|The adventurous Velies
All in the family
Velie name became a part of the Deere dynasty when John Deere’s 20-year-old daughter
Emma married 30-year-old Stephen H. Velie in 1860.
Week One: The Velies
This week begins a new series on related companies
and connections. We’ll explore some of the other brands that are linked historically
to John Deere in some way, shape or form. Whether Deere acquired them or simply sold their
products through its dealer network, these connected companies expand the market for John
Deere memorabilia…often adding items of considerable value due to rarity and age.
First, we’ll look at the Velie connection. As relation to the Deere family, the Velies were involved in numerous ventures ranging from carriages and saddles to automobiles and airplanes between 1902 and 1928. The family also played a major role in the management of Deere & Company over the years. Because of the extensive history associated with these two families and their manufacturing efforts, The Green Girl will cover the topic in a two-part series. The first will focus on the people; the second will concentrate on the products.
Velie was a New Yorker who had come to Rock
Island in 1853 to work with C.C. Webber. Just three years later, Velie joined his
father-in-law (John) and brother-in-law (Charles) at the John Deere Plow Works. What was a
small, regional operation when he joined it in 1863 grew into a prominent national
enterprise upon his death in 1895.
As a close friend and confidant to Charles Deere,
Velie served as secretary/chief financial officer, helping develop the plow business for
32 years. According to Wayne Broehl, author of John Deere’s Company, Stephen Velie
was "the judicious, cautious numbers-oriented financier," lending stability to
the wide-ranging CEO (Charles Deere).
When the firm officially incorporated as
"Deere & Company" on August 15, 1868, Stephen Velie was one of only four
individuals to be issued capital stock. Following John Deere’s death in May 1886, Stephen Velie, Sr., was the second largest stockholder in the Company—with 20% compared to Charles Deere’s 49.8%.
In the early 1880s, Stephen Velie became part
owner of the Minneapolis branch business, Deere & Webber Company, and Deere, Wells
& Company, the branch house in Council Bluffs, Iowa/Omaha, Nebraska. By 1894, he added
ownership of the Union Malleable Iron Company, a foundry in Moline, to his growing list of
Velie became well-known as a stickler for product
quality. He had been quoted: "I have noticed that whenever we have departed from the
principle or practice of using the best stock of its kind to save money on first cost, it
has been at the cost of reparations and annoyances that are not fully compensated for by
the money saved."
Like father like sons
Stephen Velie, Sr.’s three sons--Charles
Deere Velie, Stephen H., Jr., and Willard L.--all eventually went to work for the Deere
Men in the Deere family ran the company in
the late 1800s and early 1900s. Related to the Deere family by marriage, Stephen Velie,
Sr.’s three sons played a significant role in the development of the business: Willard L. Velie (front center), Stephen H. Velie, Jr. (front second from right), Charles Deere Velie (back second from left). (Photo from Deere Archives)
Oldest son Charles Deere Velie worked at
the Minneapolis branch, Deere & Webber, during the bicycle craze of the late 1890s.
Working with C.C. Webber, Charles Velie was considered the bicycle product specialist
during the brief manufacturing stint.
Charles Velie also played a major role in the
acquisition of the Waterloo Boy tractor line in 1918. According to John Deere’s
Company, he tried to assure Butterworth in a letter: "For your own peace of mind, I
want to say that the Waterloo business is being looked at very closely by Webber and
myself here…I am more than satisfied we have made the best move Deere & Company
has ever made, and that it was an extremely fortunate thing we were able to buy this
plant. I believe if we handle this proposition right, the Waterloo Boy will be to the
tractor trade what the Ford car is to the automobile trade. Of course the Ford tractor
will take first place, but if we can take second place that will be good enough for
By 1892, the Kansas City branch house was
incorporated as the John Deere Plow Company and Stephen, Sr.’s son, Stephen Velie,
Jr., was given a minority position. He became full-fledged manager of the Kansas City
branch on November 1, 1904. His biggest supporter was C.C. Webber of Minneapolis, who more
than once defended young Steve to Charles Deere.
In 1916, the Velie Engineering Company merged with
the automobile company as Velie Motors Corporation, and began making a tractor — the
Velie Biltwel 12-24, a 4-cylinder tractor powered by a Velie-built engine. It weighed
4,500 pounds and cost around $1,750, making it on the higher end of tractors. Deere’s
plow and Velie’s tractor partnered up at demonstrations and fairs. (Photo from Deere
Stephen Velie, Jr. went on to found the
Velie Saddlery Co. of Kansas City, which made saddles, collars and harnesses for horses.
With his brother, Willard, he helped launch the Velie Carriage Company of Moline, which
made 21,000 buggies and surreys in 1907 alone. He later became vice-president of Velie
Motor Vehicles which manufactured an early automobile.
Willard L. Velie, youngest son of Stephen, Sr.,
graduated from Yale in 1888. He then headed for the Big Sky Country of Montana where he
met and married his college roommate’s (William Flowerree) sister, Annie Flowerree.
Willard quickly became a key Deere employee, serving in a number of capacities in the
management of the company.
When William Butterworth became president of
Deere & Company in 1908, Willard was elected as vice-president. According to Wayne
Broehl’s book John Deere’s Company, "Willard had emerged as the spokesman
for his side of the family (neither of his two older brothers, Stephen, Jr., nor Charles,
had become a major force in top management; neither was on the board). Willard was the
link between generations, a close associate of Charles Deere for decades, long a potent
force in the top echelon of the firm."
In 1911, the Company’s new articles of
incorporation and bylaws called for the creation of an Executive Committee, chaired by
Willard Velie. This would later become quite controversial in the battle for power and
management of the business.
The Velie Motors Corporation of Moline manufactured
early automobiles from 1908-1928. During these two decades, the company built 250,000 to
300,000 vehicles. This commemorative coin-like medallion features the Velie family crest.
The car featured in the brochure shown behind it is the 5-passenger 6-78 Royal Sedan. See
more Velie-Deere memorabilia like this in next week's issue! Photo copyright
2000 Nick Cedar
That same year, Willard Velie had formed
the Velie Engineering Company to make motor trucks. Five years later, it merged with the
automobile company as Velie Motors Corporation, and began making a tractor — the
Velie Biltwel 12-24, a four-cylinder tractor powered by a Velie-built engine.
Despite this potential conflict of interest,
Willard Velie was a staunch supporter of Deere’s acquisition or development of a
tractor. At a director’s meeting on March 5, 1912, Willard Velie surfaced as the
leader of Deere’s tractor movement.
He stated: "In view of the inevitable future
use by farmers for diverse purposes of gasoline and kerosene tractors…a movement to
produce a tractor plow should be started at once, having in view constantly that the
success of the same would be enhanced if not assured, were it possible to divorce the
tractor from the plow and thus make it available for general purposes." (excerpted
from John Deere’s Company by Wayne Broehl). Six years later, Deere acquired the
Waterloo Boy tractor line.
For the most part, Velie’s manufacturing
ventures had remained clearly separate of Deere’s lines, except that some of his
automobiles had been marketed through Deere’s branch houses. Still, he began
receiving flak in 1914 for his divided responsibilities — as chairman of the
executive committee at Deere and running his carriage firm and automobile business.
Unfortunately, Willard Velie and CEO William
Butterworth mixed as well as oil and water. After numerous run-ins and aggravations, W.L.
Velie sent a terse, 3-sentence letter to Butterworth on May 20, 1918: "I am under the
impression that I am Chairman of the obsolescent Executive Committee of Deere &
Company. In this case, please consider this my resignation of such, and as a member of the
Committee as well. I will remain Director of the Company until I have disposed of my
The Great Depression significantly affected not
only Deere’s sales of equipment, but also the makeup of its board of directors. In
April 1921, Willard Velie penned a one-line resignation: "My personal and more
important interests under existing conditions will require of me all the thought and
effort that I care to expend." That left Willard’s brother, Charles, C.C.
Webber’s colleague in the Minneapolis branch, the only Velie family member involved
in the management of the company.
Next week, The Green Girl will explore the
specific products manufactured by the Velie family. From carriages and cars to trucks,
tractors and even airplanes and saddles…the Velies were a busy bunch!
Text © 2000 Brenda