John Deere: Born in Vermont, Made in America

CEG takes a look back at one of the backbones of the American agricultural industry.

📅   Thu July 02, 2015 - National Edition
CEG



Deere & Company began when John Deere, born in Rutland, Vermont, USA on February 7, 1804, moved to Grand Detour, Illinois in 1836 in order to escape bankruptcy in Vermont. Already an established blacksmith, Deere opened a 1,378 square feet (128 m2) shop in Grand Detour in 1837 which allowed him to serve as a general repairman in the village, as well as a manufacturer of small tools such as pitchforks and shovels. Small tools was just a start, the item that set him apart, was the self-scouring steel plow, which was pioneered in 1837 when John Deere fashioned a Scottish steel saw blade into a plow. Prior to Deere’s steel plow, most farmers used iron or wooden plows which stuck to the rich Midwestern soil and had to be cleaned frequently. The smooth sided steel plow solved this problem, and greatly aided migration into the American Great Plains in the 19th and early 20th century.

The traditional way of doing business was to make the product as and when it was ordered. This style was very slow and as Deere realized that this wasn’t going to be a viable business model so he increased the rate of production by manufacturing plows before putting them up for sale, this allowed customers to not only see what they were buying beforehand but allowed his customers to purchase his products straight away. Word of his products began to spread quickly.

In 1842, Deere entered a business partnership with Leonard Andrus and purchased land for the construction of a new two-story factory along the Rock River in Illinois. This factory, named the "L. Andrus Plough Manufacturer", produced about 100 plows in 1842 and approximately 400 plows during the next year. Deere’s partnership with Andrus ended in 1848, and Deere relocated to Moline, Illinois in order to have access to the railroad and the Mississippi River. There, Deere formed a partnership with Robert Tate and John Gould and built a 1,440 square feet (134 m2) factory the same year. Production rose quickly, and by 1849, the Deere, Tate & Gould Company was producing over 200 plows a month. A two story addition to the plant was built, allowing further production.

Deere bought out Tate and Gould’s interests in the company in 1853, and was joined in the business by his son Charles Deere. At that time, the company was manufacturing a variety of farm equipment products in addition to plows; including wagons, corn planters and cultivators. In 1857, the company’s production totals reached almost 1,120 implements per month. In 1858, a nationwide financial recession took a toll on the company. To prevent bankruptcy, the company was reorganized and Deere sold his interests in the business to his son in law, Christopher Webber, and his son, Charles Deere, who would take on most of his father’s managerial roles. John Deere served as president of the company until 1886. The company was reorganized again in 1868, when it was incorporated as Deere & Company. While the company’s original stockholders were Charles Deere, Stephen Velie, George Vinton, and John Deere, Charles effectively ran the company. In 1869, Charles began to introduce marketing centers and independent retail dealers to advance the company’s sales nationwide. This same year, Deere & Company won "Best and Greatest Display of Plows in Variety" at the 17th Annual Illinois State Fair, for which it won $10 and a Silver Medal.

The core focus remained on the agricultural implements, but John Deere apparently also made a few bicycles in the 90’s.

Increased competition during the early 1900s from the new International Harvester Company led the company to expand its offerings in the implement business, but it was the production of gasoline tractors which would come to define Deere & Company’s operations during the twentieth century. In 1912, Deere & Company president William Butterworth (Charles’ son-in-law), who had replaced Charles Deere after his death in 1907, began the company’s expansion into the tractor business. Deere & Company briefly experimented with its own tractor models, the most successful of which was the Dain All-Wheel-Drive, but in the end decided to continue its foray into the tractor business by purchasing the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company in 1918, which manufactured the popular Waterloo Boy tractor at its facilities in Waterloo, Iowa. Deere & Company continued to sell tractors under the Waterloo Boy name until 1923, when the John Deere Model D was introduced. The company still manufactures most of its tractors in Waterloo, Iowa.

On an episode of the Travel Channel series "Made in America" that profiled Deere & Company, host John Ratzenberger stated that the company never repossessed any equipment from American farmers during the Great Depression.

In 1956, Deere & Company bought-out the German tractor manufacturer, Heinrich Lanz AG. In the 1962 Illinois Manufacturers Directory (50th anniversary edition), John Deere, listed as Deere and Company claimed a total work force of 35,000 of which 9,000 were in Illinois. The corporate headquarters were located at 1325 Third Ave. in Moline, IL with six manufacturing plants located around that city and a seventh plant in Hoopston, IL. The six plants in Moline were listed as follows: the John Deere Harvester Works at 1100 - 13th Ave., East Moline where 3,000 employees made agricultural implements. The John Deere Industrial Equipment Works at 301 Third Ave., Moline where 500 employees made earth moving equipment. The John Deere Malleable Works at 1335-13th Street, East Moline where 600 employees made malleable and nodular iron castings. The John Deere Planter Works at 501 Third ave., Moline where 1,000 employees made agricultural implements. The John Deere Plow Works at 1225 Third Ave., Moline where 1,100 employees made agricultural implements. The sixth plant was the John Deere Spreader Works at 1209-13th Ave., Moline where 800 employees made agricultural implements. The John Deere Vermilion Works was located at North Sixth Ave., Hoopston, Illinois where 140 employees were listed as making iron work; implement parts. Moline with 42,705 residents in 1962 saw the local 7,000 employees of John Deere represent 16% of the city’s entire population.

As of 2014, Deere & Company employed approximately 67,000 people worldwide, of which half are in the United States and Canada, and is the largest agriculture machinery company in the world. In August 2014 the company announced it was indefinitely laying off 600 of its workers at plants in Illinois, Iowa and Kansas due to less demand for its products. Inside the United States, the company’s primary locations are its administrative center in Moline, Illinois and manufacturing factories in central and southeastern United States.