John Deere and the Plow that Broke the Plains

Portrait of John Deere with an early version of his steel plow.

Born in Vermont on February 7, 1804, John Deere apprenticed to a Middlebury blacksmith at age 17, following a brief formal education at Middlebury College. After five years as an apprentice, he launched out on his own, operating several blacksmith shops in Vermont before relocating to Illinois, then part of the western frontier. Farmers seeking to cultivate the tough prairie soil for the first time were finding the traditional cast-iron plows used at that time inadequate: the thick tangle of grassy roots and sticky consistency of the clay-ey soil stuck to the plow and required constant scouring (cleaning), slowing down the work considerably.

Recalling his experience polishing needles by running them back and forth through sand in his father’s tailor shop as a child, Deere hypothesized that a plow with a share made out of polished steel combined with a moldboard of the proper shape would prove to be self-scouring. In 1837–38, Deere developed the first prototypes for such a plow and sold them to local farmers. (Some sources say that his very first plows were forged from a broken steel blade he had obtained from a local sawmill.)

John Deere’s self-scouring plow worked magnificently, and demand soon soared as word of the success spread. By 1841 he was manufacturing 75–100 plows by hand each year. In 1848 he relocated to Moline, Illinois, a vital transportation hub on the Mississippi River, where he established a factory to mass produce his steel plows. By 1855 he had sold more than 10,000 units to farmers all across the country.

John Deere’s commitment to excellence was legendary. He is said to have stated, “I will not put my name on a product that does not have in it the best that is in me.”

Business continued to boom. Deere & Company was incorporated in 1868, and John, who after 1857 had turned over day-to-day operations of the business to his son Charles, devoted himself increasingly to civic and political affairs. John Deere died at home on May 17, 1886 at the ripe age of 82.


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