17/100 acres which Crandall sold five years later to Moses Mubbard for $126.46.
Hitching up was no long process. In five minutes, all was ready.
"Want me to take her?" Crandall asked.
"I will," said John, "you drive."
Crandall slapped the reins on the horse's back. They were off. John Deere held the handles which he had fashioned from sapling roots and polished smooth. The plowshare bit deep into black soil. The horse put his withers into the pull. Soil began to cut and curl from the moldboard in a neat, smooth furrow. The spectators trudged behind, mostly Silent, watching and wondering. After an eighth of a mile, they all stopped to appraise the performance.
"By cracky!" exclaimed one bystander, after a good look at the plow, "She's clean!"
There were several echoes of this approval - and some shouts of doubt. "So fur she's clean," said one of the doubters, "but you wait!"
Crandall turned the horse, and they trudged back across the fie1d, cutting another furrow. It was an ideal field, ideal weather for the test. The earth was still a little too moist; if ever it would stick to a plow, it should stick now. At the end of the second furrow, they stopped for a further examination. Moldboard was surprising1y clean . The gummy soil seemed unable to cling to it. A farmer turned to his neighbor:
"No need of your paddle with that plow!" he remarked triumphantly. "She moves right along, and polishes herself as she moves."
The one spoken to had broken many a prairie acre. "Aye," he said drily, "so it seems, but I still don't believe it!.."
Round and round the field they went. Half a dozen times. A dozen. John Deere relinquished his place at the handles and let others take a turn at holding the plow. The worst pessimists finally had to admit that his plow scoured better than any plow they had ever seen. The optimists, on the other hand, were enthusiastic. John Deere himse1f was pleased; but not too pleased.
"I'm making you a present of this plow, Lewis," he said to Crandall, "for loaning the use of your land and the horse. But I'd like well to take it back with me to the shop for a few days. I doubt not I'll build another, and I will wish to study this. Maybe ways of improving it will occur to me." So ended the test of John Deere's first steel plow. A truly memorable occasion in the history of agricultural implements in America; yes, in the history of America itself...