Harvest season: Telling John Deere’s story

Editor’s Note: Happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate! We’ve reviewed stories this week related to farming in the Midwest. Today, as people sit down to turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, cranberries and other great fixin’s, we take a look at the history of the tractor and farm implements via John Deere. We dedicate today’s post to my father, Marvin Swanson, who loved John Deere since he was a young farmer.


John Deere
John Deere’s Waterloo (Iowa) museum offers an interesting look into the history of tractors.

When pioneers moved to the west, they brought with them their eastern farming tools, including plows. That made sense. However, they struggled with the terrain of the Great Plains. The soil had to be frequently cleaned off the iron or wooden plows.

John Deere relocated from Vermont to Grand Detour, Illinois, and ran a blacksmith shop. He observed farmers’ struggles. So, in an effort to help others and generate some business, John Deere created a steel saw plow that cut throw the soil and didn’t need to be continually cleaned.

John Deere
It all started 175 years ago when John Deere designed a steel plow to help area farmers.

Thus, the John Deere Company was born. Deere built 13 plows the first year, working up to 100 in 1842. In 1849, the company built more than 2,000 plows. In 1852, he bought out his partner.

Deere and Company was formally christened in 1868, with brothers John and Charles holding 65 percent of the stock among the four owners.

As Deere and Company grew in business and stature, the company evolved into the tractor business. In 1918, after years of researching the “right” type of tractor, Deere bought the manufacturer of the Waterloo Boy.

John Deere
The Waterloo Boy was the best of all tractors in the early 1900s. That’s why John Deere bought the plant and continued producing the model for a few more years.

They agreed to keep the production plant in Waterloo, Iowa. More than 5,000 tractors were produced during the first year.

After 175 years in the agriculture business, John Deere Company opened a museum at its Waterloo complex. Six buildings make up the complex.

The Tractor and Engine Museum is an amazing look into the company’s history and future. From the plow that started it all to the latest tractor model, visitors get a close-up look at John Deere vehicles and a variety of other items. About 60 styles of tractors are on display.

My dad once told me about his early farming days. He grew up during the Great Depression. They plowed the fields with a horse-led plow. It was hard work, he said. Then, they added a second horse. It improved the still-difficult work, he said. The museum has an interactive exhibit where people can stand and try to keep a plow on track while being pulled by two horses. It was challenging. I succeeded, but a few others weren’t so lucky.

John Deere
Visitors to the museum can try their hand at old-fashioned plowing at an interactive exhibit.

Then, my dad told me that farm life took a major leap forward in the early 1900s. The family bought its first John Deere tractor – a D model. He said it was like night and day. His life working in the fields changed drastically for the better. Museum visitors are greeted by the model near the entrance.

John Deere
The first “real” John Deere tractor – the D model.

As a reminder of how time have changed, museum visitors can see an old washing machine, where people had to hand crank clothes being rinsed. Other antique pieces are offered for viewing, as well.

John Deere
Anyone remember using these items?

The Waterloo Gas Engine Company was known for producing the best tractors. That’s John Deere bought the company. They continued to manufacture the Waterloo Boy model from 1918 until 1923, when the Deere D Model was introduced.

As more models were produced over the ensuing decades, advancements were made with each model. From undercarriages to other items, each model should be better than the previous one.

John Deere
Several John Deere tractors are on display at the museum.

John Deere has dipped its toes in other markets. It produced bicycles among others.

John Deere
Ever ride a John Deere bicycle?

Today, a John Deere tractor can basically drive itself. Tractors and combines can be operated with GPS.

John Deere
Today’s tractors use GPS for plowing. They can actually be operated without a driver.

From that first plow to computerized tractors, the John Deere Tractor and Engine Museum offers a great stroll through farming history. It is well worth the trip to Waterloo. In fact, if you visit during the week, you can even take a tour of the production plant, including watching fresh tractors coming off the assembly line.

For more information on the museum, as well as other John Deere facilities, please visit www.deere.com/en_US/corporate/our_company/fans_visitors/tours_attractions/index.page.