Fall Fest visitors learn John Deere’s story

Greg Dutchoff pumps the bellows to increase the flames in the blacksmith's shop's fireplace Sunday at the John Deere Historic Site in Grand Detour,

GRAND DETOUR – Visitors to the John Deere Historic Site this weekend were able to learn about his legacy – developing the first commercially successful, self-coursing steel plow almost 190 years ago – tour his home and even play some games during the site’s Fall Fest.

The grounds featured something for everyone, from food vendors, carriage rides and a farm and petting zoo set up by FFA students to pumpkin decorating and games such as pumpkin bowling and searching for candy in a haystack. It was the first Fall Fest at the site since 2019, shelved after COVID-19 pandemic restrictions began in 2020.

Turnout for the two-day festival was hindered slightly by Saturday’s rain, but Sunday’s clearer skies led to streams of people checking out the Deere family home, built by John Deere himself, and other attractions honoring Deere’s work.

Brandon Jens, branded properties manager with John Deere who manages the Grand Detour site, was among Deere staff members greeting guests Sunday. He said it was on the grounds that Deere, a young blacksmith, in 1837 made the first successful steel plow that ultimately helped open vast rich prairies to agricultural developments.

Jens pointed to the replica building constructed around the location where Deere created the plow and antique tractors set up alongside walking paths as reminders of Deere’s work.

“John Deere the man never even saw a tractor. He passed away 30 years before tractors were even around,” Jens said. “So sometimes it’s kind of weird to see tractors on our site, because he never saw John Deere tractors. He didn’t know. John Deere wasn’t John Deere green.”

John Deere’s story begins in 1804, when he was born in Rutland, Vermont. After his father was lost at sea when Deere was 4 years old, Deere was raised solely by his mother, according to the historic site’s website.

When the New England economy collapsed in 1836, Deere headed to Illinois, where he established a blacksmith shop in Grand Detour.

“He left his pregnant wife and children in Vermont, and he came here because he had heard people were moving out West and there was really great opportunities,” Jens said. “When he got here, he was a blacksmith that would fix wagons and do things like that.

“And then one day he saw some discarded saw blades at a sawmill. And he took the teeth off and sanded down that blade. Because he had heard the farmers were having a really hard time plowing these fields because the soil is so different than it is out East. And so he made this plow with a better blade that could cut through the soil. They even called it the singing plow because it would hum as it went through the soil.

“He built his first plow in 1837, and then he actually had a couple of business partners in the Grand Detour area, cut ties with them around 1848 and moved to Moline, and moved the operations there.”

The Mississippi River provided water power for running a factory as well as riverboats for bringing in raw materials and moving plows to market. Soon, Deere’s company was making 1,000 plows a year.

In 1868, Deere’s business was incorporated under the Deere & Co. name.

Deere died in 1886, with his heirs leading the company for the next century, according to the website.

Visitors come from far and wide to visit the site, Jens said. Some intentionally plan a trip to gain the historical knowledge and some are John Deere brand fans. Others stop when seeing a sign pointing motorists to the site or when searching their phones for local places to visit.

“It’s such a cool story to think about one man, starting in one shop, right here,” Jens said. “It really was the start of what really expanded American agriculture.”

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Charlene Bielema

Charlene Bielema

Charlene Bielema is the editor of Sauk Valley Media.