The Plow That Started it All
In 1837 our founder, John Deere, was a typical blacksmith turning out hayforks, horseshoes, and other essentials for life on the prairie.
Then one day, a broken steel sawmill blade gave him an opportunity. He knew that days in the field were difficult for farmers near his home in Grand Detour, Illinois, because they had to interrupt their work to clean the sticky prairie soil off of their cast-iron plows. He also knew that the soil would slide easily off of a highly polished steel moldboard. Steel was scarce in the area, so Deere fashioned a moldboard out of the second-hand blade.
Now, 175 years later, the company that grew out of the success of this innovative plow continues to manufacture advanced equipment to help those who work with the land accomplish their tasks better and faster.
While the original plow could only do a fraction of the work farmers can tackle with modern tillage equipment, it was high-tech at the time. The revolutionary plow is long gone, but we can draw some conclusions about Deere's plow-making prowess from an 1838 example of his work (pictured above).
According to "John Deere's Company," a book by Wayne G. Broehl, Jr., the material Deere used wasn't the only unusual thing about the plows. The moldboard was also shaped differently than others of the day. "It is essentially a parallelogram, curved in a concave fashion. Deere must have given a great deal of thought to the shape, to the special curve of his moldboard, for its exact contours would determine just how well the soil would be turned over after the share had made the cut."
Production increased slowly at first, but Deere kept busy. Much of his work was done away from his forge. He constantly tested his products and changed his designs based on suggestions from customers. His research paid off and by 1849 his business was booming – he produced 2,000 plows that year.
Deere continued to expand his operation and he was soon producing several different plows – an 1857 advertisement mentions 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 Gilpin sulky plow, the company's first riding plow. There were other riding plows on the market, but Deere's two-wheeled sulky soon became one of the most popular.
In the mid-1880s Deere entered another market, introducing the company's first three-wheeled plow, the New Deal gang plow. This line grew, and by the early 1890s Deere was offering walking and riding plows in single-bottom to six-bottom gang versions. Since it took four or six horses to pull the two-bottom version, the six-bottom plow would need power that was available only with a steam tractor.
Steam plowing was difficult. To keep the steam in the boiler, it could only be run on level ground. Two operators were needed, one for the engine and another to run the plow; and since the machine required extra room to turn at the ends of row it could only be used in large fields. But there were benefits, too. A farmer using a gang plow with five 14-inch bottoms could plow one and three-quarter acres in an hour.
The company's product lines were also growing. By 1890 the company was providing farmers with plows, cultivators, harrows, drills, planters, wagons, and buggies.
Today, 175 years after John Deere created his steel plow, the company provides advanced products and services for those whose work is linked to the land, including a few very modern variations on John Deere's original plow.