The History of John Deere—From the Early Plow to Farm Tractors

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The John Deere tractor is one of the most enduring icons of American farm life. The John Deere tractor manufacturing company was founded in 1837 and the story of its founding is tightly interwoven with the development of the steel plow. Deere’s desire to improve on an imperfect plow design resulted in the founding of what became the leading tractor company in the world for 177 years, known today as the Deere Company.


John Deere Equipment


The story of the company’s founder dates back to 1804 when John Deere was born in Rutland, Vermont. He began work as a blacksmith apprentice at the age of 17 and set up his own smithy business within four years. Deere’s work consisted of making hayforks, horseshoes and other necessary implements for farming. The nature of his chosen trade, combined with the local economic climate made it necessary for Deere to move from town to town. By age 33 he decided to move westward, coming to rest in Grand Detour, Illinois.


John Deere Clock


Much of John Deere’s work involved repeatedly repairing cast iron and wooden plows, proving to him that these plow designs were not strong enough to cut through the prairie sod and heavy soil of Illinois. Making design changes of his own, Deere built a lightweight polished steel plow from a broken steel sawmill blade. The plow he created cut through the tough midwestern sod efficiently and was self-scouring, meaning it could cleanse itself of the cut sod so it wouldn’t need to be constantly cleaned while working. By 1838 he built and sold three of his plows to local farmers, 10 in the following year, and 40 the year after that. Deere partnered with Leonard Andrus and by 1846 they collectively were able to make nearly 1,000 plows.


Vintage Farm Tractors


By 1847 Deere was feeling that business would be better in Moline, Illinois, located on the Mississippi River. It would be easier and less costly to transport his goods via the river. He sold off his part of the blacksmith shop to his partner and moved to Moline. By 1850 Deere was manufacturing 1600 plows a year as well as additional tools to accompany the steel plows. The John Deere steel plow was considered a state-of-the-art farming tool at the time. The material used and the shape of the plow were revolutionary and continually evolved as Deere listened to feedback from his customers and adjusted the design accordingly.


Deere 3 Tiered Sign


In 1875 John Deere introduced their first ride-on plow. It was the two-wheel, horse-powered Gilpin sulky plow. In 1888 steam driven plows were being produced and in 1892 another inventor, John Froelich of Iowa sold the first two gasoline powered tractors. These and many other early designs of gasoline powered tractors had their beginning in Iowa, but it was the John Deere Company in Illinois that broke out of the pack to become the leader in farming equipment.


Narrow John Deere Sign


In 1971 the slogan “Nothing Runs Like a Deere” was introduced to promote their newly released line of snowmobiles. By 1983 the snowmobile line was ended but the slogan remained.

One of Deere’s earliest steel plows is now housed in the Smithsonian Institution.

Last updated: Mar 06, 2017
Filed under: Retro Memories Tagged with: farming life, john deere, tractors