Plowing across the prairies

John Deere carries a history of continual improvement

Article July 01, 2001
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A visitor to John Deere’s blacksmith shop in 1837 would have been greeted by the sound of horse’s hooves walking on a treadmill

A visitor to John Deere’s blacksmith shop in 1837 would have been greeted by the sound of horse’s hooves walking on a treadmill and iron hammers pounding on an anvil. In his blacksmith shop in 1837, John Deere created the first self-scouring steel plow, which would help settle the prairies of the Midwest.

After a four-year apprenticeship, Deere began his career as a journeyman blacksmith in 1825 in Middlebury, Vt., making hay forks and shovels among other farm implements.

When Deere migrated to Illinois in the mid-1830s, the pioneer farmers were using the cast-iron plows they had brought with them from the East. Cast-iron plows were suited to tilling the light, sandy soil of New England. The rich Midwestern soil stuck to the plow bottoms and forced the farmer to scrape the dirt off the plow every few steps, making plowing a slow, frustrating task.

Deere studied the problem and became convinced that a plow with a highly polished and properly shaped moldboard and share ought to scour itself as it turned the furrow slice. Deere took a broken steel saw blade and fabricated such a plow, tested it and found that it worked.

The problem for Deere was finding the steel for his plows. Steel was extremely scarce at the time. Deere had to scrounge it wherever he could. He ordered his first shipment of special rolled steel from England in 1843.

An anecdote from the early years of John Deere’s business relates that one of his early partners questioned his practice of continually making improvements to his designs. His partner supposedly told Deere that his improvements were unnecessary because the farmers had to take whatever they produced. Deere replied, "No, they don’t have to take what we produce. If we don’t improve our product, somebody else will."

Deere incorporated his business under the name Deere & Co. in 1868. By the early years of the 20th century, when ROADS & BRIDGES’ ancestor publication was getting started, Deere was making a wide range of steel plows, cultivators, corn and cotton planters and other implements.

The company also was poised to expand, which it did in 1911 by acquiring six noncompeting farm equipment companies. Deere & Co. acquired Waterloo Gasoline Traction Engine Co. in 1918. The Waterloo, Iowa, company’s tractors became an important part of the Deere product line.

Building the industrial branch

One of the earliest uses of a Deere-related tractor in a roadbuilding application happened in 1920 when a Waterloo Boy tractor was used by the city of Moline to pull a road scraper. A hard-rubber tire version of the Deere Model D tractor was offered in 1926 as the "John Deere Industrial Tractor"; it was officially adopted as the DI in 1935 and remained in production until 1941. Industrial tractors were used in the late 1930s to pull graders and road sprinkling wagons and as power sources for belt-driven saws and winches in the logging business.

The real start of Deere’s industrial equipment production as a separate effort did not come until December 1946, when Deere acquired selected assets of Lindeman Power Equipment Co., Yakima, Wash., and began producing its own line of crawler tractors.

The first John Deere wheel and crawler tractors specifically designed for industrial use rolled (and crawled) off production lines at the Dubuque factory in 1958. In the same year, the name of the John Deere Wagon Works in Moline was changed to the John Deere Industrial Equipment Works

In 1967, Deere introduced the industry’s first articulated motor grader.

Other significant events in the history of construction equipment at John Deere include the announcement of the Era III program in 1974. The program aimed to take advantage of the company’s accumulated engineering expertise in industrial equipment and apply it to a stepped-up program of product development, especially in the area of larger construction and forestry machines.

The name of the industrial division was changed to the John Deere Construction Equipment Division in 1995.

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