February 7, 2011
Unless, like my husband, you hail from a place like Nebraska, where it is common knowledge that Farmall tractors are candy apple red, New Hollands’ are royal blue and Allis-Chalmers’ are orange, I suspect that John Deere tractors, with their kelly green bodies and bright yellow hubcaps, are the only ones that are instantly recognizable.
You know the machine, because the John Deere company has become a world leader in the manufacturing of agricultural and landscaping equipment. But how much do you know about John Deere, the man?
For starters, today is the anniversary of his birth—on February 7, 1804, in Rutland, Vermont. Deere was raised in Middlebury, Vermont, about 30 miles to the north of Rutland. In the mid-1820s, after a four-year blacksmithing apprenticeship, he began outfitting farmers with hay forks and shovels. When business got rough in the mid-1830s, he set out for the Midwest, ultimately landing in Grand Detour, Illinois. There, he quickly discovered that pioneer farmers were struggling to cut through the area’s thick soil with the cast-iron plows they had brought from the sandy-soiled East. So, he introduced a solution: a steel plow. According to the National Museum of American History, which has Deere’s original (pictured below) in its collection, the steel plow made vast areas of the Midwest agriculturally viable.
Deere was churning out 1,000 plows a year by 1848, constantly improving his design. He once said, “I will never put my name on a product that does not have in it the best that is in me.” And, in 1868, he incorporated as Deere & Company. Deere died in 1886, at the age of 82, the business carried on under his son Charles’ direction, followed by William Butterworth, Charles’s son-in law, and then Charles Deere Wiman, a great-grandson of John Deere.
The John Deere Model D, the first tractor the company built, marketed and named after the innovative blacksmith, was added to the product line in 1923. One (pictured above) of the two-ton, 15 horsepower machines, which cost about $1,000 by the mid-1920s, is also among the treasures at the National Museum of American History.
“Tractors, in general, are really important inventions and helped make the green revolution—the era from 1920 to 1940 when agricultural productivity really took off—possible. The John Deere Model D was very popular in the early wave of internal combustion tractors,” says Peter Liebhold, chair and curator of the Division of Work and Industry at the National Museum of American History. “The company continues to be very important in terms of innovation in agricultural equipment. Today, John Deere continues to innovate with developments in applying GPS to make precision farming a reality.”
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