Truck Trend Legends: The History of John Deere
To most people with even a passing interest in modern machinery, the name John Deere will immediately bring to mind an image of that yellow leaping deer against a green background, just as quickly as Coca-Cola evokes gently curving white lines on a red background. This farming equipment company contributes its own long thread to the fabric of contemporary American society. And that deer logo has been used in one form or another since the nation’s centennial. No, not the bicentennial—the centennial.
John Deere, the man, was born in Vermont in 1804 and grew up to become a blacksmith. However, he left his home state at the age of 32 and relocated to Illinois—a place called Grand Detour, which is way to the west of Chicago. He set up a blacksmith shop and made small farming implements like shovels and pitchforks as well as general repairs. He found he was often repairing plows that were originally made for finer soil, not heavy and sticky prairie land that prompted frequent stops to clean the wooden or iron plows.
We’ve all heard that old saying about turning swords into plowshares. Well, Deere did something similar with a steel saw blade. Deere took a polished blade and worked it into a curved shape. When put to the test, the mud slipped off cleanly. Now farmers could get their fields plowed quicker than ever before. They said that it cut through the rich soil so well it made a singing sound (that’s not too far-fetched—think of musical saws).
The greater effect of this meant that pioneering types went even further west into the Great Plains to cultivate more land. This relatively humble steel plow actually changed the face of the country. All those arable acres we see when looking out of an airplane window owe a huge debt to John Deere.
Deere also did something else that was revolutionary at the time. Instead of waiting until someone ordered a steel plow before making it, he produced several in advance. Customers could see the product and buy it immediately. In 1839, he made 10 plows, but soon became busy enough go into partnership with one Leonard Andrus. Output quickly jumped to three figures.
Other partners came and went, while production swiftly moved from hundreds to thousands, thanks to a new factory established at Moline, Illinois, a location chosen because it allowed access to the railway and the Mississippi river (Deere eventually had a spell as Moline’s mayor). In 1849, 16 workers produced more than 2,000 plows. At first, British steel was used, but Deere soon turned to Pittsburgh’s mills for a more convenient supply.
Charles Deere, John’s son, came on board in 1858, aged 16. Five years later, there’s an evolution: the Hawkeye Riding Cultivator, where the user would sit on it, pulled by a pair of horses, rather than walk behind. Wagons and buggies followed several years down the line. The company even tried its hand at bicycles twice, once in the late 1800s and again in the 1970s.
Like any company, this one saw periods of expansion, with more factories built, along with phases of declining sales and worker unrest. Nevertheless, it managed to move with times, despite its founder dying in 1886, and embrace what were then-new technologies like tractors, which became the bread-and-butter line. The first John Deere tractor was the Model D and came out in 1923. It only had a two-cylinder engine, but it had staying power, remaining on sale for three decades.
The Great Depression hit hard, but the company took the noble steps of lowering rent for workers in John Deere–owned housing and carrying farmers’ debts, not repossessing any equipment. It’s hard to imagine a contemporary operation without those kinds of roots doing anything similar. Somehow, two more tractors were introduced, both going on to become big sellers. These were the ’34 Model A and the Model B a year later.
Combine harvesters joined cotton-picking machines and bulldozers, with diesel power coming in after the Second World War. Sales reached the $1 billion mark in 1966 and were $36.2 billion in 2012. These days, the John Deere product line includes snowmobiles, backhoes, ride-on mowers, forestry vehicles, and drivetrains. It now has factories in India, Argentina, Brazil, France, Finland and Germany, employing more than 60,000 people worldwide. Yet, after all these years, the main headquarters are still in Moline. John Deere’s original curved steel blade, though, is on display at the Smithsonian.