No citizen in Rock Island County, or throughout the country, was probably more widely known than John Deere of Moline. He was born at Rutland, Vermont, February 7, 1804, and died May 17, 1886. 1805 the family moved to Middlebury, Vermont, where the children attended school in a district schoolhouse, which had a long fire place across the end of the room. The reading, writing and little arithmetic obtained here, before he was twelve years old, was the principal educational start Mr. Deere had for life. He afterwards attended private school for a few months, but the inborn inclination for active practical work must assert itself, and the career began, which, for unconquerable energy, determined will, and self-made success, has few equals, if any superiors. Becoming tired of the schoolroom, he hired himself to a tanner to grind bark, and the pair of shoes and suit of clothes purchased with the wages were the first inclination the mother had of John’s doings. At the age of seventeen he became an apprentice to Captain Benjamin Lawrence, and began learning the blacksmith trade. He faithfully worked out his engagement of four years, and was then employed in the shop of William Wells and Ira Allen, to construct iron wagons, buggies and stagecoaches. A year later he was in Burlington, and did the entire wrought iron work on the saw and linseed oil mill built at Colchester Falls. This indicates the mechanical ability of the young man; for it must be remembered that work which is now done by machinery, in those days must depend upon the skill and strength of the common blacksmith. In 1827 Mr. Deere went to Vergennes, Vermont, and entered into partnership with John McVene, to do general blacksmithing. January 28, 1827, he was married to Demarius Lamb, who became his faithful companion and helper for thirty-eight years.
A change was made in 1829 to Leicester, Vermont, where a shop twenty-five by thirty-five feet was built, which was destroyed six months after, by fire. It was rebuilt, only to be again burned. A third one was built, in which business was carried on till 1831, when the family moved to Hancock, Vermont, where Mr. Deere followed his trade, adding to his general work the business of making forks and hoes. Energy and diligence were bringing in sure but small returns, but the rumors of larger openings and richer rewards in the Great West, induced Mr. Deere to sell out his business, leave his family at Hancock, and come to Chicago. The town was small, unpromising, and planted in a swamp. Strong inducements were urged that he should remain and shoe horses and repair coaches, but he rejected them, and came to Grand de Tour, on Rock river. Here a chop was opened, and to the general work was added the building of breaking-plows. Mr. Deere soon began to see that his iron plow with wooden mold-board could not be made to do good work in the prairie soil; with difficulty they entered the ground, clogged up and failed to scour. Then began the experiments and improvements which finally resulted in the present perfect steel plow. With characteristic energy and will, the battle was pushed till success came. There was a demand for a good plow, and such a plow must be made. The first one which did satisfactory work was made in this way: Wrought-iron landslide and standard steel share and moldboard cut from a sawmill saw, and beam and handles of white oak rails. In 1838 two of these plows were made, with which the farmers were much pleased, and did unusually good work for those days. That year Mr. Deere built a dwelling house, eighteen by twenty-four feet, and brought his wife and five children from the East. It was not a few hours ride in a moving parlor, but a weary journey of six weeks by stage, canal and lumber wagon. Settled in his little home, and often shaking with ague, work was still pushed, and in 1839, ten plows were built, the entire iron work of a new saw and flouring mill being done, with no help except an experienced man as blower and striker. In 1840 a second anvil was put in the shop, and a workman employed, and forty plows made. The following year seventy-five plows were built, and trade extended many miles in all directions. In 1842 one hundred plows were made. The following year a partnership .was formed with Major Andrews, a brick shop two stories high built, a horse power put in to turn a grind stone, a small foundry established, and four hundred plows made. Steadily and rapidly the business grew till in 1846 the product was one thousand plows. The difficulty of obtaining steel of the proper dimensions and quality was a great obstacle. Finally Mr. Deere wrote to Nailor & Company, of New York, hardware dealers, explaining the demand of the growing agricultural states of the West, for a good steel plow, and stating the size, thickness and quality of the steel plates he wanted. The reply was that no such steel could be had, but they would send to England and have rollers made for the purpose. An order was sent, the steel cast in England, and shipped to Illinois. Not only was this instance of enterprise and determination shown, but the practical foresight of Mr. Deere saw that this location was not advantageous for a growing business. Coal, iron and steel must be handled by teams from LaSalle, a distance of forty miles, and plows taken long distances to market, in the same slow and expensive way. He therefore sold his interests to Mr. Andrews and came to Moline, in 1847. Here was good water power, coal in abundance, within three to five miles, and cheap river navigation. A partnership was formed with Mr. R. M. Tate and John M. Gould; shops built and work commenced, resulting the first year in seven hundred plows. About this time the first shipment of steel from England came to hand. Fifty plows were made and sent to different parts of the country where the soil was most difficult to work. They proved successful, the trade enlarged, new machinery was added, the shops enlarged, till the annual production was ten thousand plows. Mr. Deere then bought out the company. In 1858 Mr. Deere took his son, Charles H., into the business as partner (see biography of C. H.. Deere), and the business was conducted under the name of Deere & Company till 1868, when it was incorporated under the general law of the State, with John Deer as president.
This business is John Deere’s monument on the business side of life. It is the result of quick foresight, practical energy, great executive ability, and an almost resistless will, which were marked characteristics of the man. It is conceded that he was the originator of the steel plow. There was then not only no steel plows in America, but no steel manufactured to make them up. The influence of this improvement in plows can-not be easily estimated. The name of John Deere is at this time a familiar one through-out the world, and the Deere plows are now shipped to China, Japan, and in fact all over the world. They have been awarded medals at almost numberless County, State, National and fraternal exhibitions, and were rewarded the same way at the Vienna exposition of 1873. The principle upon which Mr. Deere conducted the business, and the principle which is still observed, was well expressed by a gentleman long acquainted with his establishment-” Bound to make this plow better than the last.”
In personal appearance Mr. Deere was large, well proportioned, strongly built, and had been blessed with strength capable of almost unlimited endurance. In his better days he would stand at his anvil from five in the morning till nine at night, building plows, shoeing horses, etc. His features were strong, and of lines of great power and endurance. His face was open, frank, and his address hearty, genial, bespeaking that he was a man of a tender, social nature and noble character. His feelings were near the surface, and he was singularly sensitive to pathos, whether it be that of sorrow or joy. His sympathy and help quickly responded to the calls of trouble and misfortune, and he rejoiced in the prosperity of all about him. Absorbed in business, he did not have the desire nor time for office and public trusts, which at time sought his service. He was, however, always in sympathy with public interests, and gave’ liberally of his means to advance them. He was a Republican in politics since the organization of that party. He was an active member of the Congregational Church, and a generous contributor to local and foreign objects of benevolence. The religious, moral and educational interests of society had in him a friend and patron. He was a large stockholder in the First National Bank of Moline, and was its second President. He was once elected Mayor of the City, and was also one of the directors of the free public library.
In June, 1867, Mr. Deere was married to Lucinda Lamb, sister of his former wife. Of the five children by the first marriage, five are still living.