Pioneers of the World’s ‘Bread Basket’
By Tom Morrow
Everyone should know that John Deer and Cyrus McCormick were primarily responsible for plowing the soil and harvesting food for America and eventually the world.
Today, Deere’s name lives on labeling mowers, tractors and a variety of other farm implements. McCormick’s name became International Harvester. Together, these two men were of primary importance in providing American farmers revolutionary tools that fed the “Bread Basket of the World.”
Deere, born Feb. 7, 1804, was an American blacksmith and manufacturer who founded the Deere & Company; McCormick ended up being the father of I-H. Together they became two of the world’s leading agricultural and construction equipment inventors, developers and manufacturers.
In 1837, Deere moved to Illinois where he invented, designed and manufactured the first commercially successful “steel” plow. About that same time, McCormick settled in Illinois where he further developed his “reaping” machine.
Deere worked in Vermont before opening settling in Illinois. He found that cast-iron plows of that day were not working very well in cutting through the tough prairie soil. Deere came to the conclusion a plow made out of highly polished steel and a correctly shaped moldboard better handled the soil conditions of the vast prairie, especially its sticky clay. It allowed farmers to double and triple their crop production with relative ease.
McCormick, born five years after Deere, on Feb. 15, 1809, in Virginia, developed the mechanical reaper for harvesting grain. It relieved farmers from vast amounts of hand-labor, quadrupling their production. Like Deere, McCormick ended up being an Illinois industrialist and inventor who went on to develop a variety of harvesting tools.
In 1831, using the working model developed by his father and the research done by others, McCormick set about developing his mechanical reaper. He built, tested and demonstrated it within a span of 18 months. Sales were slow for the first few years because of the farmer’s skepticism against mechanical machinery. McCormick sold only a few for the first years, but he kept on improving his invention. In 1834, he received a patent for the reaper design. He had to overcome the farmers’ suspicion of mechanical equipment. As his machine’s reputation among farmers became better known, orders picked up.
In 1837, Deere developed and manufactured the first commercially successful cast-steel plow. The wrought-iron, framed plow had a polished steel blade. It was ideal for turning the tough Midwestern soil, far surpassing other plows of the day. By early 1838, Deere’s steel plow had farmers passing the word about its labor-saving success. By 1841, Deere was manufacturing 75 to 100 plows per year.
The two revolutionary inventors ended up moving their respective operations to Illinois, the heart of America’s farm land.
Deere moved to Moline, Illinois, because it was a key transportation hub on the Mississippi River. By 1855, Deere had sold more than 10,000 plows. The tool became known as “The Plow that Broke the Plains.”
McCormick also moved to Illinois, but his factory was destroyed in the Chicago Fire of 1871. He quickly rebuilt with increased capacity and eventually expanded equipment sales to Europe.
Later in life, Deere became active in civil and political affairs. He served as President of the National Bank of Moline, a director of the Moline Free Public Library, and was a trustee of the First Congregational Church. Deere also served as Moline’s mayor for two years.
By 1857 McCormick was turning out 23,000 reapers a year. He bought other agricultural patents and companies, expanding his empire to sell mowers, harvesters, and other farming implements around the world.
Deere died at home on May 17, 1886 at the age of 82; McCormick died May 13, 1884 at the age of 75. Together, they revolutionized world food production.
When this writer grew up in southern Iowa, to remain in the Hawkeye state, a young person had three primary choices: farming, the military, or go and work constructing farm implements in the Mississippi metropolis of the “Tri Cities,” Moline and Rock Island, Illinois or Davenport, Iowa. Thousands of Midwestern men and women have built careers that started with John Deere and Cyrus McCormick. Those careers have equipped millions of farmers whose food production now feeds the world.
Recently we witnessed the birth of commercial space travel. The flight of the Virgin Galactica taking off and landing like a standard aircraft, reached some 50 miles into outer space. It was a small step toward the possibility of gliding from one airport to another, exceeding flight and speed records of yesterday’s supersonic Concorde. While last week’s space craft returned to earth landing like a standard aircraft, it proved future flights will climb up, then glide from the darkness of space, returning to earth, landing at airports around the world. It’ll be the “E” ticket of the future.