John Deere’s Remarkable Legacy

MOLINE, Ill. – "Sweet corn will be later this year," proclaims the mid-June headline on the front page of the Quad City Times newspaper. Such is the importance of corn here in John Deere country.

John Deere country? You bet.

Nothing dominates the economy of this region and the rich farmland splayed across either side of the muddy Mississippi here in this northwest corner of Illinois more so than agriculture and, of course, the huge footprint of John Deere. This is the location of John Deere World Headquarters, the John Deere Pavilion, TPC Deere Run (and its annual John Deere Classic PGA tournament) and the massive Davenport Works, which manufactures articulated dump trucks, 4-wheel-drive loaders, motor graders, felling heads, wheeled feller bunchers, log skidders and cabs. (John Deere World Headquarters, right)

In just two short days I visited all of them. And, of course, I saw corn – row after row of luxuriously green plants under robin-egg-blue skies. Even so, what I saw was a tease, a mere hint of the 12 million acres that Illinois farmers are planting and the 14 million-plus acres of Iowa corn this season. I include the figures for Illinois and Iowa because the Quad Cities straddle both sides of the Mississippi.

But, rather than wade any deeper into the cornfield, let me tell you about the John Deere, the man.

John Deere, like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, is one of those rarest of individuals whose vision changed the world and continues to impact our lives. But unlike Edison and Ford who saw the full realization of their efforts – in Edison’s case the electrification of the world and for Ford the mass production of automobiles – John Deere never lived to see how dramatically his initial efforts and vision would impact the world.

In fact, he never lived to even see a single green tractor bearing his name. And how could he have ever envisioned the huge yellow and black earth-moving and construction equipment that, like Deere agriculture equipment, is now sold and used worldwide?

John Deere, born in 1807 in Rutland, Vt., became a apprentice’s blacksmith as a teenager. In 1836, with his young family in tow, he ended up in Grand Detour, Ill., to continue his career as a blacksmith. Seeing the difficulty farmers were having turning the heavy prairie soils, Deere reasoned that a properly shaped plow that could scour itself would be easier on man and beast.

In 1837, after a lot of experimentation, he created such a plow and began manufacturing them, one at a time. From 1841 and the next seven years, he worked in partnership with Leonard Andrus. In 1848 he dissolved the partnership and moved the business to Moline, which offered the advantages of waterpower, coal and cheaper transportation. It was a good move. In 1850 his firm made approximately 1600 plows and soon thereafter the company also began producing other agricultural implements.

In 1858 John Deere turned over the operation of his company to his son, Charles, so that he could take more active role in local civic and political affairs, even serving two terms of mayor of Moline. Even so, he maintained a guiding presence in the company, which continued to grow although its most explosive growth was still a centry away.

Deere’s involvement in civic affairs and he and his company’s role in building the region’s economy earned him great respect, and at his death May 17, 1886, the Deere & Company website reports that:

"Moline fell into mourning. Deere & Company’s factories and offices, as well as others in the city were draped in black. Flags were hung at half-mast and many private citizens placed photographs of John Deere in the windows of their homes, framed by black curtains.

"Three days later, more than 4,000 people stood in line at the First Congregational Church to pay their final respects. A funeral cortege consisting of company workers, police, mourners on foot and in 11 carriages, and the city’s mayor and city council then processed to Riverside Cemetery where John Deere was laid to rest."

What a remarkable story arising from a single man’s efforts. Consider his incredible impact upon agriculture and, more recently, construction, forestry and other industries. That single steel plow and later the equipment company that he nurtured has since grown into a brand and an equipment recognized on every continent.

To learn more about John Deere the man, his life is well documented on Deere websites, where I obtained much of the information for this short article. A better resource and a whole lot more fascinating is the Deere Pavilion in downtown Moline. Visit it online here.

Actually, the John Deere Headquarters (including its beautiful grounds) can be toured free of charge along with the John Deere Pavilion, both of which have incredible displays of equipment (vintage and new) and company memorabilia. Visit them in person.

We’ll have more to report on our visit to Moline and the Deere facilities in future articles. There’s a lot to share with you.