John Deere was once widely credited with the invention of the steel plow, a revolutionary idea in those days of wooden or cast-iron moldboards and cast or wrought iron plow shares.
We’ve all heard the stories about the difficulty farmers had in the prairies of Illinois with the sticky, gumbo-like soil that after the initial breaking would absolutely not scour.
How the plow would have to be stopped every couple of feet, lifted from the furrow, and hand scraped free of the soil buildup, making progress nearly impossible.
However, what part did “Major” Leonard Andrus have in Mr. Deere’s successful steel plow?
Andrus was born in Vermont in 1805 and lived there until 1826 when he moved to Rochester, New York, where he was a successful merchant.
At some point, he served in a local fire brigade company where he attained the rank of “Major,” and affected this title the rest of his life.
In 1834, Andrus went west to Illinois where he acquired land within a U-shaped bend in the Rock River 100 miles west of Chicago.
Here, he and a couple of relatives established a store, as well as a sawmill and grist mill that used the river to power their machinery, and called the place “Grand Detour” — because the river made a sweeping detour around the town.
How John Deere ended up in Grand Detour depends upon who’s telling the story.
Broehl’s book, John Deere’s Company, speculates he may have heard of the town from Amos Bosworth, a man he had once worked for in Vermont and who had moved to Grand Detour (in fact he was Andrus’ father-in-law), while Erb and Brumbaugh’s book on the J.I. Case Company, Full Steam Ahead, says Andrus invited Deere to be his mechanic on a new stage line.
However he heard of it, Grand Detour was where John Deere, fleeing a probable bankruptcy in Vermont, ended up in 1836.
His skills as a smith were immediately in demand, one account tells us that Andrus’ sawmill was broken down, so Deere built a crude forge and set to work.
Before long, he was repairing and making all sorts of tools for the local residents, and while repairing and sharpening plows he heard about the scouring problem, a problem that Andrus was aware of as well.
Although Deere history gives all the credit for the steel plow to Deere, Case, who ended up later owning Andrus’ plow company, cites Leonard Andrus and never mentions Deere.
For example, a 1941 sales handbook for Case dealers says, “In 1843 he (Andrus) formally organized the first plow manufactory in the name ‘L. Andrus.’ In 1847 his partner withdrew to establish his own plow factory elsewhere.”
Of course, the un-named partner was John Deere. If in fact, Deere’s first steel plow was made from a discarded saw blade, as has been claimed, the blade undoubtedly came from Andrus’ sawmill.
John Lane, a blacksmith in Lockport, Illinois, had already made a steel moldboard plow in 1833 by cutting a steel saw blade into strips, welding the strips together, and hammering it into a curved shape.
Lane, however, never patented his plow and made probably less than 500 plows to order.
When Lane died in 1857, the Scientific American noted in his obituary, “John Lane, Sr., the inventor of the steel plow, died at his residence in Lockport, Ill., after a brief illness. Mr. Lane emigrated (sic) to Illinois in 1833 and in that year invented the steel plow, which is now in general use throughout the West.”
Anyway, between John Deere and his blacksmithing ability, and Leonard Andrus and his capital to finance the operation, plus his business and sales experience, a successful, self-scouring plow was perfected in 1837 and word of it quickly spread.
Even though demand was heavy, only one plow was built the first year and only four the second. The third year, a second forge was added to the little shop and Deere and Andrus reportedly worked together to produce the plows.
By 1840 a horse-powered grinder had been added and 40 plows were produced. Four hundred more came out of the shop in 1844 and a new factory was built called the L. Andrus Plough Manufactory, and soon horse-power was replaced by steam.
Steel was imported from England but took six months to arrive and cost $300 per ton, before William Woods rolled the first slab of cast plow steel at the Jones & Quigg Steel Works in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, making the product much cheaper and easier to obtain.
The new factory in 1844 was apparently the result of an agreement between Deere and Andrus dated 20 March, 1843.
In the only, surviving and unsigned copy of this three-year agreement the two men agreed to be “co-partners in the art and trade of black-smithing, plow-making and all things there to belonging at the said Grand Detour.”
The document also contained a clause in which both agreed to “employ [their] whole time in the business,” and that the new firm would carry Leonard Andrus’ name only.
Deere and Andrus ran through several partners during the next four years, and in 1848 Deere determined to leave.
An associate of Deere, Robert N. Tate, wrote how Andrus offered to let Deere have the business for $1,200 (another source says $3,000), an offer which Deere accepted.
Taking Tate as his new partner, Deere settled in Moline on the Mississippi River, and began the company which is still famous today, while Andrus continued to build plows in Grand Detour.
Two years after Andrus’ death in 1867, his successor moved the firm to Dixon, Illinois, and renamed it the Grand Detour Plow Company, which was, in 1919, purchased by the J.I. Case Threshing Machine Company.
The study of history is fascinating, and often raises more questions than it answers.
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