The Singing Plow – A Visit to the John Deere Historic Site

My wife surprised me when she agreed to stop at the John Deere Historic Site. I think she was happy that we weren’t touring Ronald Reagan’s birthplace instead. However, my promised quick stop on our way to Iowa turned into a two-hour private tour of the site.

Creepy Reagan – Pretty much how I remember him
We originally turned off the highway to tour one of the competing Ronald Reagan homes – his birthplace and his boyhood home. My wife was not very disappointed when we pulled up to the boyhood home and found it closed for the season. She didn’t even get out of the car to look at the creepy statue of Reagan. We passed a sign for the John Deere Historic Site on the way in, and without really asking, I headed there instead of turning back toward the highway. “We’ll be quick,” I promised.

After a couple miles, we pulled into the nearly empty parking lot.

As we headed toward the ticket booth, a voice bellowed, “You saved us from a zero!” The site’s blacksmith welcomed us, and a stream of questions followed. “What brought us to the John Deere Historic Site today?” “Did you know John Deere was a man?” I started to say that I hadn’t thought about John Deere as an actual man, but my wife scoffed and said, “Of course we knew John Deere was a man.” Rick, the blacksmith, walked us out to the sidewalk behind the booth and told us that “Pat will show you the museum, then you will meet me back here.”

While we waited for Pat, Rick asked us again why we came to the site. I told him about the blacksmithing classes I took a few years ago. Rick peppered me with questions about the classes. What had I made? Right-handed tongs or left-handed ones? Did we use a coal forge? How did we manage the fire? What size stock did we use? Finally Pat had enough chitchat and lead us into stop number one – the museum.

John Deere

The chance to make a little money and payoff debts lured John Deere to Grand Detour, Illinois. He was born in Rutland, Vermont in 1807, and apprenticed as a blacksmith near Middlebury in 1821. Deere was a successful apprentice and emerged well on his way to becoming as master blacksmith. In Vermont, he twice established his own shop, and twice they burned down. Deere borrowed money to rebuild each time, and racked up a significant debt. He heard of opportunities in the West, and in 1836, he left Vermont behind (along with this wife and several children).

As the only blacksmith in the area, Deere probably could have scratched out a good living repairing tools, and forging new ones, along with nails and horseshoes and other things that farmers needed. But like most multi-national corporation founders, John Deere liked to solve problems.

John Deere was a real person

The Singing Plow

Many of the farmers in the area came from New England, and brought along their New England plows. These plows, made of wood or cast iron, did just fine in the rocky soil of Vermont. In Illinois, the prairie sod stuck to the plows, and farmers had to stop every few feet to scrape the soil from the moldboard. Deere took an old sawmill blade, cut off the teeth and created a curved, polished steel moldboard that cut through the soil. The blade self-scoured – the soil fell off the blade. Farmers said the plow sang as it cut through the sod.

In 1837, Deere sold one or two plows. In 1838, he sold several more plows. By 1841, he was selling about 100 plows a year, and the number kept growing. He built an addition on his home to house his apprentices, and kept expanding his shop. After eleven years in Grand Detour, Deere packed up and moved his family and the business to Moline, where he could use the Mississippi to transport his plows across the country. He made a lot of money. His plow is referred to by many names – “the plow that broke the plains,” or “the plow that shaped America.”

The Museum

In the 1960’s a team of archaeologists located the site of the Deere’s original forge. The museum is essentially a platform where you can look out over the dig, which a few displays along the side. Pat talked us through Deere’s personal history, the problem of the sticky prairie soil, and the details of the dig. The archaeology team found the original site by looking for concentrations of iron in the soil. The soil around the grindstone was so rich in iron filings that it is still stained with rust.

As Deere’s operation grew, his shop expanded. Rows of posts dug into the soil marked the ever expanding shop. The hard limestone that lined the bottom of the forge is still present, although the bricks had been scavenged and reused over the years. Pat pointed out a basement foundation that had been dug into the shop area after John Deere left for Moline. It was labeled “The Intrusive Basement.” Pat told us that archaeologists were very upset about that basement and how it intruded on the site.

After she went over everything, Pat told us to have a seat and she would start the movie. After the movie we were to exit the building and head toward the blacksmith shop where Rick would talk to us. We deviated from the plan by looking a the displays a little longer, but quickly got back on track and headed to the shop.

A private tour at the John Deere Historic Site
A Private Tour!

The Shop

In the shop Rick, the blacksmith, pointed out various tools that John Deere would have used and made when he first got to Grand Detour. There were a few other people in the shop – other blacksmiths it turned out – and Rick’s speech was littered with inside jokes for his friends’ benefit. There were some old man jokes in there as well, but his speech was highly entertaining in spite of all that. He demonstrated the double bellows, talked about the melting point of iron, and showed us the three-eighth inch rod that he was about to work.

“Do you see a decorative leaf in this rod that is dying to come out?” he asked me. I muttered out a “Yes” and he started heating the rod in the forge and working it with his hammer on the anvil. He told us about his technique and tools as he worked, and quizzed me on my blacksmith vocabulary. In just a couple heats, he hammered out the decorative leaf, curling the end so we would know it was hand-made. “No machine can do that,” he said.

He finished the leaf with some brushes with a brass brush. The melting point of brass is lower that iron, so the brush left behind a nice bronzed patina on the leaf. Then he dunked the leaf into his water barrel and said as it hissed and sizzled, “Your skin makes the same sound, but you can’t hear it over the screaming.”

Once finished, he presented me with the leaf. “This leaf is a ten minute project, but this is what you can do when you have time to really work the metal,” he said as he pulled out an elaborately worked eagle feather. “Fourteen hours,” he said as he showed off his art.

Decorative Ornamental Leaf from the John Deere Historic Site
Decorative Ornamental Leaf

The House

We thanked Rick for his demo, and he sent us on our way. “Pat will meet you outside,” he said. Almost as soon as we were out of the shop, Pat met us on the path and walked us to the Deere home. The house is the only original building on Deere’s property that is still standing. He built the first part of the home immediately upon arriving in Grand Detour. As Pat told us, “Here you can see the many things that indicate John Deere was a forward thinking man.”

The first piece of evidence, was the well that John Deere dug just outside the door. Everyone else was making trips to and from the community well, but John Deere dug a 30-foot well just steps from his wife’s kitchen. “I think that shows a lot of love,” Pat told us.

Pat unlocked the door and let us in to the small front room. It was set up as a living room, but originally this was the only room on the first floor. There was a second floor bedroom that he built the first year (but we didn’t get to see that). A painting of Deere’s wife, Demarius Lamb, hangs in the room. She looks like she had a hard life, much older than the forty she was at her death. Across the room is a painting of Demarius’s daughter. She looks like she had a very different life. Pat told us we needed to go to Moline and tour the daughter’s home, just to get a sense of the kind of wealth John Deere accumulated with his plow.

Before we left the house, Pat pointed out a small rag doll that really looked like it was made out of rags. The doll had been found in the walls of the home, and likely belonged to one of the daughters. The doll was so simple, so plain, and had probably been loved and cherished. But it was creepy!

Beloved rag doll

The tour ended where all tours end – at the gift shop. At this point, I was feeling the time and knew we had to get on the road. I didn’t spend much time in the shop even though I really wanted a bright green John Deere hoodie or a John Deere belt buckle. The Tractoropoly (Collect $200 when you pass Harvest!) was also appealing. The playing pieces include a combine, a jumping deer, and a plow. I felt almost guilty leaving Pat behind, but like a relative after a big dinner, she loaded me up with brochures about touring John Deere facilities in Moline, and even a pie pumpkin from their fall display.

The folks at the John Deere Historic Site credit Deere with creating the plow that reshaped America, and hold him up as an example of American ingenuity and pluck. He would have to have his place next to Edison or other great American inventors – people who created something and had the sense to market and mass-produce that something. What I found more interesting, is how our history is shaped by people and tools we don’t even think about anymore. Of course, John Deere was a man, and he made a plow, not a tractor.

Maps, Nature and History