John Deere Company – Where and how it all began

Dan Hansen
Correspondent
The sign in front of the gift shop welcomes visitors to the John Deere Historic site in Grand Detour, Illinois.

GRAND DETOUR, Illinois – John Deere is arguably the most famous name in the agricultural equipment industry with over 100 factories in more than 30 countries. In addition to agriculture, its workers also produce equipment for lawn care, construction, outdoor recreation and forestry.

Currently the company is in the news because more than 10,000 workers at 14 plants in Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Colorado and Georgia walked off the job after members of the United Auto Workers rejected the company’s latest contract offer that included raises of 5 to 6 percent. 

The company is bringing in nonunion employees to keep operations running. “Our immediate concern is meeting the needs of our customers, who work in time-sensitive and critical industries such as agriculture and construction,” spokeswoman Jen Hartmann said.

MORE: Farmers and John Deere suppliers worry about strike's impact

While this is certainly a critical time for the company, the most critical moments in John Deere history date back to 1837 when the man himself, John Deere, was a blacksmith in Grand Detour, IL who wanted to make farmers’ jobs a bit easier.

During a recent trip to northern Illinois, we visited the site where John Deere created the first commercially successful steel plow. Watching a live demonstration by blacksmith Lloyd Bellows, we felt the heat from the forge, and watched the iron melt and take shape just the way Deere did it more than 180 years ago.

Road to Illinois

John Deere was born Feb. 7, 1804 in Rutland, Vermont. His parents were William Rinold Deere, a merchant tailor who came to the United states from England, and Sarah Yates Deere, the daughter of a British soldier who became an American citizen after the Revolutionary War.

The third of six children, John was eight when his father mysteriously left the family to return to England. While waiting for his ship to sail, William Deere wrote one last letter to John’s older brother. “Take good care of your mother,” he wrote. It was the last the family ever heard from William.

His mother might have wished for John to someday attend college, but he chose a more practical path and began training as a blacksmith apprentice at age 17, going out on his own four years later. He spent the next 12 years keeping busy with his trade in various towns around Vermont. 

Facing the reality that there were more blacksmiths than work in Vermont, in 1837 the 33-year-old Deere packed up and headed west, eventually settling in Grand Detour, Illinois. 

Nestled within a horseshoe-shaped bend in the Rock River, Grand Detour was named for the sweeping detour the river made around the Illinois village. Founded in 1833 by Leonard Andrus, the small community was home to a sawmill and flour mill powered by the river as well as a cluster of small shops a few years later. 

John Deere  arrived in Grand Detour with just $73.73 to his name, and became the area’s only skilled blacksmith when he set up shop there. The following year, he sent for his wife, Demarius Lamb, and their five children (they would go on to have four more). By 1838, he had built a forge for his business, and a house for his family.

Remains of Deere’s original forge were discovered during an archeological dig, and are part of the site’s museum.

The first plow 

The land in northern Illinois was rich and hungry for farmers, but the prairie soils were much different from those hailing from the East Coast. Moving a plow through the rich, sticky soil proved to be a challenge. Deere soon determined that the wood and cast-iron plow in use at the time was ill suited for the prairie soil.

While repairing a sawmill, Deere found a broken saw blade and was struck by inspiration. 

“I cut the teeth off the mill-saw with a hand chisel, then cut a pattern out of paper for the moldboard and share,” Deere wrote. "I laid the pattern on the saw and cut out around it with a hand chisel, and with the help of a striker and sledge, I then laid the piece on the fire of the forge and heated it a little at a time, shaping it as best I could with the hand hammer.”

Deere sold his first plow in 1838. The need for a self-scouring plow was so great, it is said hundreds of people gathered at the farm of Lewis Crandall near Grand Detour to see the young blacksmith test his new product. He sold 10 plows by the following year, and 40 more the year after that. 

The move to Moline

In 1848 Deere sold his interest in the blacksmith shop to Andrus and moved the company from Grand Detour to Moline, Illinois, along the east bank of the Mississippi River because the river provided water power for running a factory, as well as riverboats for bringing in raw materials and moving plows to market.

By 1857, his annual output of plows was 10,000. By 1868, Deere and his partners incorporated, founding Deere & Company. From his arrival in Moline, Deere was actively involved in civic activities, and in 1873 he became the second mayor of Moline.

Master blacksmith Lloyd Bellows heats the forge in the re-created blacksmith shop, then using hammer and anvil forms part of the heated iron into a decorative leaf.

Passing the torch

John’s second son, Charles Deere, took over leadership of the company in 1886 before his father’s passing that same year. Charles used his experience as a top salesman to establish John Deere’s first branch house in Kansas City, which “provided valuable information from the field that influenced new product development”. 

By the time of his death in 1907, Charles Deere had helped the company become one of the top implement makers in the country. By 2012, the company's worth had climbed to more than $40 billion.

Other family members who led the company include William Butterworth, son-in-law of Charles Deere. Charles Deere Wiman, the great-grandson of John Deere, became president in 1928.

John Deere entered the tractor business through the purchase of the Waterloo Gas Engine Company in 1918, producing and selling 5,634 tractors in the first year.

Historic site restored

While the headquarters remained in Moline, John Deere’s granddaughter Katherine Deere Butterworth ushered in the period of restoration for the John Deere Historic site when she repurchased the property in Grand Detour where Deere built his first home and shop. 

The two-story portion of the house was built by Deere in 1838. Additions were built as the family grew.

The property was later placed under the care of the John Deere Foundation. In the 1960s Deere & Company hired professionals to search land records and locate the site of the original blacksmith shop. 

Today, the house has been restored with furnishings from the 1800s. A museum surrounds the archeological site that contains remnants of Deere’s original forge. There’s also a replica of Deere’s first steel plow, and a re-creation of Deere’s original blacksmith shop with regular demonstrations by area blacksmiths. 

The John Deere Historic Site, at 8334 South Clinton Street, also features a towering statue of John Deere, a vegetable garden and a heritage garden with flowers and plants that covered the prairie during Deere’s lifetime. A gift shop offers items hand-forged by the master blacksmiths.

Guided tours of the buildings and grounds are available. More information is available by calling 815-652-4551, or at JohnDeereHistoricSite@JohnDeere.com