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Great thoughts: John Deere and the polished plow

11/20/02 12:00AM By Vern Grubinger
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(Host) One Vermonter had an idea for improving a simple but basic tool. Commentator Vern Grubinger says that John Deere's inspiration ultimately transformed agriculture worldwide.

(Grubinger) John Deere was born in Rutland in1804. He was the inventor of the self-polishing steel plow. Now that may not sound impressive, but Deere's plow played a big role in the settling of the west, and the conversion of millions of acres of prairie into productive agriculture.

At seventeen years of age John Deere began his career as a blacksmith, apprenticing in Middlebury. He later worked in Burlington and Vergennes, and eventually started his own business in Leicester. After his smithy was burned by lightning, he moved to Royalton and then Hancock. There, Deere made highly polished pitchforks and shovels that were in demand throughout western Vermont. But while he was a fine blacksmith, he wasn't the best businessman, and he was in debt. In 1836, like many others Vermonters, he headed west to seek a better future.

He set out with a few tools and after weeks of travel by boat and stagecoach, he reached Grand Detour, Illinois, which had been settled by Leonard Andrus, another Vermonter. The need for a blacksmith was so great that two days after he arrived he had built a forge and was busy serving the small village. Horses and oxen needed shoes, and plows needed repair. The pioneers he served frequently complained to Deere that plowing was slow and laborious. The rich prairie soil clung to the cast-iron plows they had brought from the East, and had to be scraped off frequently.

Deere was a creative blacksmith, and he thought about what could be done. On a visit to a nearby sawmill, a flash of light from a broken saw blade caught his eye, and he got an idea. In 1837, using that broken saw blade, John Deere fashioned a steel plow with a highly polished surface that scoured itself as it turned the soil. It was such a success that Deere went into the business of manufacturing plows. News of John Deere's 'self-polishing plows' spread quickly, and by 1842 he was selling one hundred a year.

Running a business on the frontier wasn't easy. There were few banks, poor transportation, and a scarcity of steel. Deere's first plows were made from whatever pieces of steel he could find. In 1843, he ordered a special rolled steel all the way from England. Three years later, the first slab of plow steel ever rolled in the United States was made in Pittsburgh and shipped to Moline, Illinois, where it was used in a factory Deere opened there to take advantage of water power and transportation offered by the Mississippi River.

Ten years after making his first plow, John Deere produced 1,000 plows a year and by 1855, he sold 13,000 plows a year. He was always tinkering with the design because, as he said, "If we don't improve our product, somebody else will." The corporation he formed in 1868, Deere and Company, became one of the largest manufacturers of agricultural equipment in the world.

With an ear to the ground, this is Vern Grubinger.

Vern Grubinger is the director of the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture. VPR's commentary series, "Great Thoughts of Vermont," examines the big ideas that came out of a small state. Learn more about the Great Thoughts commentary series.
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