When John Deere was eight years old, his father left their home in Middlebury, Vt., and boarded a ship for England. He had received word that a small inheritance awaited him there.
But he never returned. John Deere had to make the family fortune himself.
He was born in Rutland, Vt., on Feb. 7, 1804, the son of William Deere, a tailor, and Sarah Yates Deere, a seamstress.
After her husband was presumed lost at sea, Sarah worked as a seamstress to keep her six children together. At 17, John was apprenticed to Capt. Benjamin Taylor, a prosperous blacksmith in Middlebury. At 22, he married Damarius Lamb, and they had nine children. He then started his own smithy, but it failed.
Then in 1836, he moved to Grand Detour, Ill., to escape bankruptcy in Vermont. He opened a shop there and worked as a general repairman and maker of small tools. He noticed the prairie soil stuck to the blade of the iron and wooden shares, and farmers constantly had to clean off the sticky clay.
There are several stories about how John Deere was inspired to invent the polished steel plow that scoured itself. One story had him remembering the needles he polished in his father’s shop in Vermont. Another had him recollecting how a polished steel pitchfork moved through hay and soil.
Whatever the real story, John Deere made the first cast-steel plow from an old saw blade in 1837. He then began to sell it to his neighbors in 1837. For the next four years he made 75 to 100 such plows. He formed a partnership, dissolved it, and moved to Moline, Ill. By 1855, the company sold 10,000 plows, which became known as ‘The Plow that Broke the Plains.”
Deere & Co. would then grow in to a multinational manufacturer of agricultural machinery.
Today there is a historic marker in Middlebury:
John Deere learned the blacksmith trade here as an apprentice in the shop of Captain Benjamin Lawrence from 1821 to 1825. The shop was located below this spot on Mill Street, in what is known as ‘Frog Hollow’. In 1836 Deere removed to Grand Detour, Illinois where, in 1837, he built the world’s first steel moldboard plow.
This story last updated in 2022.