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No. 3074:
John and Charles Deere

by Andy Boyd

Today, we see green. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In 1812, at only eight years of age, his father left the family home in Vermont and headed for England in search of a small inheritance. It was the last time the boy, his mother, and five siblings would hear from the patriarch. Years later, the situation would prove quite different between the grown boy and his own son.

John Deere apprenticed as a blacksmith, but struggled running his own shop. At age thirty-two he went bankrupt. So he packed up his family and moved to the aptly named Grand Detour, Illinois. It was here the enterprising blacksmith would make his mark.

A portrait of John Deere. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

When we think of "dirt" a generic image comes to mind. But in reality dirt comes in almost unlimited varieties. Sandy dirt. Dusty dirt. In Illinois the dirt was rich with clay and as a result, sticky. Plowing was constantly interrupted by the need to stop and clean dirt from plows made of wood or iron.

Deere thought that a plow with a plowshare made of a newly mass-produced material, steel, would prove more resilient to the sticky soil. So he made one and sold it to his neighbor, Lewis Crandall. Crandall liked it so much he told his friends, who in turn told their friends. The plow proved a hit among farmers and demand quickly grew. 

A John Deere developed plow. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Deere expanded his product line and managed his growing business through a variety of partnerships and challenges, finally owning his own successful company outright fifteen years later. But within another five years the Financial Panic of 1857 had struck the nation. As a result, Deere sold his interest to a partnership of family members that included his son Charles. The elder Deere remained involved with the company, but it was Charles who displayed sales and administrative acumen, establishing a course for the company to thrive. The two men's lives are so intertwined that biographers have difficulty writing about one without the other.

Today, Deere and Company is a global behemoth, ranking amid the world's five-hundred largest companies. It operates facilities in over thirty countries, but remains headquartered in the small town of Moline, Illinois. And while the company now makes construction as well as agricultural equipment, there's one very important difference. Construction equipment is painted yellow. Agricultural equipment is painted green. And not just any green, but John Deere green: a color as iconic as the name John Deere itself. I suspect that if inventor John and innovator Charles could see their company today, it would bring a smile to their faces.

John Deere Skid Steer. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

State Fair of Texas 2008, at Fair Park, Dallas, Texas; a John Deere 7130 Premium tractor. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

[audio: John Deere Green]

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

N. Dahlstrom and J. Dahlstrom. The John Deere Story: A Biography of Plowmakers John and Charles Deere. DeKalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 2005.

John Deere, Vermont Blacksmith, Breaks the Plains. From the New England Historical Society webpage: Accessed July 5, 2016.

John Deere Timeline and Inventions. From the John Deere website: Accessed July 5, 2016.

This episode was first aired on June 30, 2016