Published in Green Magazine, November, 1987
HE GAVE TO THE WORLD
By Neil M. Clark
THE STEEL PLOW
THERE IS THE MAN HIMSELF
The ninth and final chapter.
Some men, dying, leave behind a flashing trail of remembered incidents that photograph character, focus personality. Not so John Deere. Revealing stories after half a century are curiously few. The story of his life was written chiefly in his works. His fountain pen was a hammer. His paper was sheet steel. But the man, living, was a memorable figure. Despite the fact that his true biography was a plow, he himself does not altogether escape us.
Physically, he was a lion. Not unusually tall. Only about six feet. But he was broad of shoulder, powerful, tireless. Said one who knew him well: "He had the muscles of a giant, brains enough to successfully command an army, and a health that never shrank within him." His features, especially in later life, were carved in the granite of decision.
An outstanding characteristic from that day as a boy when he ground bark for a tanner, to the day of his death, was his industriousness. Seldom was he idle for a minute. John Gould clerked and slept in Dana Throop's store, almost across from John Deere's blacksmith shop in Grand Detour. "I," wrote Gould, "have heard his hammering in the morning, when I was in the store in bed, at four o'clock, and at ten o'clock at night; he had such indomitable determination to do and work out what he had in his mind."
His reasoned rule of life was simple, terse enough to have been carved for an epitaph on his tombstone. Not long before his death, he expressed it in this wise to a friend:
"It is a source of consolation to me to know that I never willfully wronged any man and that I never put on the market a poorly-made implement."
His manner, especially in the later years of his life, was dignified. So dignified that some people, knowing him only as they saw him on the streets imagined him to be cold, stern, austere. He was very far from that. His dignity was only the protective shell around a warm heart. A thin shell, easily broken. To anyone who had any claim on his loyalty, he was completely loyal. To anyone who had a claim on his charity, he was more than charitable. He was not one to obtrude offers of help officiously. Of an independent disposition himself, he honored independence in others. The story is told of a workman who, when he first came into John Deere's employ, rented a house belonging to John Deere. Later, he bought a house elsewhere on a very small down-payment. It was a heavy load for him to carry. Mr. Deere realized how heavy; and he was deeply interested. Often in passing through the shop, he would stop for a chat with the man; and almost always before leaving he would say:
"Have you got that house paid for yet, Dick?"
And Once, as if he could no longer restrain himself, he leaned over and whispered: "Dick, if you do need any help on that house, don't fail to let me know."
Incidents are revealing. But a man, after all, is known best by his works. John Deere lived at that critical hour when agriculture was just beginning to turn from hand-power, and from animal-power of limited efficiency, to machine methods. Old-fashioned makeshift plows, to be sure, did continue in use for many years after his steel plow had proved its worth, just as old-fashioned cradles continued to be used in the grain harvest for many years after the invention of the reaper. Other ancient methods survived, just as some of them do to this very day. But the main tide had turned. Soon, everywhere, there were to be shiny harvesters and threshers, whirring mowing machines, great combines, corn pickers, tractors, ensilage harvesters, disk harrows, plows and tillers, rotary hoes, stalk cutters ... single machines doing the work of twenty men ...
releasing labor from the drudgery and slave aspect of farming ... leaving great numbers free to engage in producing articles of manufacture and commerce extending the limit of commodities available for human consumption ... increasing leisure ... bringing to pass, in short, an agricultural revolution in which the last word has not yet been written. We can see what it means we are told that, without modern machinery, the production of the 1933 wheat crop alone would have required every man, woman, and child in the United States, and millions more besides.
Much of all this came after John Deere's time. In the beginning of it, in the setting of the sails for the long voyage - he was a mighty figure.
No farming implement is more essential than the plow. It was the plow in modern form that his genius gave to the world.
That achievement must be reckoned one of the major accomplishments in the agricultural revolution.
For any man, that is enough ...