American Countryside: How John Deere Revolutionized the Iconic Plow

08:31AM Jan 07, 2020
John Deere Plow
John Deere was a blacksmith who fashioned the iconic plow as a way to help farmers solve a problem. It wasn't until 32. years after Deere passed away that the company started manufacturing tractors.
( John Deere )

John’s father passed when he was only four years old.  He grew up in Vermont and by the age of 17 was apprenticed to a blacksmith.  Perhaps he would have stayed in that state and you’d never have known his name, if not for some pioneers who asked if that man, John Deere, was interested in relocating.

“Some of those folks went back east and they said ‘John, we need a blacksmith in our little town of Grand Detour,’ and that started his pilgrimage out west," said Rick Trahan, Blacksmith, John Deere Historic Site, Grand Detour, Ill. 

Today, Trahan portrays the roll of blacksmith John Deere who arrived here in the latter half of 1836.  Upon his arrival he found a common problem among local farmers.

“He’s listening to people talk about how hard this ground is to plow out here where it’s just overgrown with prairie grass and it’s thick," said Trahan. "The plows we have from back east are horrible.  The sod would just stick to them.”

So, Deere began to make some changes to the plow to help solve those problems.

“Was it the shape of his plow that made the difference?" asked Trahan. "Was it because it was steel versus cast iron that made the difference?  Or was it because he polished it on a sandstone grinding wheel that made the difference?  And I have to say yes, yes and yes.”

You can still see the foundation of the original blacksmith shop where Deere began fashioning those revolutionary plows.  He made just one plow in 1837.  The next year he built two.  In 1839 he built ten. By 1840 he built 40 and listed his occupation on that year’s census as a plowmaker.   Although he could build plows here, the steel was coming from Sheffield, England.

“So there’s an incredible cost to the arrival of the steel, because it gets shipped from England through the Gulf of Mexico to New Orleans. Then, on riverboat up the Mississippi River to Molinem then wagon train from Moline to Grand Detour; all just to get the steel here.”

Moving his manufacturing to Moline helped reduce the cost of making plows.  Eventually the shop in the village of Grand Detour faded, but was not forgotten.  Rick has the title of blacksmith with Deere & Company, the same job the founder held.  He spends days around the furnace and anvil – molding, shaping, hammering and fashioning steel.  He answers visitors’ questions as he works, sharing the story of a blacksmith who built a business based on plows. 

“I always tell people if John Deere were run over by a tractor he would say what was that, because he had been gone for 32 years by the time the company got into one," said Trahan. 

It’s a role Rick enjoys, sharing the skills of old, while working for a company that prides itself on the latest agricultural equipment.

“We’ve come from one man, one anvil, one plow to 182 years later this global enterprise, and we’re feeding the world and it all began right here in Grand Detour, Ill,” he said. 

 It’s been 200 years since John Deere fashioned a plow similar to this in his local blacksmith shop.  It was a tool that revolutionized the world of his day and a tool that still brings visitors here to see the worldwide company it grew into.


USFR 01/04/20 - American Countryside