Deere is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year. The company traces its roots to a tiny blacksmith shop in Grand Detour, IL, where John Deere made hayforks, horseshoes and other metal products essential for life on the prairie.
One day back in 1837, a broken steel sawmill blade inspired Deere to create a new type of plow. At the time, farmers had to routinely stop and clean sticky prairie soil off of their horse-drawn, cast-iron plows.
Steel was scarce in the area, so Deere fashioned a moldboard out of the second-hand saw blade. He knew that soil would slide easily off of a highly polished steel moldboard.
The revolutionary plow led to orders from local farmers as word slowly spread through the countryside. Deere made only 10 plows in 1839 and 40 implements in 1840. But, by 1843, Deere was assembling 400 plows annually. Within three years, he was building 1,000 implements a year.
The material Deere used wasn’t the only innovative thing about the plows. The moldboard was also shaped differently than others of the day. It was essentially a parallelogram curved in a concave fashion. Deere gave a great deal of thought to the shape and special curve of his moldboard. Its exact contours determined how well soil would be turned over after the share had made the cut.
Deere constantly tested his products and changed his designs based on suggestions from customers. His research and hard work eventually paid off.
Two years after moving his growing company to Moline in 1848, to be near rail lines and the Mississippi River (water power was used to run belt-driven grinding and polishing wheels), Deere’s factory was assembling 1,600 plows a year. By 1857, Deere was building 10,000 plows annually.
Deere continued to expand his operation and he was soon producing several different plows. An 1857 advertisement in a trade magazine mentioned nine models. Most were similar in design, but different in size or material.
Deere didn’t change the basic design significantly until 1875, when he introduced the company’s first riding plow. By 1890, the company was providing farmers with horse-drawn plows, cultivators, harrows, drills, planters, wagons and buggies. Deere’s first tractor-pulled plow did not appear until 1912 (six years before it began building tractors).