“John Deere—Friend of the Farmer,” Friend, May 1985, 42
In 1812 William Deere set out for England to buy woolen cloth for his tailor shop. As he waited for his ship to sail, he wrote a letter to his youngest child, eight-year-old John. “Take good care of your mother,” he wrote. It was the last word anyone had from him, for he died during the voyage.
Young John Deere and his sister and brothers helped their mother in the tailoring shop in Middlebury, Vermont. John didn’t forget his father’s last words. He bought thread, buttons, and hooks at the store and ran other errands for his mother. He polished her steel needles in a small, strawberry-shaped cushion filled with emery powder.
John saw how hard his mother worked to support them by making clothes for people, and he planned a surprise for her. In secret he got a job grinding bark for a tanner. It was hard work, but John was determined. His blue eyes sparkled as he stood at last before his mother, wearing his pay—a new suit of clothes and a pair of shoes!
When John was seventeen, he began work as an apprentice blacksmith to Captain Benjamin Lawrence of Middlebury, Vermont. During the next four years the tall youth became a skilled craftsman.
By the time John was thirty years old, he was married and owned his own blacksmith shop. Twice his shop was destroyed by fire, but each time he quickly rebuilt it, and he worked longer hours to make up for his losses.
Besides his regular work, John designed pitchforks, hay and manure forks, hoes, and shovels. The tools he made were sturdier and easier to handle than the ones the farmers had been using.
In 1836, John Deere decided to move west to Grand Detour, Illinois. There he opened a blacksmith shop and sent for his family. The farmers recognized John’s skills and kept him busy. The iron plows that the farmers were using, which worked satisfactorily in the east, quickly caked with the clayey prairie soil and constantly had to be cleaned. In order to grow crops and feed their families, the farmers needed a plow that would clean itself as it made the furrows. Otherwise, they would be forced to leave their farms and return to the east.
John began experimenting on a design for a better plow. One day when he visited a local sawmill, he saw a shiny circular saw blade that had been thrown away because it was broken. John wondered if the prairie soil would cling to a moldboard and plowshare made of polished steel. He took the broken steel blade back to his blacksmith shop and put his idea to work.
The news spread throughout the village that he was making an improved plow. And when the tall, rugged blacksmith carried it on his broad shoulders to Lewis Crandall’s field, farmers from the surrounding area were there, waiting anxiously to see if it would work.
John hitched the light but sturdy steel plow to Crandall’s horse, grasped the polished hardwood handles, and slapped the reins. As the horse moved forward, the plowshare bit into the soil. The soil curled away from the moldboard! The crowd pressed closer with growing excitement.
“By cracky, it’s clean!”
The blacksmith plowed another furrow. “It moves right along and polishes itself as it goes!” an old-timer cried excitedly.
One by one each farmer took a turn behind the plow. At last everyone was satisfied. John Deere had invented the first successful steel plow.
The “Self-Polisher” became so popular that John Deere and his friend Leonard Andrus became partners. During the next year they produced three new plows. The business continued to prosper, but in 1846 John and his family moved to Moline, Illinois, to start a new company. At first he used high quality steel from England for his plows. Later a mill in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, made the steel for the John Deere plows.
John continued to improve his plows, and he always used only the best materials in their manufacture. It was a proud moment for John Deere when one of his plows won an international award in France. Soon his plows were being ordered from all over the world. John Deere’s son, Charles, became a partner in the business in 1858, and five years later a son-in-law joined the company.
John Deere had become one of the world’s greatest plow makers. Today farm implements bearing his name are recognized everywhere for their fine quality.
During a visit to Vermont before his death at eighty-two, John Deere saw some of the farm tools that he’d made there as a young man. They were still in use and highly prized. He was deeply touched, for above all things, John was proud of being a good blacksmith.