John Deere

John Deere









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John Deere was born February 7, 1804, in Rutland, Vermont. He was the fifth child of William and Sarah Deere. They had moved to Rutland in the 1790s. In 1806 they moved to Middlebury, Vermont, where they worked as a merchant tailor and seamstress.

In 1808 William Deere sailed to England in hope of inheriting some assets badly needed for his new business. He sent a letter to his son on June 26. He was never heard from again. Family legend has it that he arrived safely but was lost at sea on the return trip.

Sarah Deere continued the family business and did her best to raise her five children. Since the family had little money the children left home as soon as they were able to work or be appreciated to learn a special skill. so it was in 1821 at age 17, John became apprenticed to Captain Benjamin Lawrence, the local blacksmith. When his apprenticeship ended in 1825 he hired himself out as a journeyman to two blacksmiths, David Wells and Ira Allen.

Sarah Deere died in 1826. A year later John married Demarius Lamb from the nearby town of Hancock. They moved to Vergennes where John worked with the established blacksmith. By 1828 they had moved again, this time to Salisbury, Vermont. Here their first son, Francis Albert, was born. John was probably employed at the Briggs Shovel Factory in Salsibury, because his specialty was making tools. By 1829 John Deere had established his own business in Leicester, but two fires quickly put him into debt. A daughter, Jeannette, was born in 1830. This forced another move, this time to Royalton, Vermont.

In Royalton John Deere worked for Amos Bosworth, an "ironer" of stagecoaches. John probably helped him make the fancy ironwork found on stagecoaches at that time. In 1832 another daughter, Ellen Sarah, was born.

There had been a lot of migration out of Royalton since 1800, and John Deere would have heard many tales of fortune from both farmers and mechanics who were heading for the vast West. He would also have heard many tales of woe from homesick settlers: tales of ague, debts, extreme cold and heat, as well as the difficulties of tilling the pairie sod.

In Royalton John accumulated enough cash to move to Hancock, his wife's hometown. There he made another effort at common blacksmithing. He earned the reputation of being a painstaking and meticulous craftsman.

Throughout the 1830s economic conditions in Vermont were poor. The economic downturn that became known as the Panic of 1837 was caused primarily by the fact that Vermont was almost totally dependent upon the sheep raising industry. The market was saturated, and there was no room for growth-type industries.

The economic problems of the East were only one cause of the migration westward. Transportation had improved. The Erie Canal had opened in 1825. Steamboat prices dropped as the railroad began to offer competition. The Indian Wars ended in 1832 when Blackhawk surrendered. All of these things helped promote migration to the newly opened West.

In 1835 Leonard Andrus, a friend of John Deere, became the first settler in Grand Detour, Illinois. Andrus and two cousins quickly established a sawmill and gristmill. Amos Bosworth, John's employer in Royalton, visited Grand Detour in 1836 and returned to Vermont to convince others to move west.

In November, 1836, John Deere joined his friends in Illinois. He left his wife and four children in Vermont. He was 32 years old and was starting over again. He took $73.73 and the tools from his Hancock blacksmith shop with him.

During his first year in Grand Detour John Deere built a unique blacksmith shop that utilized a horse driven treadmill to operate the bellows for his forge. He produced excellent equipment, and his reputation grew. He also dramatized his products to merchants across the prairies. He sold his products to them for resale rather than directly to individual customers. The idea of stocking an inventory was a new notion in American business. Previously items were made on an individual order basis.

Once John became established he built a house for his family. Demarius was pregnant when he had left Vermont. The family arrived in Grand Detour in late 1853. They came by wagon with the rest of their belongings. This time they came to stay. John's son, Charles Henry Deere, was a year old when John saw him for the first time.

The early settlers in Illinois cleared the woodlands for their farms as their ancestors had done in the East. They reasoned that if the land couldn't grow trees it wasn't "strong" enough for field crops. They didn't realize that the fibrous roots of the prairie grasses had been producing rich humus for centuries. Pioneers found that they could make an area of prairie sod ready for cultivation in a day. It took the settler living in the woodlands a year to prepare the same amount of land.

The first step in preparing the land for cultivation was called prairie breaking, and most farmers had a fairly efficient method for doing this with a large rig and four to six yoke of oxen. This method was used well into the 1850s.

John Deere's plow was an important invention because of problems the farmer had during his second plowing season. The rich, damp humus would stick to the plow blade as the farmer plowed the field that had been broken the year before.

There are several stories about how John Deere crafted and showed the first self-scouring plow. The most famous version ascribes its invention to a broken saw blade that John picked up at Leanard Andrus' sawmill. He took it to his blacksmith shop where he shaped and polished it. When it was finished, he took it to Lewis Crandall's farm just across the Rock River from his blacksmith shop and tested it. It worked! It cut a clean furrow slice of black, greasy soil without sticking to the moldboard of the plow.

John Deere quickly abandoned his blacksmithing and became a manufacturer of plows. In the late 1840s he relocated to Moline, Illinois an established community on the Mississippi River. Improved transportation was the main reason for moving his growing plow business.

From John Deere, the Man Who Opened the Prairie
By Diana Alm Published by the Illinois Writers' Guild, 1986

Pictures published in John Deere, the Man Who Opened the Prairie from the archives library at Deere & Co., Moline, IL.

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