pioneers the prairie plow
Part one: He gave the steel plow to the world
This week, The Green Girl explores the history of Deere’s famed
first implement, the plow.
Aside from the leaping deer, the plow
is also quickly and easily associated with John Deere. This is a 1/16-scale toy 2-bottom
plow made by Eska-Carter in the early 1950s.
Let's look back at the humble beginnings of
the blacksmith and his major move to Moline.
Deere & Company’s plow history began back in 1837 when John
Deere, the blacksmith of Grand Detour, Illinois, spotted a broken sawmill blade and had a
"Eureka!" moment. What he saw in that shiny piece of steel was the answer to
local farmers’ plowing problems.
While John Deere was not the first to build a plow, many Midwestern
prairie farmers believed the blacksmith’s design was by far the best.
That’s because traditional cast-iron plow designs did not work
well in these sticky soils. A new design was desperately needed and John Deere discovered
it —a steel moldboard that scoured the sticky earth and polished itself at the same time!
The John Deere Plow Company
In 1843, John Deere partnered with fellow
Vermonter Leonard Andrus, the founder and foremost citizen of Grand Detour. The agreement
was terminated in 1847, after the pair had made about 1,000 plows the year before.
This dangling celluloid pin
promotes the idea that "John Deere Plows Make Better Seedbeds." The other
stickpin is also associated with Deere although it represents the Grand Detour Plow
Company of Dixon, Illinois. Deere’s former partner, Leonard Andrus, continued to
build plows after Deere left for Moline. Photo © 2000 Brenda Kruse
Andrus continued to build and sell plows under the name of the
Grand Detour Plow Company. The Grand Detour business later relocated to nearby Dixon,
Illinois. A predecessor to the J.I. Case Company acquired it in 1919.
Just a decade after his business began, John Deere realized Grand
Detour was too remote for his growing business. He chose Moline for its proximity to water
power and river transportation, which made it a manufacturing mecca of sorts.
The world standard
On the day that John Deere tested his first plow
on Lewis Crandall’s farm, the young blacksmith from Grand Detour began to build a
business that is now well-respected as a worldwide leader in agricultural equipment
John Deere obtained his first patent for the walk-behind plow in 1864.
A decade later, a riding model was designed by Gilpin Moore, owner of 35 patents for
The Gilpin Sulky Plow was not the first successful sulky design, but it
became one of the most popular in the country by 1880. In fact, the Moline Plow Works
factory could hardly keep up with orders, despite having reached annual production of
75,000 plows in 1876. By the 1880s, the John Deere Plow Company employed almost 800 men in
its Moline Plow Works factory.
For the past 160-plus years, Deere & Company has continued to
perfect John Deere’s original design.
Today, a massive 10-bottom model tops out the current plow product
line, which demands tractor horsepower rather than real horses. Just like that first famed
plow, these newer models are still rooted in John Deere’s original commitment to
quality — "I will never put my name on a plow that does not have in it the best
that is in me."
Next week, The Green Girl expands on the plow
topic with a look back at Deere’s connections to other companies, including the
Moline Plow Company and the Syracuse Chilled Plow Company.
The illustration in this
humorous "Book of Verses" from 1887 clearly shows one of the advantages of the
riding plow — "There was a fat man of Bombay, Who was plowing, one sunshiny day,
His plow struck a stump, Doubled him up with a thump, The ‘DEERE’ wouldn’t
serve him that way." The booklet also featured the three-wheeled New Deal gang plow
in a surprising politically incorrect cartoon. This plow was even advertised as ideal for
steam plowing, which was practiced on large-scale farms in the West.
|The small brass dish (possibly a change tray) on the left shows the log-leaping deer "Trade Mark," a bust of "John Deere, Inventor of the Steel Plow," his famed creation, and the claim of "First Steel Plow."
this rare piece to be around 1912. The item on the right is even more mysterious as to its
purpose or origin. Seemingly a hanging tag of sorts, this cardboard shield-shaped cutout
(ca. 1880s) shows three colored sections: red for the leaping deer, blue for the plow, and
gold for the bust of John Deere with the words "John Deere. Manufacturer Pioneer of
Steel Plows, Moline, Ill." The back of this tag also features three colored sections:
blue with stars; red with a plow and ribbon; gold with a fireworks burst. The ribbon near
the plow says "Shield of our Nation’s Prosperity."
plow is a scouring success
John Deere’s son Charles enjoyed competing in plowing matches and
proudly boasted of his winnings. He even entered the Gilpin sulky and Deere gang plows in
the famous Paris Exposition of 1878, which was a real head-to-head field contest covered
by the prestigious Scientific American magazine. Fortunately, the Deere gang plow drew
plenty of attention and took first place honors as well.
The John Deere Plow Company won these medallions in various expositions, fairs, and competitions between 1882 and 1911. Made of gold, silver, and bronze, these boxed medals often included a plaster cast of the issued piece as well. Such equipment expositions and plowing contests were held in St. Louis, Missouri; Atlanta, Georgia; Louisville, Kentucky; and Cincinnati, Ohio. Photo © Copyright 2000 Denny Eilers
Text © 2000
Brenda Kruse; Photos © 2000 Nick Cedar unless indicated otherwise.