If I Had a Hammer

The only way for visitors to the John Deere Historic Site in Grand Detour, Illinois, to see and touch and feel and hear what it was like to be John Deere is through blacksmith Rick Trahan.

An interview with Rick Trahan, blacksmith & historic site supervisor at the John Deere Historic site in Grand Detour, Illinois.

Many times each week, Trahan demonstrates his art — John Deere’s art — in the site’s faithful replica of the founder’s original blacksmith shop. Even his work clothes are a faithful replica, right down to the leather blacksmith’s apron with a slit in the front.

The only way to find out what it was like to be John Deere is by watching Rick Trahan work.

“People come from all over the world to visit the site,” said Trahan, blacksmith & historic site supervisor at the John Deere Historic Site in Grand Detour, Illinois. “Visitors want to hear the story of how this company was founded.”

Trahan took an interest in John Deere as a child.

“We would go to my grandpa’s house in Louisiana, and I would watch the custom harvesters come through with their John Deere tractors and combines,” he recalled. “So I was aware of John Deere, the company, from an early age.”

One of his early influences was even closer to home.

Trahan credits his father, a machinist, for inspiring his love of blacksmithing and shares his father’s appreciation for precision.

It wasn’t until years later, though, that Trahan decided to become a blacksmith. He was serving in the U.S. Air Force, and a farrier — someone who takes care of horse hooves — visited his base.

“I love the challenge of working with metal,” he said, “There’s a real sense of satisfaction from taking a piece of steel and getting it to the right temperature, and then it’s up to you to impart your wisdom and knowledge on that piece of steel.”

“He had a blacksmith shop in the back of his truck, and I worked with him off-base and on-base for three years, shoeing horses while I was stationed in Virginia,” he said.

In 1995, after 20 years of military service, Trahan retired from the Air Force, but had no plans for what to do next. His then-brother‑in‑law, a farmer, suggested a road trip to visit the John Deere Historical Site.

Enter serendipity

“It fit perfectly with the anvil,” he said. “It was a leap of faith, leaving the kind of work I’d been doing to become a blacksmith, but I guess I was meant to be here.”

When Trahan’s group toured the blacksmith shop, he spotted a sign that said, “Blacksmith Wanted” propped against a post.

The job suited him in more ways than one. Trahan said if a blacksmith makes a fist and puts it at his side, the bottom of his fist should be at the top of the anvil. When Trahan first stood next to the anvil in the site’s blacksmith shop, he made a fist and put it at his side.

“It fit perfectly with the anvil,” he said. “It was a leap of faith, leaving the kind of work I’d been doing to become a blacksmith, but I guess I was meant to be here.”

He was. Trahan has been a blacksmith at the John Deere Historic Site for nearly a quarter century.

Finding the connection between his hammer and anvil — anachronisms in the 21st century — and the global technology-driven company he works for today may seem difficult, but it isn’t for Trahan.

“I can draw a straight line from this little blacksmith shop to our industry-leading products, dozens of global awards for technology and innovation, and factories on six continents,” Trahan said.

“Now, of course, machines can do things much faster and more reproducible, but all the tools you can find in the factory started right here in the blacksmith shop.

“Our core values — integrity, quality, commitment, and innovation — aren’t just empty words; they describe what John Deere was and how he ran his company. Whether it’s in John Deere’s blacksmith shop or in one of the company’s modern factories, we’re always doing some pretty amazing things with metal and other materials.”

Trahan passes this along to the thousands of visitors who come through his shop each year, and he sprinkles his informal seminar on metallurgy with plenty of humor.

“We get a lot of visitors who aren’t familiar with the John Deere story,” Trahan said. “They’re surprised to learn John Deere was a man, not just a company name. So I always ask them, ‘If John Deere were alive today, what would he be most famous for?’ The number one answer I get is ‘tractors.’”

Then Trahan leaned forward, raised one eyebrow, and said, “Actually, if John Deere were alive today, the thing he’d be most famous for is his age. He’d be 214 years old.”

But there’s also a serious side to Trahan’s work. He treats each visitor not just as a guest, but as a member of John Deere’s extended family.

“When I finished my demonstration, I noticed an elderly gentleman sitting at the end of the bench, crying. I asked if he was okay, and he said his dad had been a blacksmith and that I had just brought back 75 years of memories. That’s the kind of thing that makes my job so special.”

“It doesn’t matter where they’re from or how young or old they are — when they see metal moving and changing right in front of their eyes, it’s a pretty neat thing,” he said. “They feel the heat from the fire. They experience the sights and sounds and smells. This shop actually comes alive.”

Sometimes just the smell of the coal fire brings back memories for his visitors. He recalled a particular group visiting from Pennsylvania.

“When I finished my demonstration, I noticed an elderly gentleman sitting at the end of the bench, crying. I asked if he was okay, and he said his dad had been a blacksmith and that I had just brought back 75 years of memories. That’s the kind of thing that makes my job so special.”

If Trahan could teach visitors just one thing, what would it be?

“Why this blacksmith shop occupies such a significant place in our company’s history,” he said without hesitation. “This is where the whole thing started more than 180 years ago. All of this, all of us, started with one man, one anvil, and one plow in a little blacksmith shop in Grand Detour, Illinois.”

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If I Had a Hammer

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