Plows are Only Part of His Legacy
Before John Deere was laid to rest the afternoon of May 20, 1886, more than four thousand people paid their respects at the First Congregational Church in Moline, Illinois. Honorary pallbearers included John Gould, a former partner in the Deere, Tate & Gould company, and Stillman Wheelock, president of Deere’s chief rival, the Moline Plow Company.
John Deere was many things during his lifetime, and his legend has only grown with time. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, he was celebrated as the inventor of the steel plow. In the 1930s, Deere the company changed its founder’s epitaph to “He gave to the world the steel plow,” crediting both his inventiveness and entrepreneurship and acknowledging other inventors who also worked to develop steel plow technology, just with less success.
But who was John Deere, the man? What was his personality like? What did he believe in? Deere himself did not leave many records, but fortunately, his contemporaries provided glimpses into his life.
“He was not a theorizer,” Reverend C.L. Morgan offered at his funeral, “or one who dealt in impractical things, but in solid facts.”
Deere was a husband and a father. He operated Alderney Hill Farm in Moline and served as the city’s mayor. He was a college trustee, bank founder, long-time volunteer firefighter, and by one account, a “raging abolitionist,” and so much more.
When Deere left his native Vermont for Grand Detour, Illinois, in the winter of 1836, he was a blacksmith arriving to fill a need in a growing village. The following year, he built his first steel plow, and over time, used his blacksmithing expertise to redesign the plows used by Illinois farmers. By 1846, John Deere and his business partner Leonard Andrus built more than 2,000 plows, but Deere thought transportation options in Grand Detour, both for receiving materials and for shipping out finished plows, were inadequate.
In 1848, Deere and Andrus dissolved their partnership. With both planning to continue making plows, they split their existing sales territories: Deere took the territory to the west; Andrus, the east. Deere was counting on Americans moving west. The discovery of gold in California that year helped that migration.
After visiting several towns, Deere toured Moline, meeting with town boosters looking to attract like-minded businessmen. The “City of Mills” as it was called, sat on the Mississippi River, across from Davenport, Iowa. Moline boasted a population of only a few hundred people, including entrepreneurs from Scotland, England, Sweden, and many easterners. At the time, the United States was comprised of 30 states. Deere and his new partners from Grand Detour, Robert Tate and John Gould, ultimately negotiated terms for land and water power rights to start their new business.
John Deere’s role in the new partnership was in sales, spending much of his time canvassing the countryside to introduce the “Moline” plow. Tate travelled to Troy, New York, and Worcester, Massachusetts, then centers of manufacturing in the United States, to design and order equipment for the new plow factory. Soon, according to an advertisement, they had “on hand a large quantity of CAST-STEEL, which was manufactured expressly for us, at the River Don Works, Sheffield, England, by Naylor & Co., and imported by us, which we are converting into Plows, at a trifling increase of cost over the common articles generally in use.” The steel plow set John Deere plows apart.
By the end of 1849, the partners had sold more than 2,300 plows, and by late 1851 were making 70 plows a week. Yet despite consistent growth, Deere, Tate, and Gould disagreed on the future of the business, and the three went their separate ways in 1852. Famously, Tate wanted to continue to build existing plow models, but Deere pushed for improvements. “They haven’t got to take what we make,” Deere told him, referring to their customers, “and somebody else will beat us, and we will lose our trade.”
For the first time since his blacksmithing days, Deere was again a sole-proprietor.
Deere was politically active for much of his life, but unfortunately, there are only snapshots into his activities, mainly through local newspapers. As his plow business continued to grow in the 1850s, so did his local political influence. Deere did not hold state or national office, but was closely identified with the Whig, and then the Republican party, in the years leading into the American Civil War. Locally, he was labelled a “raging abolitionist,” accused at one point, as Deere and associates attempted to break up a pro-slavery meeting, of “yelling, hooting, and bellowing, in a manner that would disgrace the lowest brothel in existence.”
Although there are no writings from Deere about his views on slavery, his actions demonstrate his views on the subject. In the early 1850s, John and Demarius Deere’s only surviving son, Charles, attended Knox Academy, a preparatory school run by abolitionists in Galesburg, Illinois. More than 20 years later, John accepted an appointment as a Trustee of Knox College, though he thought they “might have made a better selection.” In the 1850s, Deere was, as noted, an active member of the Whig party, remnants of which became the Republican party, the party of Abraham Lincoln. (There is no evidence Deere and Lincoln ever met.) In February 1856, two years after the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Deere helped organize a petition from Moline citizens who urged the repeal of slavery in the state of Kansas.
In Moline, Deere is thought to have helped finance the Moline African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was relocated to property just below his own residence in 1880. Before that time, church members met in the homes of its members, then, from 1875-1880, on the corner of Bell and Ann streets.
From his arrival in Moline, Deere was actively involved in civic activities. Whether raising funds for a community band, volunteering on the fire department, or buying stock in an upstart horse railroad or a new bridge company, he was a man of action.
In 1873, he became the second mayor of Moline. During his term, Deere helped create the city’s first Board of Health, allocated funds for the expansion of Riverside Cemetery on the western edge of town, and advocated for the expansion of street cars for public transportation.
At his last council meeting, Deere was given a “moving vote of thanks …,” reported The Moline Dispatch, a local newspaper. “Mayor Deere has devoted a liberal portion of his time and attention to the affairs of the city, particularly in the area of street improvement, which had the ‘special attention of Mayor Deere,’ perhaps more than any other.”
At the age of 71, Deere declined running for another mayoral term. If he were approached on the subject, went a newspaper account, he “would probably feel like gently knock him down with the mould-board [sic] of a prairie breaker and afterwards turning him over to the tender mercies of the crusaders.”
In 1884, Stephen Velie sent a letter to his son focused on the life of his grandfather, John Deere, as an example of how to approach life. He had “started in life with no advantages of education,” Velie offered as an example. Deere achieved success through “hard work, integrity of purpose, and a natural faculty of concentrating all his powers on ‘one thing at a time.’”
He possessed a “faculty of concentration combined with strong charity, a lively sympathy with struggling humanity and a sterling integrity,” which “has given him the character and made him the reputation he now enjoys …” Velie noted.
Iowa businessman W.L. Wilkins, by chance, shared a train ride with John Deere, his wife, Lusena, and a granddaughter, in 1885. Deere shared the story of his life, including how he arrived in Grand Detour “a few dollars in cash in his pocket,” and other reminiscences. “He said that during all his long life it had been a great source of consolation to him to know that he had never willfully wronged any man and never put on the market a poorly made article,” Wilkins said.
“He gave to the world the steel plow,” is a fitting epitaph. But in his lifetime John Deere embodied so much more to all he met.