Despite being from Vermont, John Deere revolutionized farming in the Midwest when he forged his first steel plow at his blacksmith shop in Illinois in 1837. When the company expanded its line of farm equipment to include tractors and combines, its name became synonymous with agriculture and lawn maintenance in the U.S. Learn more about how nothing runs like a Deere with the following facts.
1. JOHN DEERE STARTED WORKING AS A BLACKSMITH WHEN HE WAS 17 ...
Deere, born in 1804, was the son of a Vermont tailor. When he was just 4, his father boarded a ship set for England, but was never heard from again; he may have died at sea. Deere and his siblings were raised by his mother. The family didn't have much, and after finishing school, Deere went into trade. He served as an apprentice for four years before opening his own shop.
2. ... BUT THE BUSINESS CONDITIONS WEREN’T IDEAL, AND DEERE FLED TO ILLINOIS TO ESCAPE BANKRUPTCY.
3. HE IS SAID TO HAVE CREATED HIS FIRST STEEL PLOW FROM A BROKEN SAW BLADE.
Deere noticed farmers in the area kept showing up at his shop with broken plows over and over again. The wood and cast iron ones farmers were using were designed for sandy soil and had a tendency to break and get stuck in the thick, heavy soil of the Midwest. Deere had a better idea: Legend says he thought that a steel plow that was polished and sharpened could easily cut through soil. In 1837, he used a broken saw blade, polished and sharpened to perfection, to create a plow. Modern historians, however, point out that there’s no real evidence for the saw story—Deere was probably not the first person to invent such a device (John Lane was working on a similar system around the same time), and only one component of the early Deere plows was actually steel (the share). Still, this invention would become the cornerstone for a business empire.
4. BY 40 YEARS AFTER HE STARTED MAKING PLOWS, DEERE’S COMPANY WAS SELLING MORE THAN 50,000 ANNUALLY.
As demand grew, so did Deere’s manufacturing. He began making plows as fast as possible, instead of following the standard business practice of waiting for a customer to order a plow before making it. Over the next 20 years, Deere concentrated on growing his business, including moving it to Moline, Illinois, where water, coal and transportation were cheaper. In 1858, Deere passed effective control of the company to his son, Charles. Continuing to grow, the company was making plows at the rate of 500 a day by 1877.
5. DEERE SERVED TWO YEARS AS THE MAYOR OF MOLINE.
After retiring from the plow business, Deere remained an active member of his community. He was a founder and president of the National Bank of Moline and continued to attend services at the First Congregational Church. He died in Moline in 1886.
6. NOT ONLY POPULAR, JOHN DEERE’S FARMING EQUIPMENT WON MANY AWARDS.
The company almost annually took home prizes for plows at the Illinois State Fair in the Agricultural Implements category. A specific model of plow, the Gilpin Sulky, won first place in a head-to-head competition at the Paris World’s Fair in 1878 and a prize worth 1000 francs.
7. THE FIRST LEAPING DEER LOGO FEATURED A DEER NATIVE TO AFRICA.
Fearing copycat manufacturers, the company designed a trademark that could be stamped on all its equipment. The first version, which was used from 1876 to 1910, included a deer jumping over a log that was not native to the Midwest. (It was either a generic red deer or a Barbary deer, a subspecies of red deer that is the only deer species in Africa.) The logo was subsequently updated to feature the silhouette of a North American white-tailed deer around 1940.
8. WHEN JOHN DEERE EMPLOYEES WERE UNABLE TO FIND AFFORDABLE HOUSING, THE COMPANY BUILT THEIR OWN.
Along with the Deere family estate, the company built 50 homes in Moline to rent to its employees in 1909. By 1920, John Deere housed another 315 employees and their families, and built over 100 more houses after World War II.
9. DURING THE GREAT DEPRESSION, THE COMPANY REFUSED TO REPOSSESS THEIR FARM EQUIPMENT FROM FARMERS IN DEBT.
Even with business almost at a standstill, John Deere allowed families who were unable to continue making payments on their previously purchased plows and tractors to keep the equipment. The company was forced to lay off workers and shorten hours during the Great Depression as well, but it continued to cover the insurance for those laid off and lowered rent in company housing during the period.
10. THE SIGNATURE GREEN AND YELLOW COLOR SCHEME IS TRADEMARKED.
Don’t think that you can spray paint any old push mower so it looks like a John Deere—the company has filed lawsuits against those it felt were trying to use John Deere colors to their advantage. (That’s not to say you can’t paint it green—courts have consistently ruled that there was an “aesthetic functionality” to the colors. But if someone paints their vehicles suspiciously similar to a Deere, that’s when issues arise.) John Deere uses the same Pantone-defined shade of green and yellow [PDF] for all its marketing materials, and the company’s official guidelines include a friendly reminder to avoid using colors associated with its competitors. Case IH tractors are traditionally red, while New Holland’s are often blue.
11. BY SALES, JOHN DEERE IS THE LARGEST MANUFACTURER OF FARM EQUIPMENT IN THE WORLD.
The company surpassed its biggest competitor in 1963 and has held on to the title of largest producer and seller of farm equipment since then. John Deere’s name is known worldwide—the company is normally ranked in the top 100 on the list of best global brands—and works to cultivate “CFL” or “Customers for Life.” Some customers are so loyal they express their love for the company in a more permanent way.
12. JOHN DEERE LAUNCHED ITS FIRST LINE OF BICYCLES IN THE 1890s.
Capitalizing on a bicycle craze that hit the country, John Deere released the Deere Leader, the Deere Roadster, and the Moline Special. The company got out of bicycle manufacturing almost as fast as it got into it, but ventured back into the manufacturing of two-wheeled vehicles in the 1970s and currently sells some children’s bikes. The company also made a foray into snowmobiles in the 1970s.
13. VERY ENTHUSIASTIC JOHN DEERE FANS CAN TOUR DEERE’S BLACKSMITH SHOP AND HOME.
While not the original shop, visitors can see a blacksmith demonstrate the skills and tools Deere used to forge his steel plows [PDF]. The home on the National Historic Landmark is the original structure that Deere built when he first arrived in Illinois. John Deere also operates a tractor museum in Waterloo, Iowa [PDF] and a grand pavilion, open to the public, that houses some of the first tractors the company ever built.
All photos courtesy of Getty Images unless otherwise noted.