Pioneer farmers in the early 1800s had problems plowing the ground.    The turf in the Midwest was not pebbly like New England’s; nor was it sandy like that of the coastal plains.    Rather, it was sticky and thick. Because the soil was so stubborn, farmers’ plows would not work because    the weary plowman had to stop every few feet to scrape mud off the blade of the plow. John Deere changed that.

Born in Rutland, Vermont, in 1804, Deere apprenticed himself to a blacksmith after his father disappeared, leaving him and his mother on their own. In those times there were no convenient stores, so the blacksmith was the neighborhood fix-it and make-it man.    He crafted tools, fashioned hardware, mended machines, shaped nails, shoed horses, and rimmed wheels.

For ten years John Deere smote iron, all the while working to improve his products; indeed, his pitchforks, shovels and hoes were widely hailed because of their strength.

In 1836 John Deere moved “out west” when the western frontier meant Indiana and Illinois.    Leaving his wife for a spell, Deere barged the length of the Erie Canal and then sailed the Great Lakes to Chicago, arriving in Grand Detour, Illinois with $73 to his name.    He set up a blacksmith shop as soon as he arrived and quickly had all the work he could handle, much of it backed up from farmers unwilling or unable to travel 40 miles to the next-nearest forge.    Thriving and thrifty, Deere built a modest house and sent for his spouse and their five children.

As he daily bent over his anvil, John Deere tinkered with different materials.    By happenstance, one day he got his hands on a shiny steel blade the local sawyer had tossed away. He molded it into the world’s very first steel plow blade.

One afternoon in 1837 Deere assembled his steel and wooden parts into a plow and carted it outdoors for a test.    The sun glinted from the polished plowshare as a horse was hitched up. The horse strained into the pull.    Soil began smoothly curling up from the plow blade in a long, neat pile.    Onlookers plodded along.    After a furlong, everyone stopped.    “By thunder!” someone exclaimed, “She’s clean!”

In spite of this early success, neither financial rewards nor public acclaim would soon arrive at John Deere’s door.    In fact, in 1838 he built and sold just three steel plows; the next year, ten more; in 1842, only a hundred.    Deere let the plow sell itself, and often asked for no cash down, giving each buyer a money-back guarantee.

Deere eventually contracted for high-grade steel to be shipped from England.    Unfortunately, the stormy ocean crossing rusted and ruined his first shipment.    That disaster turned Deere toward Pittsburgh, in its infancy as a center for manufacturing iron products.    There in 1846 the first sheet steel was rolled out to Deere’s specifications.

Deere also soon realized that his Grand Detour factory would not do for long:    the Rock River was too shallow for steamboats to ascend;    the rude roadways were impassable in foul weather;    and a railroad was already stretching from Chicago westward.    And so it was to Moline on the Mississippi that John Deere moved his operation — blocks, stocks and barrels.

There John Deere lived a long and productive life.    His family prospered and his company grew.    Thanks, in part, to the self-scouring plow, Illinois became the grain basket of America. Today, the John Deere corporation, headquartered in Moline, Illinois, is one of the largest manufacturers of agricultural equipment in the world. “Nothing runs like a Deere.”