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John Deere’s Steel-Tipped Plow

The Rock River issues from a swamp in central Wisconsin and its waters flow south, crossing under US 20 in northern Illinois near the John Huy Addams (Jane Addams’ father) homestead. It then begins to flow southwesterly, passing Grand Detour and Dixon before joining the Mississippi at a rocky rapids/falls in what is informally called, the ‘Quad Cities.’ The River course itself is old, predating the Great Lakes.

Grand Detour, some 40 miles south of today’s US 20, was named by early French explorers. The location’s potential value lay in a river bend that made boats travelling on the Rock River reverse their southwest course in a horseshoe bend for a few miles along a rocky outcrop before once again going back to its roughly southwesterly course—a detour.  At Grand Detour the river produces a surge and fall of water that could power a mill. For a while before steam power became common, this waterpower appeared to make the area a potential industrial center. The village of the same name was founded by Leonard Andrus in 1835.

Andrus was born in Vermont in 1805, but grew up in Malone in northeastern New York after his father, Cone Andrus, sold the family farm in Vermont and moved there. Leonard left home after completing two years’ study at Middlebury College in Vermont.  His father had died, and he found work in a retail business in Rochester NY.

Like many other Yankees, Leonard eventually left Rochester to go west, visiting relatives in Constantine in southwestern Michigan over the winter of 1833-34. He continued on toward St. Louis, bypassing Chicago as just a small, struggling three-year old town, still recovering from the scare of the Black Hawk War.

While descending the Rock River, he came across the ‘Grand Detour’ and stopped.  It appeared to him that a dam and sluice would form the basis for a profitable business, so Andrus staked a claim on some surrounding riverfront land. Beyond the Grand Detour loop, the Rock River flows south and east near Dixon, later the boyhood home of President Ronald Reagan.  Then, it resumes its southwesterly course. Dixon, on accessible high ground, eventually became the commercial hub of the area.

Andrus wintered in Constantine again in 1834-35 and then headed back to Rochester to settle his business affairs there. Returning to Michigan with some friends and relatives in 1835, he moved to Grand Detour. Over the next year, he attracted a number of partners to help finance his Hydraulic Company, incorporated to tap the waterpower. By 1837, the dam was built and a grain grist mill and a sawmill began operating. That year, another Yankee, John Deere, arrived in Grand Detour.

Deere was born in 1804 to a relatively poor Vermont family. When he was 4, his father left Rutland and his family, ostensibly to receive an inheritance from a British relative. The father was never heard from again, and the story grew that his ship sank in the Atlantic with all hands. There are, however, other recorded instances on both sides of the Atlantic where fathers went off to look for better lands in the West or crossed the Atlantic to England to gain an inheritance, and simply never returned to their waiting families.

John attended ‘common school’ and, at 17, became apprenticed to a Middlebury VT blacksmith. Later, he met Demarius Lamb at a local event and they married in 1826, when he was 22 and she 21. Eventually, they had nine children.

By 1825, John had set up his own forge and smithy, but was dogged by bad luck, enduring a number of destructive fires. In debt, he went back to work for other blacksmiths. The family moved from town to town in Vermont, making little progress on eliminating his debt. By the mid 1830s there were three more mouths to feed in the Deere family, not counting one on the way and another who had died in infancy. Then the financial Panic of 1836 hit.

During the consequent depression he was attracted to Illinois by Leonard Andrus in order to become Grand Detour’s blacksmith. Selling what possessions he had, in late October, 1836, he left wife and family to stay with relatives and departed for Grand Detour, arriving on November 6, He went into partnership with Andrus in 1837, making and selling shovels, rakes and plowshares. Later, his wife loaded up a covered wagon with their possessions and, with 5 children under 9, brought them all on her own from Vermont to Illinois and their new home. 

Deere soon became aware that prairie soils were wet and sticky, unlike sandier soils in the East. On the western prairie, wooden plows with cast iron moldboards and all-iron plows tended to retain some of the soil lifted from the ground, causing the farmer to have to stop often to clean the plow. Steel was smoother and harder than iron and so the soil slid off the moldboard of Deere’s ‘self-polishing ‘steel’ plows Also, Deere’s steel plow moldboard was angled such that it effectively cut into the virgin prairie and turned the soil over. Turning the soil meant that the native prairie plants would be destroyed and wheat could be planted to grow in their place. The plow also made a shallow trench, or furrow in the soil to catch a stream of wheat buds that would constitute the next crop.

Making plows was not a new thing. The first models discovered by archaeologists in the Middle East date back to 3100 BC, some 5000 years ago. Deere’s innovation was to make the plowshares from steel, and to patent the design process and product.

In his first year of making his plow, he sold 10 to local farmers. The next year, he sold 40 plows. By 1839, the steel plows made by Deere were gaining popularity along the Rock River, and he sold 100 plows in 1842. Blacksmithing work, and the production of shovels and rakes for the small local population, meant limited work and income. He began to specialize in plows and got his basic design patented, though he was not the first to think of the idea of a steel-tipped plow.

By 1842, the country was coming out of recession and many eastern farmers were considering selling their land and moving west onto the Iowa prairies, where open lands were attractive for wheat and corn cultivation. As well, the Oregon Trail was just opening up, attracting more adventurous, or desperate, farmers needing sturdy plows.

The next year Deere and Andrus built a small factory on the Rock River and began importing British steel to improve their product. Soon, they were producing 1,000 steel plows annually for the market that was developing primarily west of Illinois.

By 1848, the partners had ended their relationship.  Deere realized that market growth lay farther downriver and wanted to follow it. Andrus wanted to stay at Grand Detour. Deere moved his still-growing family to Moline where the Rock River meets the Mississippi—a thriving town that had just been incorporated. By 1850, he was selling 1600 plows a year, a number that continued to grow as more Americans deserted the small, unproductive farms of New England for the more extensive agriculture practiced in the wheatfields of the West. The John Deere Company expanded into related farm machinery and, even though today there is no production in Moline, the World Headquarters of the Company has remained there.

Leonard Andrus remained in Grand Detour, dying there in 1867, a pillar of the community. The introduction of steam power reduced the value of Grand Detour’s waterpower, and railroads avoided the river there. The place today is an unincorporated village six miles north of the City of Dixon and is the location of the John Deere Historic Site. Meanwhile, the area around the confluence of the Rock River and the Mississippi only grew in importance.

Learn more about The Yankee Road here. Join author Jim McNiven as he explores the emergence and influence of Yankee culture while traversing America’s longest highway, reaching form the Atlantic to the Pacific – US 20, which McNiven nicknames “The Yankee Road”. Volume 3 of The Yankee Road launches Spring 2022.