Published in Green Magazine, July, 1987
HE GAVE TO THE WORLD
By Neil M. Clark
THE STEEL PLOW
AN INDUSTRY BEGINS
This man who had come out from Vermont bringing the tools of his trade and an ambition to better himself was more than a skilled mechanic and blacksmith, - more than an inventor. He had, in addition, the business instinct. It was in him, not only to design a better plow, but also to give it to the world; as Henry Ford, a good many years later, was able, not only to conceive and create a low-priced car, but also to win mass distribution for it. In Vermont, instead of waiting for customers to order shovels or hay forks made, John Deere had followed the practice of making them up ahead and having them on hand when customers called. This was more like modern manufacturing and was an advance on the common practice of his time - most blacksmiths were content to make to order only. Indeed, the idea of manufacturing was not unfamiliar to Deere, for in Vermont, the great manufacturer of scales, Mr. Fairbanks, learning of his skill in making forks, had urged him to move to St. Johnsbury and devote himself entirely to their production. So now, having seen his plow at least a qualified success, he resumed his practice of occupying his spare time by building in advance of demand.
According to records that have come down, he built only one plow in 1837. In 1838, he built three. During these years, of course, he was carrying on his regular trade of blacksmithing, and also did the entire iron work of a new saw-and flouring-mill. In 1839, however, he was able to build ten plows; and, by 1842, he was building no less than one hundred, or about two per week. He allowed each plow to be its own salesman and demonstrator. The story of how he did this has been told by a man then resident in Grand Detour, John M. Gould, who later, for a time, was John Deere's partner.
"At the time he succeeded in getting his first plows to scour," Mr. Gould wrote, "the government lands in that part of the country were subject to entry. Previous to that time, nearly all the farms in that vicinity were held under preemption laws, or claims," The land office, he goes on to say, was located at Dixon, half a dozen miles away, and, at the time of the land sales, large numbers of farmers from far and near passed through Grand Detour on their way to establish legal ownership of the farms on which, heretofore, they had been virtually squatters. At such times, John Deere made it his custom to have one or more plows on exhibit in front of his shop. On top of the beam appeared the legend, "Self-Polisher". Mr. Gould records a remembered conversation, typical of many others. A farmer, driving through, stopped for a look at the plows. He read the legend.
"Self-polisher be damned!" he exploded. "There never was a plow made that will scour in this prairie soil."
John Deere heard him, and came out front. "Stranger," he said, "where do you live?"
The farmer spat over the wagon wheel, "Up Bloomingville way."
"Will you" Deere said, "take one of these plows home with you, and try it? And if it does not scour, will you let me know? I will send for it, and get it without any cost to you."
"Aye? And if it does scour?"
"I ask $10 for it."
Many of the farmers to whom this proposition was put, Gould says, begged off, saying, "I don't want to be bothered with anything of that kind, Mr. Deere." But now and then a man consented. Through these, his earliest customers, Deere's reputation gradually grew. Later, when the business was increasing pretty rapidly, he made a practice of loading several plows on a wagon and peddling them from farm to farm; or, when that was too arduous, he would leave several with a well-located farmer, who was asked to sell them and take a commission for his trouble.
John Deere was not satisfied with these early plows. He was continually testing them in different soils, under different conditions, in various parts of the counties round-about. Says Gould, "Mr. Deere, in his early experience, would make a plow, then go out and give it a trial and, if it did not work, he would take it to pieces and change the shape and try it again." It was perhaps in the shaping of the moldboard that John Deere's ingenuity, skill, and perseverance were evidenced best. Nobody else was so thoroughly convinced as he, nor did anybody else work so hard to prove, that successful scouring depended, not only on the kind of metal used, but also on the shape. This idea he wrestled with till he pinned both shoulders to the mat. Quite often, a wide-eyed small boy rode with him on these early test trips and held the plow for him, or drove. The blacksmith's son, Charles, got his first acquaintance with the business of manufacturing plows when the top of his head was still almost too low to reach above the handles of the plow . . .
At the outset, John Deere seems to have continued using sawmill saws for the steel parts of his plows. There was practically no other source of steel readily available to him at that time. Indeed, getting even iron was sometimes a good deal of a chore. Once, Gould says, he had to drive a one-horse spring wagon all the way to Springfield for it, that being the nearest place where any was to be had. Steel of the kind and shape he wanted was nearly unobtainable in this country. Most men would have let that fact beat them. Not John Deere. He entered into a lengthy correspondence with the representatives of an English firm, Naylor & Co., and persuaded them to have cast steel rolled for him in shape for cutting the moldboards. This, the first steel of the kind ever rolled, arrived after many months. It came in short slabs, each slab containing about enough material for half a dozen moldboards. Due to the high initial cost, and the costs of transportation, however, the price of the metal was close to $300 per ton, a little too expensive to be built into plows for the great majority of farmers living on a frontier where cash was always hard to come by. Furthermore, there was considerable trouble due to the action of salt sea air on the metal during the crossing. The first shipment, ordered ready- polished, on arrival was found to be badly pitted by rust. John Deere resolved to make an effort to obtain necessary supplies nearer home, and journeyed to Pittsburgh for that purpose. It is a matter of record that "the first slab of cast plow steel ever rolled in the United States was rolled by William Woods at the steel works of Jones & Quiggs in 1846, and shipped to John Deere, under whose direction it was made.*"
The blacksmith encountered the usual money difficulties in getting his infant business on its feet. Growth came faster than he could finance it, alone. He had to install horse power, presumably on the treadmill order, and later steam power. Therefore, he soon took in a partner, none other than Major Andrus, the founder and foremost citizen of Grand Detour. The articles of their partnership "aggreement" have been preserved, written in a handsome hand on foolscap. They provided, in part:
"that the said Deere and Andrus have aggreed and by these presents do aggree to become copartners together in the art and trade of blacksmithing, plough-making and all things thereto belonging at the said Grand Detour, and all other business that the said parties may hereafter deem necessary for their mutual interest and benefit...
"The said Deere on his part further aggrees that he will furnish the shop and outbuildings belonging thereto lately occupied by none than said Deere as a Blacksmith shop . . ."
"The said Deere" also agreed "to employ his whole time in the business of the copartnership," as did "the said Andrus," and each agreed at all times to "faithfully exercise his best skill and ability to promote the interest of the copartnership." Andrus furnished cash capital;
Deere furnished "what stock he has now on hand and other materials at a fair valuation and also a sufficient amount of cash capital to make up the same amount . . . as furnished by the said Andrus." March 20, 1843, was the date of this document.
The agreement was twice rewritten at later dates to admit other partners, first, a certain Horace H. Paine, and again, one Oramel C. Lothrop. lt was finally terminated in 1847. During its lifetime, the business had considerable growth. A plow factory of brick was built. It became a familiar sight to see Deere, Andrus, or one of their helpers marching from blacksmith shop to plow factory, or back again, with castings or finished plows over their shoulders. The partners also constructed the first foundry seen in that part of the country, using horses to drive the cupola fan; and because they did not have horses enough of their own, they borrowed from their neighbors. Once a week, they heated the metal in the cupola, and "poured." It was a sight that the majority of people in that part of the country had never seen; they used to come for miles out of curiosity to watch the process.
In 1846, the last full year of the Andrus and Deere partnership, about a thousand plows were manufactured. For a business of such size and prospects, John Deere decided that Grand Detour was not the best possible location. It was too remote, he felt, from supplies and transportation. Coal had to be hauled overland, by wagon, from the mines near LaSalle, a distance of some 40 miles, over roads often hub-deep in mud, All plows sold unless called for by customers had to be delivered by wagon. Navigation of the Rock River by steamboat, once thought to hold promise, had not proved a success. One steamer, the Gipsey, did ambitiously make a trip upstream as far as Grand Detour in April, 1838, but the trip could be made safely only during short periods of high water. Another steamboat, the Lighter, went even further upstream in 1844, but two or three trips ended the effort, Railroads were still in the share-selling-and-hope stage, so far as that part of the state was concerned, and the whistle of the locomotive was not to disturb the ancient peace of these prairies for several years to come.
All such considerations, and possibly others, induced John Deere to reach the important conclusion that he should locate elsewhere. He foresaw the growth of manufacturing population, and John Deere and others wondered why the West should not have its own industrial growth. Accompanied by his foreman, Robert N. Tate, he drove about looking at various possible sites, and, on one of these excursions, came to Moline on the Mississippi, of which he had already heard favorab1e reports. At that time, Moline was "a very nice village" with a dam and water power, and a handful of mills of various kinds. Deere decided it was the place for him, So, in 1847, the partnership was terminated. An agreement was reached as to the territory in which each man was to have exclusive selling rights, for Major Andrus was determined to continue the manufacture of plows at Grand Detour. John Deere, for his part, now a full-fledged manufacturer rather than a mere blacksmith, once more set his face toward the sunset. His removal this time, however, involved a journey of only about seventy miles.
At the time he took this step, John Deere was 43 years old. It is said that he was worth about $8000. This may well have been true, for an examination of property transfers in Grand Detour during the four years, 1847 to 1851, when he was winding up his affairs there, shows that he and his wife disposed of various parcels of real estate for a total consideration of $4,300. Not great wealth, to be sure, yet, considering the fact that he arrived in this little village with a total cash capital of $73.73, his stay had not been entirely in vain.
Aside from material considerations, John Deere had definitely established himself as a successful designer and builder of plows of a type better suited to the work required of them than any theretofore produced. Most important of all, he knew what he wanted, and had learned how to carry on beyond the point at which he had arrived; they say that if a man has learned that by the age of forty, he has done well indeed.
Judged by later accomplishments, John Deere had barely made a start. It was his destiny to give to the world the steel plow, and to join that small company of men whose names are enrolled in history for basic contribution to the world's progress. When he left Grand Detour in 1847, the whole world and both hemispheres lay before him, a nut waiting to be cracked, and he with the hammer to crack it!
* James Moore Swank, "History of the Manufacture of Iron in All Ages." The American Iron & Steel Ass'n, Phila., 1892.