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Memories of Deere leap from the past

At the John Deere Pavilion in Moline, Ill., remembrances of old-time farm life and one very important farmer's friend spring to life.

By MARY L. SHERK

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 11, 2000


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[Photo: Mary L. Sherk]
John Deere’s blacksmith shop is preserved in the small town of Grand Detour, Ill., a few miles from Moline.
MOLINE, Ill. -- After years of trying to wash the hayseed out of my hair, I stood with my husband across the street from a two-story, glass-walled shrine to farm machinery. We were headed where?

"To see a John Deere exhibit," answered my Eastern-born, always-wanted-to-be-a-cowboy husband, who was already halfway across the downtown Moline street.

Deep in memory echoed the tentative putt-putt of the green tractors farmers drove when I was a kid in Nebraska. Dear, deer, Deere!

We walked into the John Deere Pavilion, passing huge yellow earthmovers and scrapers. The John Deere Co. has bulldozed its way into the construction business.

My husband strode on.

We found more than cute little green tractors with yellow wheels inside the pavilion. A two-story-tall cotton picker dominated the display space like a not-so-jolly green giant. Awed, for the time being we almost missed the modest engine on wheels labeled "Waterloo Boy" that set a blacksmith from Vermont on the road to world agribusiness.

Waterloo Boy was the acquisition that added sputtering tractors to Deere's line of self-cleaning plows.

Apparently the company never looked back. A volunteer guide confided that the huge cotton-picker replaced the work of 140 people. And recently one California corporation had ordered 1,000 of the $300,000 machines.

Umm, what about small farmers like my grandfathers, who plowed the prairies and fed America on their quarter-sections of land? They got bigger and richer, said my husband, walking over to inspect an old binder.

"My grandpa had one just like that, only it was red!" I exclaimed, remembering my dad neatly setting up the bundles of grain that a machine like this one had spit out onto the cut stubble.

Suddenly I could smell the dust of grain chaff and feel hot summer sun on my face. Almost.

The man who became a legend in farm machinery, John Deere, was born in Rutland, Vt., Feb. 7, 1804, and in his teens he apprenticed as a blacksmith, producing highly polished hay forks and shovels.

In the 1830s, hard times came to New England and Deere feared he would lose his job. Word of better things out West nudged him to investigate the frontier of western Illinois.

With a small bundle of tools and little money, Deere traveled to Grand Detour, Ill., in 1836. Though he and his family moved 75 miles to Moline, on the banks of the Mississippi in 1847, his early home and workshop in Grand Detour (accent the last syllable) on the Rock River has been saved for tourists in an attractive, informative setting.

Within a week after arriving at Grand Detour, Deere's forge was up and running.

As he shoed horses and oxen, settlers complained to him about their plows: The cast-iron ones they had brought with them -- and that weren't changed much from Roman times 2,000 years earlier -- just weren't working in Illinois' black, sticky soil. The farmers had to stop too often to scrape off the dirt that clung to the plow blade. Some of the farmers were so disheartened they thought seriously of leaving the Midwest -- to find someplace where their equipment worked better.

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[Photo: John Deere Pavilion]
What would the sodbusters say? The John Deere Pavilion shines in Moline, Ill., day and night.
Blacksmith Deere studied the problem and became convinced the stubborn soil would fall, or scour, from a highly polished and properly shaped plow, and thus would turn a clean slice of prairie.

Working long hours, he built a plow using steel from a broken saw blade. That was the first "singing plow" (i.e., a reference to the noise it made as it gouged the prairie sod). The "selfcleaning" steel plow was produced in 1837, the solution the pioneers needed for successful farming in the West.

Today a gold-plated plow (it may be bronze, the effect is the same) sits in the public display area of the company's Eero Saarinen-designed administrative center seven miles east of the downtown pavilion.

Balancing the huge cotton-picker in the pavilion's great room stood another green giant: a harvester. Farmers attach different implements depending on whether they want to harvest corn, wheat, oats, etc. No more bothering with separate machines such as corn-pickers or combines.

A little boy jubilantly climbed the ladder leading 6 or 7 feet to the cab and seat. "No, no, it's not a jungle gym!" his mother cautioned, luring him back to floor level.

We paused at the row of interactive displays, poked buttons that brought up screens displaying scenes of farming in America the past 150 years.

The pavilion is next to the John Deere Store, where I restrained my husband from buying models of some of the most notable Deere models, though the 1924 Model "D" for $48.99 was cute. Our grandchildren are all too big for any of the Johnny Tractor rompers. (Okay, someone in the company's marketing department has gotten a bit carried away.) I even put the kibosh on buying John Deere caps.

Also for sale are shirts with the motto, "Nothing runs like a Deere." I kept wanting to tamper with the spelling.

-- Mary L. Sherk is a freelance travel writer living in Broomfield, Colo.

If You Go

You can call the John Deere Pavilion at (309) 765-1000 or visit its web site at http://www.johndeerepavilion.com.

The Pavilion and store are near Centre Station, described as the heart of the Quad Cities MetroLink transportation system, offering access to the area's water taxi, historical trolley tour, food service and an information center.

mapMany tourists visit the Deere mansions in Moline, where John, his son and daughter lived.

The Quad Cities are Moline and Rock Island in Illinois and Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa. They're divided by the Mississippi River.

Quad Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau is in Iowa at 102 S Harrison St., Davenport, IA 52801-1807, and in Illinois at 2021 River Drive, Moline, IL 61265-1472, (800) 747-7800; http://quadcities.com/cvb.

Leaving Moline, we drove past the turnoff to Dixon, former president Ronald Reagan's boyhood home. A few more miles brought us to tiny Grand Detour, the now-sleepy village where Deere's western success began. The home he built for his family still stands, as does a replica of his blacksmith shop. Tour guides filled in details of this small-town craftsman on the prairie.

Besides Deere sites, tourists to the Quad Cities may be interested in Black Hawk historic site featuring trails along the Rock River and the Hauberg Indian Museum; Rock Island Arsenal island, which is in the middle of the Mississippi between Davenport and Rock Island. There is a visitors center where people can view barges coming through Lock & Dam #15. The Quad City Botanical Center is at 2525 Fourth Ave., Rock Island, IL; (309) 794-0991.

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