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Biography of Charles Deere
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The American plow and the name of Deere are synonymous in the public mind. Neither widespread commercialism inspired by the plow nor its constant development toward perfection by other hands and minds has effaced the intimacy between the inventor and his invention. There is no such close sympathy between Fulton and the steamboat, Morse and the telegraph or others among the pioneers of practical ideas. The living force of most inventors has been in the ideas they have given to the world, but the perfection of these ideas has been carried forward by others. The living force of the Deere invention is the Deere plow and the Deere industry and the faithful association of the inventor with every phase of the development of his invention. The Deere plow was the product of the genius of John Deere, the father; the Deere industry was the triumph of business acumen akin to talent of Charles Henry Deere, the son. The Deere plow and the Deere industry have ever been foremost in setting a standard for agriculture and manufacture, both in perfection of the implement and the magnitude of the industry. Seldom has history brought into such close relation such a remarkable combination of practical genius and business capacity in father and son. They were true pioneers of American products in the markets of the world and they made the name of Deere a house hold term in every nation of the globe.
Charles H. Deere was a typical American in a day and age conspicuous for individual achievement. The times called for men to develop the natural resources of the young undeveloped nation. Men consecrated their lives to organizing vast industrial activities. Charles Deere was representative of the highest type of these producers of the enormous wealth of the nation. His life was consecrated to exploiting the utility of that which his father had created. The plow not only became the most potent forerunner of civilization, but the originator of the commercial wealth of the nation.
As a boy, when his mind was forming, Charles Deere caught the all-absorbing enthusiasm and zeal of the father. He was John Deere’s companion in driving about the country in the vicinity of Grand Detour, Illinois, to test the primitive plows the father had built for the pioneers. He held the plow and followed the furrow and caught the first faint realization of the scope of agriculture as a national resource and of the business of farming.
Charles Deere was brought a babe in arms by his mother in 1838 from the family home in Hancock, Addison County, Vermont, where Charles was born March 28, 1837. John Deere had preceded the family by several months to the west. In the simple home at Grand Detour, now a somewhat deserted village near Dixon, Illinois, the son tasted the privations of the pioneer, lived the humble life of the settler, mingled with the Indians and was given the meager advantages of the country school. He was brought a boy of eleven, to the new home in Moline when John Deere, in 1848, was prompted to move from Grand Detour by reason of the natural advantages of coal, water power and transportation for his modest industry. His common school education was continued in Moline and he attended commercial schools at Davenport and Galesburg, finishing his education at Bell’s commercial school in Chicago.
When he first became identified with the Deere Plow Works in 1853, the son was put at bookkeeping. His marked ability at mastering detail brought him more intimately into the industry and he turned to salesman. He became proficient in every phase of plow-making and demonstrating, even as a boy in actual apprenticeship as an artisan. Driving horses was a natural talent, and he became the company’s most expert representative in handling the walking plow, being especially successful in introducing it into new territory. In later years he never swerved from his devotion to his first love-the walking plow and even to the last year of his life Mr. Deere’s greatest delight was to spend often as much as a half day in the experimental field holding a walking plow to the furrow. Building a factory in those days before the war was a slow and laborious process with no banks and no railroads. The Deere plows were left with the merchant on commission and were delivered by wagon after trips often several hundred miles long. Collections were made on subsequent trips, the dealer receiving a dollar as commission on each sale. The panic of 1857 caught the Deere industry in the midst of an outlay for additions, and the burden of the storm rested heavily on the struggling concern. Pluck and determination carried it through, and every creditor was paid in full.
At the outbreak of the civil war the company’s selling force consisted of George W. Vinton, Alvah Mansur and Charles Deere. The younger Deere’s adventurous spirit prompted him to follow a regiment organized in Moline as far as Palmyra, Missouri, but his military ardor was cooled after a week spent in camp and his unsuccessful effort to be mustered in. He was one of the active young men of the town thereafter in securing and forming new regiments of volunteers for service. He was inspired by a warm patriotism, and in 1898 contributed with liberal hand to the support of those left behind by the volunteers of the Spanish-American war.
Charles Deere became a partner with his father and his brother-in-law in the Deere factory in 1858. Ten years later-in 1868-the corporation of Deere and Company was formed and Charles Deere became vice-president and general manager. The practical worth of the Deere plow had been demonstrated. The manufacture of the young industry had reached an annual output of 100,000 plows. The problem before father and son was to organize to meet the great market before them. There came to the son-now a mature business man-the awakening to the responsibility before him, and thenceforth his life was consecrated to the great work given him to perform. During the eighteen years that intervened between the organization of the corporation and the death of John Deere in 1886, the individuality of the son became more and more the individuality of the concern. He became president of Deere and Company and all auxiliaries at his father’s death.
His work ever beckoned him on. He could scarcely have dreamed of the ultimate fruit of his talent, but his success lay in building his industry with such a master touch that it was ever prepared to respond to the quickening influence of a larger market. From selling directly to the dealer, a system of branch stores-which later became branch houses-grew under his direction, till at the time of his death any one of the fifteen or more at Omaha, St. Louis, Minneapolis. Kansas City, Winnipeg, San Francisco and other centers represented a volume of business worthy of the undivided attention of a business genius. He and his father originated the policy of making each branch house the center of a diversified line of farm implements, thereby bringing the name of Deere more intimately into every phase of the business of farming. His great structure comprehended the entire field of agriculture. The Deere and Mansur Company was started in 1877 to manufacture corn planters. The John Deere Buggy Company of St. Louis, the Fort Smith Wagon Company, the Velie Saddlery Company, the Union Malleable Iron Company all became cogs in the almost perfect business machine which he constructed. Mr. Deere was a profound believer in the future of his country; he displayed rare foresight in forecasting the possibilities of its resources and he organized his industry to develop them. At the close of the nineteenth century he caught the first glow of the golden age in American manufacturing and he set about to rebuild his plow factory to meet it. At the time of his death he had only just completed this reconstruction. Death allowed him no time in which to journey along to old age in moderate retirement. His three score years and ten were meted out to him almost to a day.
There was nothing hap-hazard about the success of the Deere industry. Its implements were built for the specific work they were to perform. The temper of the iron, climatic conditions, the needs of the agriculturist were met before the implement was sent from the factory. A healthful invigorating life permeated every detail. Every-thing which bore the name of Deere represented real value conservatively estimated.
Under the direction of such a master mind it was but natural that a distinctively Deere sentiment should sway the industry. Did Mr. Deere specialize it was in his judgment of men and his mastery of detail. He possessed an insight akin to instinct in the selection of men of large calibre as his aides in working out his great structure. They carried on down through their departments a spirit of personal responsibility and consequence and pride in doing one’s best. “Deere stands by his men” came to be a sentiment that established a mutual bond of sympathy, inspiring wonderful loyalty to the name of Deere. The fundamental principle was to provide the best and the public would be quick to appreciate.
The honor due his father as inventor of the plow was respected with uncommon reverence and devotion. Every branch house but two bore the name of John Deere. ‘The bust of John Deere was the distinguishing characteristic of the advertising of the parent plant and its immediate auxiliaries. Was he swayed by pride, it was in the name of Deere and in the father whose genius had given the name. such immortal luster. Personal glory over his achievement was utterly foreign to his nature.
The scope of his life work made Mr. Deere of necessity a man of large public usefulness. It drew him into the very vortex of the industrial and political life of the nation. The individuality of his concern in large measure became the individuality of the community in which he lived. Deere and Company, the Deere and Mansur Company, and the Union Malleable Iron Company-his trinity of industries-gave employment to 3,500 men during the latter years of his life. His capital at one time or another was invested in practically every manufactory in Moline. He recognized the strategic advantage of the locality as a manufacturing center and substantiated his faith in its future by liberal investment in every phase of the business life of the city, notably erecting many of its most substantial structures aside from its factories. He popularized Moline by the success of his own enterprises and became its leader and financial power in establishing its commercial solidity. His capital was identified with the People’s Power Company, the Moline Water Power Company, and the street car lines, public utilities that have had potent influence in the growth of the community. His personal influence was conspicuous toward making Rock Island Arsenal the chief workshop of the government and toward making the Mississippi River and the Hennepin Canal practical highways of commerce. He was the first to be sought when a new enterprise was projected and its fate many times rested on his attitude toward it. His first question was of the men to be identified with it. Outside of Moline his investments aside from his factories were in every known avenue of public enterprise.
There is no estimating the scope of Mr. Deere’s contribution to the material prosperity and progress of the world. His factories and allied industries, his distributing branches, gave employment to thousands and furnished means of livelihood to other thousands, to say nothing of the countless thousands who have profited through the utility of the Deere plow and allied implements. The volume of business of his great business structure in the year of his death is estimated to have been $25,000,000. Such usefulness to humanity is not generally dignified with the name of philanthropy, but men who have been such factors in providing the opportunity to others to help themselves must be real philanthropists in a large appreciation of the term.
His closest friends scarcely realized the extent of his national prominence and influence. A sincere republican, he was a factor in the highest councils of his party. He stood consistently for those policies which would build up the nation. He was a counsellor of statesmen, for had he not intimate knowledge of the farm and factory, the warn-earner of national resources, all of them the most serious considerations of the lawmaker: He was accorded appointments of honor as national convention delegate, national elector in the Benjamin Harrison campaigns, president of the state board of labor statistics under Governors Ogelsby and Cullom, trustee of DeKalb Normal School, commissioner to the Vienna Exposition in 1873 and to the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 in Chicago. But only once did he take up public work for personal reasons, and that in the interest of the development of deep waterways, a cause which lay close to the heart of one with such large conception of the world’s wealth. He was appointed by Governor Deneen in 1907 to be commissioner of the Illinois and Michigan canal in appreciation of his influence in promoting the question of national waterways before congress and of drawing attention to the water-ways of Illinois.
This strong silent man, who abounded in action and in splendid achievement was supremely indifferent to personal prominence or power. A man of the world in its largest sense, he was swayed by the simplest tastes. He found his recreation and delight in things which money cannot buy-in his home, in the woods and hills and water, in flowers, in the progress of the crops, in reverencing the memories of the sturdy pioneers, especially of the middle west. Did he have a weakness it was for fine horses. He was a plain man of the people wherever he went, democratic in nature, dignified, reserved-a gentleman of the old school, courtly considerate, deferential, who shunned ostentation to the degree of abhorrence. His benevolences were wholly impersonal, offhand, from the pocket, his identity often being completely hidden. He was quickly responsive to children and he would strike up a sort of quiet good fellow-ship with them as he passed them from day to day along the street. He gave most liberally to encourage talent and ambition of children in limited circumstances, and when once his sympathies were enlisted he never forgot. He idolized his own grand-children.
Mr. Deere was married September 16, 1862, to Mary L. Dickinson of Chicago. To them were born two children: Anna C. Deere, August 20, 1864, who became the wife of William Dwight Wiman and who died June 1, 1906, in Santa Barbara, California; Katharine M. Deere, born in October, 1866, wife of William Butterworth. Mr. Deere died October 29, 1907.
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