Published in Green Magazine, September, 1987
HE GAVE TO THE WORLD
By Neil M. Clark
THE STEEL PLOW
AN INDUSTRY GROWS
It is not the purpose of the present account to go into exhaustive and perhaps tedious details concerning the later growth of the business which John Deere founded. Only a few of the high spots will be touched.
In those first years in Moline, difficulties were numerous, partly because of scarcity of funds, partly because of hazards inherent in establishing any new enterprise, and to a very considerable extent because of the lack of modern methods of travel, transport, communication, banking, credit, advertising, salesmanship. Travelers to and from Moline were served by Frink & Walker's line of four-horse stagecoaches, of the type described by the English traveler, Ruxton, who Crossed the Illinois prairies in one of them in the year 1847. "It is a huge lumbering affair with leathern springs," Ruxton wrote, "and it creaks and groans over the corduroy roads and unmacadamized causeways, thumping, bumping, and dislocating the limbs of its 'insides', whose smothered shrieks and exclamations of despair often cause the woodsman to pause from his work, and, leaning upon his axe, listen with astonishment to the din which proceeds from its convulsed interior."
The daily stagecoach arrived in Moline each night just a little before dark, if the roads were in average condition, and left early in the morning. It took from 36 to 46 hours to go to Chicago, and longer to St. Louis. The river was the natural route to St. Louis, but when navigation was closed, the stagecoach was the only public conveyance; a traveler bound thither from Moline, must first go north to Albany, then east to Dixon, then south through Bloomington and the central part of the state.
"To go to St. Louis in the winter," Mr. Deere once remarked grimly, "we had to go by the way of Michillimackinac!"
When the river was frozen and heavy articles were needed from a distance, they had to be freighted in by wagon. If they were brought from Chicago, it took about two weeks; if from Galena, only about half as long.
It was considerably easier, however, to distribute plows from Moline than from Grand Detour. A much larger territory could be reached. The plows were loaded on river steamers for such points as Galena, Dubuque, Burlington, Muscatine, and Keokuk, and from there, they were sent out to surrounding towns and farms by wagon.
As for banks, there were none nearer than Galena or Burlington. Even the money in use was mostly foreign, Mexican, French, or English - hard money, for the most part, but also with a scattering of dubious bank notes from Missouri, Ohio, Indiana. If exchange on St. Louis or New York were wanted in winter, it could sometimes be bought by crossing the river and making arrangements with a certain law and land firm in Davenport; but sometimes, after ferrying across the river, it was found that even this could not be arranged, and the money bag had to be brought back. (Telephones, of course, were still unknown.) In summer, clerks on the steamboats could be trusted to handle such matters. When immediate cash wns needed, perhaps to stave off an insistent creditor, there was no such thing as negotiating a routine loan. Money, if obtained at all, had to be hunted to its hiding places. One day John Deere badly needed $200. He asked a merchant in Rock Island if the latter knew of any place where such a sum might be obtained.
"Do you know that Swede tailor in Moline?" the merchant asked. "Johnson, his name is."
"Yes, Has he got $200?"
"No, but he has a friend just arrived from Sweden, I borrowed $2,000 from the friend. I think he has some more..."
John Deere rushed back to the factory and burst in on John Gould, who was then one of his partners, and in charge of the financial end. "Tailor Johnson," he said, "his an acquaintance who has some money. Hunt him up as quick as you can and see what you can do,"
Gould hunted, and found him. Then an interpreter had to be found. But the loan was negotiated; $200 in gold, for a year, at 10 per cent interest!
Mails were slow, the postal service was casual. Postage stamps, remember, were just coming into use in the United States the year John Deere moved to Moline. The postmaster was certain Dr. Wells. He kept the office open to suit his convenience, sometimes for three or four hours a day. The plow factory rented one of the largest boxes, so located that a person could see through the front window whether there was anything in it; and if there were, and it was wanted in a hurry, a hunt for the doctor was indicated. He was likely to be found parked somewhere on a store counter, hands wound round one knee, telling stories.
"Mail?" he would say to the inquirer, "all right--" impatiently "--I'll go down and open up - presently. Now, as I was saying..."
If it was hard to find money to pay creditors, it was doubly hard to collect from debtors. Fairly aggressive sellinq methods, for that time, were used. John Gould, for instance, was sent to Iowa City in January, 1849. The legislature was in session there. He interviewed all the members, and from them secured the names of business men in various parts of the state who might serve as agents. Correspondence followed. Many of these men were signed up. Plows were then placed with them on consignment, and the agents, in turn, sold the farmers, usually on time. When asked to pay for the plows sold, they were pretty likely to refuse.
"We can't afford to advance the money," was their excuse. "We have sold the plows and taken the farmers' notes. You can have the notes if you want them. But we can't cash them. You must just wait till we collect."
John Deere, in the early days, found only one exception to this universal debtor delay. He had an agent in Des Moines who, when asked to settle, counted the number of plows sold and handed over the cash at once. It was a real pleasure to do business with that one!
For some ten years after going to Moline, the blacksmith-manufacturer continued to work at the anvil himself, not continuously of course, but persistently . He loved the feel of the heavy hammer in his hand, loved the smell and smoke of the forge fire, loved the sound of iron on iron, and the sight. of flying sparks. The number of employees steadily increased, but regular pay days were something of which they had no knowledge. They bartered their labor, not for cash, but for the right to obtain goods. John Deere used to place plows for sale with merchants in the vicinity and give his workmen orders on these merchants for what they needed. At intervals, there was a reckoning-up between manufacturer and merchants, The company also maintained a boarding-house in which many of the men were boarded at a cost of from $1.50 to $1.75 per week. Good blacksmiths could be hired then to work ten hours a day, at wages of $20 to $30 per month, including board, but if an unusually skilled blacksmith were needed for fine machine work, his rate would be $1.75 per day and he boarded himself. Carpenters were hired at $1.50 for a 10-hour day. It was only when an employee left or was discharged, that a settlement took place, and then cash had to be raised somehow for the purpose.
The business grew, its scope expanded. In an advertisement appearing in a Moline paper on April 1, 1852, "the subscriber" (John Deere) declared that he was "prepared to furnish plows to all who may see fit to favor him with their orders - on reasonable notice, and at rates to suit the times." In the same announcement, he declared that "with the facilities for manufacturing which are had at this place, I can increase from 4,000 (the number now manufactured) to 10,000, yearly, if necessary."And he added: "Always on hand and for sale, wholesale or retail, every variety of one and two horse Plows; all sizes of Breakers. Also a superior article of Seed Drill,"
The railroad came through in 1854, and, in 1856, a bridge was completed that opened up rail traffic across the Mississippi. It did not bring at once, nor for long time, the high-speed service of 1937, but it did simplify both passenger travel and freight transport, and greatly improved the mail service. The telegraph came at the same time. Distant parts of the country were drawing in closer, one to another. Far places were only hours apart now, whereas, before they had been separated by days or weeks. The tempo began to be more like that of our day.
Charles Deere was rapidly growing up, and came into the business in 1853. This was important. The son developed skill in financial matters, sagacity in organization and merchandising, and other management qualities which supplemented his father's skill as a mechanic and manufacturer. The older man, for instance, had been content to keep books by a rudimentary system amounting to little more than a diary. A sale was written out ("sold such-and-such to so-and-so") often in such sketchy form that it was unintelligible to anyone else. Purchases likewise. The son, however, had been to Knox College at Galesburg for a while, and at Bell's Business College in Chicago, and was able to systematize all this. Under his hand, his father's plow company, which had always been organized as a partnership or an individual enterprise, gathered speed and cohesion and came, in time, to take on the smooth-running characteristics of a modern, successful corporation...
Years slipped past, like flood waters in the Mississippi. The further West was filling up rapidly now, just as Illinois had been filling up when John Deere first adventured into it.
As early as 1846, the historian, Francis Parkman, passing through St. Louis "on a tour of curiosity and amusement to the Rocky Mountains," had remarked on the breathless rush emigrants from every part of the country preparing for the journey to Oregon and California. Traders in great numbers bound for Santa Fe, hotels crowded. Gunsmiths and saddlers kept at work till all hours. Steamboats leaving the levee nearly every day, bound up the Missouri with crowds of passengers, a majority of them farriers, going to seek aut the far frontiers. And where farmers went, of course, John Deere plows went too. A farmer was pleased to have a plow made in Moline. The reputation of the skilled frontier blacksmith was penetrating to the remotest parts of the country, and even beyond the seas. And in Moline itself, as a sign that the first rough pioneering stages of the business were past, the headquarters of the company gradually came to assume a certain appropriate dignity and elegance, A writer with an astonished pen, visiting the plant in 1869, described some of the many wonders he saw. The office, particularly, aroused lyric raptures:
"...occupying a space of 30 X 45 feet, including an eight-foot hall which separates it from the storage department, and contains an elegant stairway leading to the second story...Divided into two apartments by a frosted glass partition. Ample light is admitted through double recess windows of the best French glass, and elegant chandelier gas burners suspend from the ceiling for use at night. The desks were expressly designed and constructed for this office, and, together with all the woodwork and furniture, are of solid walnut. The bookkeeper's room is handsomely carpeted...A beautiful mantel of marbleized iron with grate underneath, though the entire office is heated by warm air conducted from the boiler room in pipes . . . The ceilings are beautifully frescoed, and the door knobs and locks are of well plated silver... A large clock on the wall regulates the hours of labor... The most convenient and elaborate business office we have ever seen... not surpassed, if equaled, in the West."
Very different, this, from the village forge. But John Deere, past three-score now, his hair turning iron gray, moved easily in it and was a vigorous and commanding part of it all. As of old, his interest lay chiefly in the product, in its improvement, in the design of new implements to fill new needs and to keep abreast of demand. "Almost every year, in our long experience," his catalog of 1866 boasted, "we have discovered and applied some new feature to our Plows, enhancing their value." So it had been in the beginning. So he was determined it should continue. Once, a thousand plows a year had seemed to him a remarkable output; now more than that number were produced in a week. He stood no more in a leather apron at the anvil. If the winters were too harsh, he rode on the cars to California and enjoyed the sunshine. But that was banishment. Always, he was impatient to return, to be where he could observe the structure that he had started and watch it win new growth daily.
Wealth came to him as it grew. Naturally. He was pleased with that. He built a substantial big house on the brow of the bluff, whence he could look out over city, river, the smoke of his increasing plants. When committees came to him with a tale of church or chapel to be built, or asking a new market place for the city, or a subscription for some other worthy purpose, he was glad to be the first to give. Not a little of his money went to establish Sunday Schools, particularly in Kansas, Nebraska, Dakota, and other newer communities. His property holdings increased outside of his own business, as was also natural. Several farms came into his possession. Substantial business blocks and several residential properties in Moline were recorded under his nane. He was an important stockholder in the First National Bank, and in the Moline & Rock Island horse railway . His wealth was whisperingly guessed at half a Million. Once, long since, the sunset had beckoned him with golden promises, and the promises had been kept. And yet... his enduring interest, the thought that he kept ahead of all others, the purpose that ever commanded his instant attention and meant more to him than the piling-up of personal profit, was the construction of new and better tools to aid in the job of American agriculture.
He started with a plow. One plow of Steel; a greatly improved plow in its day. A rather simple implement in retrospect. He lived to finger through catalogs of his firm that listed implements, the very names of which would have mystified first farmers of Illinois: listing plow, subsoil plow, root-ground plow, "bluebeard steel plow," "New Deal gang," "Gopher cultivator," scarifier, Gilpin sulky... and, in addition, harrows of many types, potato digger, much more.
If he cared, in a moment of reflection, to take credit, he could remember that he was responsible for making Moline the plow capital of the world; that his plows were shipped to every country on the face of the earth; that they were seen on the pampas of the Argentine, among bushmen of Australia, Hottentots of South Africa, moujiks of Russia. The old habit of big talk did not entirely disappear as the West began to come of age, and Mark Twain, passenger on a Mississippi steam-boat, once heard with a twinkle and recorded with gusto the remark of a stranger (perhaps one af John Deere's agents):
"You show me any country under the sun where they really know how to plow, and if I don't show you our mark on the plow they use, I'll eat the plow, and I won't ask tor any 'Woostershyre' sauce to flavor it up with, either.*"
The part that any individual plays in the events of his time, can never be more than roughly appraised. A man makes what contribution he can, great or small, depending on his nature and opportunity. Events follow. Would they have followed without him? Who can say? Not long ago, the writer of this brief account of the life of John Deere, had occasion to sit in the living room of Math Schumacher's modern farm home in the North Platte Valley, in far western Nebraska. Math was one of the first settlers in that part of the country, He built his "soddy" there in the year 1885, and it was the only human habitation as far as the sharpest eye could see, in a lonely country of matted buffalo grass and insufficient rain. Math brought out an old photograph of that "soddy", showing a long, low, two-windowed shack, with a round stovepipe sticking through the dirt roof, and with Math and his dog at the side, and eight or ten fat hens flocking about. Also, the picture showed the farming tools that Math, pioneer sod-buster, owned at that time. They were an axe for chewing hunks of firewood out of the tough cedar logs brought from the Wildcat Hills across the river, and a plow. It was a full twenty years after Math came before a railroad finally found its way into what is now one of the very rich, irrigated, sugar-beet-growing, cattle-and lamb-feeding areas of the country. As often happened on many lonely frontiers, it was a plow that broke the way to eventual wealth,
*Mark Twain, "Life on the Mississippi," page 431.