A plaque on Governor’s Island, New York, features a bronze cast of the wooden propeller from the plane Wilbur Wright flew from the island across New York Harbor in 1909. It reads simply, “From May 1916 to March 1917 members of the Governors Island Training Corps trained here.” Listed are 16 names of the first American aviation pioneers training to fly combat missions during World War I. At the bottom of the alphabetical list is Charles D. Wiman. The D stands for Deere.
The monument was dedicated in 1954, recognizing both the Early Birds, the nation’s earliest aviators and the students of the Governors Island Training Corps. The miracle of human flight had captured the world’s imagination, as well as the imagination of Wiman, a college graduate who went on to drive some of agriculture’s most important technological innovations over the next four decades.
Farm or Flight
Charles Deere Wiman was John Deere’s great-grandson, though he spent his childhood in Staten Island, New York, not Moline, Illinois. His parents, William Wiman (who worked for Thomas Edison as an electrical engineer) and Anna Deere, died while Charles and his brother were both teenagers. The brothers were sent to live with their grandmother in Moline, and then, after her passing, their aunt and uncle, Katherine and William Butterworth, who lived across the street.
Charley, as his friends called him, graduated from Yale University and soon after began flight instruction in Mineola, New York under the direction of Howard Rinehart, one of the original members of the Wright Flying School. Wiman’s initial training occurred in a Wright Model B, a bi-plane designed in 1910.
Despite his desire to fly, Wiman always knew he would join his family’s company. In 1915, shortly after the outbreak of World War I, aged 23, he returned to Moline and joined the John Deere Plow Works for just more than a year. He accepted an army commission as a second lieutenant, prompting a return to New York and the Governors Island Training Corps.
On Governors island, Wiman trained in a Curtis-JN4 under Filip Bjorklund, a Swedish aviator trained in England. The plane was capable of speeds up to 85 miles per hour. Lieutenant Wiman made his first solo flight in 1916, only seven years after Wilbur Wright became the first person to fly solo above New York. Wiman continued to train, but sadly, after more than 100 training flights, a crash in September 1916 abruptly ended his flying career. His co-pilot, Walter Struthers, later died of injuries sustained during the flight. It was a solemn reminder of the dangers of human flight.
Wiman never flew in Europe during the war. But before being decommissioned by the Army in 1919, he was promoted several times and reached the rank of captain.
Wiman’s passion for flight, mechanical power, and the possibilities of technology continued to fuel him on his return to Deere & Company. He was named to the company’s Board of Directors and soon put in charge of all manufacturing operations.
He immediately pushed research and development initiatives, putting his energies into development of Deere’s new Model D and Model GP tractors and a new line of combines.
In 1953, he challenged engineers in Waterloo, Iowa to develop a new line of tractors to replace the durable two-cylinder lineup long associated with John Deere. He told engineers that “it might be only necessary to carry over the yellow and green paint from the old design to the new.” The new tractor line would become the New Generation of Power, coming to realization with its introduction in 1960 under president William Hewitt. The new tractor lineup, Wiman’s last major initiative, would have long-lasting implications.
Throughout his career, Wiman never lost his love of flying, and both John Deere and the Tri-Cities (the Quad Cities today) benefited. In 1926, Deere & Company guaranteed it would have regular mail for the Chicago-Dallas airmail route to ensure a postal stop in Moline. A plane carrying the John Deere leaping deer participated in the Ford Air Reliability tour — a series of Aerial Tours sponsored in part by Ford from 1925 to 1931 — and won the Chicago-to-Moline leg. Deere helped fund a new hangar at the Moline airport to house the mail planes. It later became the first home of John Deere Aviation.
Wiman was not the only early aviation pioneer at John Deere. Willard Velie, John Deere’s grandson, longtime board member, and founder of the Velie Carriage Company and Velie Motor Corporation, too was drawn to the skies. An initiative by local business leaders, including many from John Deere, focused on developing airplane manufacturing capacity in the Tri-Cities in the late 1920s. Unfortunately, the concept never fully developed. Velie attempted to lead the effort by acquiring an airplane design from the Central States Aircraft Corp., of Davenport, Iowa. It became the Velie Monocoupe.
The Monocoupe was built for only two years, but forever changed the landscape of aviation. “The ultimate plane for the private flyer,” it featured an enclosed cockpit for two people and was capable of speeds up to 80 miles per hour. Its production run was shortened due to Willard Velie’s death in late 1928, but the plane had already achieved national fame. The Monocoupe was a favorite of Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie, the first American female licensed transport pilot. In 1929, she set an altitude record in her Velie Monocoupe on a flight from Moline to Iowa City, Iowa.
Even though the Quad Cities never became an airplane manufacturing center, Deere’s role in aviation continued to grow. During World War II, Charles Deere Wiman helped secure a number of Army contracts for Deere, including manufacturing of tail wheels for the P-47 fighter plane and Bombay doors for the Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bomber. The end of World War II created a surplus of military airplanes, and through Wiman, the John Deere Aviation Department was born. Deere’s first corporate airplane was a Grumman G-44 Widgeon, purchased in April 1945, and was followed in 1946 by a Fairchild PT26 M62A-3, a four-seat Navion, and a North American AT-6.
Today, the fleet continues to operate from the Quad City International Airport. On your next flight through the Quad Cities, make sure you take a look at the Velie Monocoupe on display in the airport lobby.