The Check that Forever Changes John Deere

$2.1 million signified the start of John Deere tractors.


William Butterworth

Former president of Deere & Company in 1918

The John Deere archives contain thousands of artifacts from the company’s 180-year history. There are advertising ephemera, newspaper clippings, and even a vintage time clock from the John Deere Harvester Works, but a piece of paper dating back to 1918 may be the most historically significant item of them all.

It’s a yellowed check, dated March 14, 1918, written for $2.1 million, and it’s the check that changed the direction of Deere & Company.

By 1918, Deere had invested six years into tractor research and development, but even William Butterworth, president of Deere & Company at the time, had misgivings about manufacturing the unproven technology (tractors).

Founded in 1895 in Waterloo, Iowa, the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company was a manufacturer of stationary gasoline engines and a two-cylinder kerosene tractor. The Deere & Company board of directors sent a representative to gather information about the Waterloo manufacturer, and on March 13, 1918, a board resolution unanimously passed to purchase the company for the sum of $2.25 million. Secretary J. J. Wharton signed the check for the $2.1 million balance remaining after the down payment and fees.

The purchase of Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company represented a fundamental shift in the direction of Deere & Company. This check signifies what catapulted John Deere from being a regional farm equipment company to eventually becoming the leading agriculture equipment manufacturer in the world.

This check represents the watershed event when John Deere purchased the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company, and the start of John Deere in Waterloo.”

—Rosa Grant

Time Takes Its Toll On Historic Deere Check

From 1964 to 2014, the historic check was in the headquarters building in Moline, Illinois, as part of the Alexander Girard mural on the display floor.

“It spent some time under glass on William Hewitt’s desk, and then nearly 50 years in the exhibit on the display floor, exposed to all of the things you don’t want paper exposed to,” said Nathan Augustine, collections manager, Deere & Company. Augustine said the historic check had been mounted inside the display case with rubber cement on a steel plate, with a steel rod attached to the back of the steel plate, and exposed to sunlight.

Augustine and Neil Dahlstrom, manager of corporate history and records management services at Deere & Company, contacted The Conservation Center in Chicago to see if they could restore the check. The Conservation Center mainly restores fine art, but also performs restoration work on antique papers. The conservation company agreed, and Dahlstrom and Augustine drove to Chicago to present it for restoration.

Nine months later the resto­ration of the check was complete. The Conservation Center delivered it to the John Deere Archives, and Augustine delivered it to Waterloo. The John Deere Tractor & Engine Museum then took over the stewardship of this historic item.

It’s the Mona Lisa of the John Deere Archives collection”

—Nathan Augustine


In Public View

The historic Deere & Company check is now displayed at the John Deere Tractor & Engine Museum in Waterloo, Iowa.

Restored Check Once Again Displayed

“This check represents the watershed event when John Deere purchased the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company, and the start of John Deere in Waterloo,” said Rosa Grant, assistant manager of the museum. “It’s an important part of the museum because it helps tell the story of John Deere’s entrance into the tractor market.”

As an official company artifact, the check is now proudly displayed in a humidity-controlled and UV-protected glass case in the museum, which should help extend the life of the fragile paper.

“It’s the Mona Lisa of the John Deere Archives collection,” said Augustine of the paper – the only check that the company has preserved.



The Check that Forever Changes John Deere


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