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John Deere's Steel Plow   By:

John Deere's Steel Plow by Edward C. Kendall

First Page:

CONTRIBUTIONS FROM

THE MUSEUM OF HISTORY AND TECHNOLOGY:

PAPER 2

JOHN DEERE'S STEEL PLOW

Edward C. Kendall

DEERE AND ANDRUS 17

THE FIRST PLOW 19

STEEL OR IRON 21

WHY A STEEL PLOW 23

RECONSTRUCTIONS 24

IN SUMMARY 25

By Edward C. Kendall

JOHN DEERE'S STEEL PLOW

John Deere in 1837 invented a plow that could be used successfully in the sticky, root filled soil of the prairie. It was called a steel plow. Actually, it appears that only the cutting edge, the share, on the first Deere plows was steel. The moldboard was smoothly ground wrought iron.

Deere's invention succeeded because, as the durable steel share of the plow cut through the heavy earth, the sticky soil could find no place to cling on its polished surfaces.

Americans moving westward in the beginning of the 19th century soon encountered the prairie lands of what we now call the Middle West. The dark fertile soils promised great rewards to the farmers settling in these regions, but also posed certain problems. First was the breaking of the tough prairie sod. The naturalist John Muir describes the conditions facing prairie farmers when he was a boy in the early 1850's as he tells of the use of the big prairie breaking plows in the following words:[1]

They were used only for the first ploughing, in breaking up the wild sod woven into a tough mass, chiefly by the cord like roots of perennial grasses, reinforced by the tap roots of oak and hickory bushes, called "grubs," some of which were more than a century old and four or five inches in diameter.... If in good trim, the plough cut through and turned over these grubs as if the century old wood were soft like the flesh of carrots and turnips; but if not in good trim the grubs promptly tossed the plough out of the ground.

The second and greater problem was that the richer lands of the prairie bottoms, after a few years of continuous cultivation, became so sticky that they clogged the moldboards of the plows. Clogging was such a factor in prairie plowing that farmers in these regions carried a wooden paddle solely for cleaning off the moldboard, a task which had to be repeated so frequently that it seriously interfered with plowing efficiency. It seems probable that by the 1830's blacksmiths in the prairie country were beginning to solve the problem of continuous cultivation of sticky prairie soil by nailing strips of saw steel to the face of wooden moldboard of the traditional plows. Figure 1 is a photograph of an 18th century New England plow in the collection of the U. S. National Museum. This is one type of plow which was brought west by the settlers. It contributed to the development of the prairie breaker shown in figure 2. The first plow on record with strips of steel on the moldboard is attributed to John Lane in Chicago in 1833.[2] Steel presented a smoother surface which shed the sticky loam better than the conventional wooden moldboards covered with wrought iron, or the cast iron moldboards of the newer factory made plows then coming into use.

It is generally accepted as historical fact that John Deere made his first steel plow in 1837 at Grand Detour, Illinois. The details of the construction of this plow have been variously given by different writers. Ardrey[3] and Davidson[4] describe Deere's original plow as having a wooden moldboard covered with strips of steel cut from a saw, in the manner of the John Lane plow.

[Sidebar: THE AUTHOR:

Edward C. Kendall is curator of agriculture, Museum of History and Technology, in the Smithsonian Institution's United States National Museum. ]

In recent years the 1837 Deere plow has been pictured quite differently. This has apparently come about as the result of the discovery of an old plow identified as one made by John Deere at Grand Detour in 1838 and sold to Joseph Brierton from whose farm it was obtained in 1901 by the maker's son, Charles H... Continue reading book >>




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