Spring is here and for many that means spring cleaning both in the house and getting that yard ready for the season.
When you think about outdoor property care, one name often comes immediately to mind – John Deere. What better way to welcome spring than to highlight the man behind the company in our latest Learning from InvENtors post.
John Deere was an American blacksmith who founded Deere & Company, now one of the largest equipment manufacturers in the world.
Deere was born February 7, 1804, in Vermont, and was the third son of William and Sarah Deere. In 1808, William Deere left for England but was never seen or heard from again. He presumably died during the journey or may have abandoned his family. Deere was raised by his mother and was given a rudimentary education due to the family’s insufficient income. At 17, Deere became an apprentice to a successful blacksmith named Captain Benjamin Lawrence and, in 1825, at the age of 21, he set up his own business.
In 1836, Deere moved to Grand Detour, Ill., to look for business prospects, and his family soon followed. He found plenty of work and settled down, quite content with business prospects. It was during this time that he had his “spark.”
A solution to a problem
Deere received many cast iron plows for repairs. These plows were originally designed for the sandy soil of the eastern United States, and didn’t work well with the area’s thick prairie soil. In response, Deere fashions a highly polished steel moldboard from a broken saw blade.
Demand was slow at first. In 1838, his first year making the plows, he sold three. The next year he sold 10, and the year after that he sold 40. In 1842, he successfully sold 100 plows and realized that he needed to expand the business. Talk about persistence.
Deere entered into a partnership with Leonard Andrus. The business began to expand and continued to prosper along with the steadily rising demand for Deere’s equipment. By 1846, the two were producing nearly a 1000 plows a year. Despite the business’ growing success, Deere disbanded the partnership in 1848. He sold his share of the business to Andrus and moved to Moline, Ill., located on the Mississippi River where there was better availability of transport and raw materials.
Deere’s business continued to prosper in the new location, and in 1850, he was producing more than 1600 plows a year. He also started manufacturing and selling other agricultural equipment.
In 1852, Deere bought out his partners after a disagreement over product quality. When confronted by his partner that customers would buy whatever they make, Deere responded,
“They haven’t got to take what we make and somebody else will beat us and we will lose our trade.”
By 1855, Deere’s factory was selling more than 10,000 plows a year. Deere’s plows famously came to be known as “The Plow that Broke the Plains.”
In 1858, Deere’s business tottered during a nationwide financial panic. The company shifted power and managerial arrangements to avoid bankruptcy. Deere remained president, but managerial power passed Charles Deere, his 21-year-old son. Charles ran the company for the next 49 years.
The Hawkeye Riding Cultivator was launched in 1863, its first implement adapted for riding.
Deere received his first patent in 1864. It was for the molds used in casting steel plows. Another was granted soon after and a third was received in 1865.
After 31 years, in 1868, the company was officially incorporated as Deere & Company. In 1869, Charles Deere and entrepreneur Alvah Mansur established the first branch house in Kansas City, Miss. Within 20 years, there were five branches across the country.
After informally retiring, Deere turned his attention to politics and society. He was elected mayor of Moline in 1873 and served for two years. As mayor he is credited with driving infrastructure improvements such as streets, sidewalks, lighting and sewers. Deere also founded the National Bank of Moline and was an active member of the church.
In 1876, Deere registered the leaping deer trademark with the US Patent Office. It is the longest continuously used American trademark among Fortune 500 companies.
Deere & Mansur Company was formed in Moline in 1877 to manufacture corn planters. A separate organization from the similarly named Kansas City branch, it became part of Deere & Company in 1910. Today, planters are still made on the original site at John Deere Seeding, Moline, Ill.
In 1878, the Gilpin Sulky Plow, originally introduced in 1875, defeated 50 other plows in a field trial at the Paris Universal Exposition, winning the first place Sevres vase valued at 1,000 francs. Unit sales the following year grew to 5,198, and reached a height of 7,824 in 1883.
The five best-selling products between 1879 and 1883 are walking plows, Gilpin sulkies, cultivators, shovel plows and harrows. Walking plows accounted for more unit sales (224,062) than the other four combined.
John Deere died on May 17, 1886, at the age of 82. Just a few months before, he shared,
“…during my long life it had been a great source of consolation to me to know that I had never willfully wronged any man and never put on the market a poorly made article.”
Since Deere’s death, his company has continued to prosper and has expanded globally.
In 2013, “The Smithsonian Magazine” selected John Deere’s plow as one of the “101 Objects that Made America.” The plow was chosen from 137 million artifacts held by the Smithsonian’s 19 museums and research centers to include on a list of items that changed the course of U.S. History.
Deere & Company is now one of the largest agricultural and industrial equipment manufacturers in the world, all because one man identified a problem and created a solution.