We tend to think of John Deere as tractors and green hats and forget that John Deere was an actual person. A person who never built, or even saw, a real tractor in his life. Speedracer had to do a famous American project one year so the whole family got a big dose of John-Deere-the-real-person for a few weeks. It turns out there’s a lot of biographical information available about John Deere, but it can be hard to get your hands on because it’s buried under all the tractor books!
Here’s a quick biographical sketch of the man behind the company, along with a list of resources that would put together a nice little unit study.
John Deere was born in Vermont in 1804 to a poor, working-class family. His father disappeared at sea in 1806 and he was raised by a single mother. He probably had very little education and apprenticed himself out to a blacksmith when he was 17. He worked and traveled extensively through Vermont for about 15 years, eventually getting married and having 5 children.
IN 1837, Deere headed further west, hoping that work would be more profitable surrounded by farmers in the midwestern prairies. He set up shop in Decatur Illinois and sent for his wife and children to join him a few years later.
As a blacksmith, he was constantly doing repairs to wooden and cast iron plows that were damaged by the thick, prairie clay. They had been designed for the softer, sandier soils in the east and couldn’t break down or move through the western sod. Deere developed a plow blade that was highly polished steel to slid through the soil. The blade was specifically shaped to shed the clay off as it moved along. It was highly successful and he started receiving more orders than he could fill.
I think, in light of all the tractors we see with the running deer emblem these days, it’s a good time to mention that this was a walk-behind-plow. The horse or mule powered kind. This was nothing like a tractor.
Thru a succession of business dealings, by 1850 Deere ended up in Moline, Illinois with a company producing 1600+ plows a year. At the time, Deere was importing steel for his plows from Europe, but by 1856 Deere and Company had sourced steel from Pennsylvania and was turning out more than 10,000 plows and farm implements a year. John Deere passed ownership and management of the company to his son, Charles, in 1858, and moved into local politics. In Moline, he served as director of the local bank and library, was a trustee of a local church, and even spend a few years as the Town Mayor.
He and his wife had 9 children in total. When his first wife passed away in 1865, he married her sister and retired in Moline until his death in 1886. John Deere’s plow became known as “The Plow that Broke the Plains” and changed the entire face of farming.
It’s worth noting that the John Deere Model D, the first tractor the company ever built, didn’t come into production until 1923.
So if you wanted to pull together some resources for a unit study–or just do some more reading like we did after Speedracer’s project!–here’s a list of resources you can try to track down. As I mentioned, it’s very hard to weed through all the tractor history book to get to the books about John Deere, the man.
Website Articles and Videos
- John Deere, Company Leader. A biography from Deere and Company on their founder. You can also find an excellent Timeline of the Company’s development and tractor technology.
- John Deere, from Famous Inventors.
- John Deere (Inventor), Wikipedia. It’s a decent summary and I’ve confirmed everything there from our other reading.
- John Deere — Inventor, Biography by A&E.
- Farmers Almanac: John Deere, the Man on YouTube (5 minutes)
- Illinois Adventure #17003, John Deere Historic Site on YouTube (10 minutes)
- John Deere Brief Bio on YouTube (6 minutes)
- History of the Steel Plow on YouTube (5 minutes) Not sure where this video comes from, but it’s a pretty engaging synopsis for the younger crowd.
The John Deere Story: A Biography of the Plowmakers by Neil Dahlstrom. This is the basic biography we used as the spine of our research.
- John Deere, Pioneer Plowmaker by David Collins. This is a great, read-aloud book conveying the history in a comfortable story rhythm for younger learners.
- John Deere, History Makers by Jane Sutcliff. This is a good, graphic-heavy children biography. I wish we had every book in this series.
- John Deere’s Steel Plow by Edward Kendell. This one is FREE at Amazon, but a little dry for young learners.
- John Deere, That’s Who! by Tracey Maurer
- John Deere’s Powerful Idea by Terry Collins. I find the cover a bit ironic since it’s a John Deere tractor above the subtitle “The Perfect Plow,” but it is a good understanding of the story.
- John Deere, Man with the Golden Plow by Daniel Alef. This one is only available for Kindle.
While I didn’t find many lesson plans or worksheets related to John Deere, the Inventor, I did find this website with agricultural technology activities which talks about the science and engineering behind the plow and includes some hands-on project ideas.
And, since I love to let the kids multi-task quietly while I read aloud, here’s some John Deere coloring sheets to print and enjoy!