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John DeereJohn Deere

inventor of the steel plow

John Deere was born in Rutland, Vermont, on February 7, 1804, and raised in nearby Middlebury. When he was only 4 years old his father was lost at sea, leaving his mother to raise him and his five brothers and sisters. His family's poverty meant that he received only the barest of educations. In his early teens, to help support his mother and siblings, he took a job with a tanner grinding bark (without his mother's knowledge). In 1821, his mother gave her blessing to his taking a blacksmith's apprenticeship in the Middlebury shop of Captain Benjamin Lawrence, where he worked for the next four years. He then moved on to a variety of journeyman positions before striking out on his own.

In 1827 Deere met and married Demarius Lamb. He spent the next decade moving his family from town to town throughout central Vermont in search of steady work, but there were too many blacksmiths and not enough work. At one time he even borrowed money to buy some land and build his own blacksmith shop, but the shop was destroyed by fire twice, and he was forced to sell the land. By the mid-1830's Deere, along with hundreds of his fellow Vermonters, was faced with the choice of either going west in search of a better opportunity or staying in Vermont and facing bankruptcy. In 1836 he followed other down-and-out Vermonters to Grand Detour, Illinois, leaving his pregnant wife and four children behind, and established a blacksmith shop.

Deere watches as a farmer uses one of his horse-drawn steel plowsSoon after arriving in Grand Detour, Deere learned that nearby farmers were dissatisfied with the plows they had brought from Vermont. The heavy, gummy prairie sod stuck to the rough surface of the wood or iron moldboard used to turn the soil, forcing the farmer to stop and clear the moldboard every few passes. Spotting an old steel circular saw in the town sawmill, Deere got an idea. He worked the old saw into a smooth, hard moldboard and, in 1837, demonstrated the world's first steel plow. Farmers were impressed to see the soil falling away cleanly in furrows, polishing the surface of the moldboard as it turned, and Deere decided to give up his blacksmith shop and concentrate on making plows. By 1838 Deere was established enough to have his family brought to Grand Detour. With partner Leonard Andruss, he was producing 1,000 plows annually within 10 years.

left: Deere watches as a farmer uses one of his horse-drawn steel plows

In 1847 Deere sold his interests to Andruss and moved his operation to Moline, Illinois. Up to this time he had been purchasing his steel from England because it was the only supplier of the special type he needed. After the move to Moline, however, he found a steel mill in Pittsburgh that could produce what he needed, and thus became responsible for the first plow steel ever manufactured in the United States. By constantly making improvements to his plow, his business continued to grow, and he was producing 10,000 plows a year by 1857. In 1858 he turned over management of the business to his oldest (and only surviving) son, Charles. Incorporated in 1868, Deere and Company is now one of the largest industrial operations in the country.

John Deere died on May 17, 1886, at Red Cliff, his home overlooking Moline. He is interred at Riverside Cemetery.

For more information about John Deere and the company he founded, see the company's official website at www.deere.com

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This page was last updated on May 16, 2017.