If John Deere the company had stayed in the hands of John Deere the man, the company would have folded a long time ago. Although John Deere was a perfectionist when it came to manufacturing his plows, he was not a perfectionist when it came to business. In fact, it would be his son, Charles Deere, who would put the Inc. in John Deere, Inc.
Some might find it ironic that Charles Deere was born the same year that his father invented the first self-cleaning steel plow. In fact, John had no expectation of Charles one day taking over the business. That job fell to his oldest son, Francis Albert. John’s plow would soon change the course of history. The thick, black, and rich prairie soil of Illinois, Iowa, and Indiana would soon be torn asunder by the plow of John Deere. Other events in the 1830s would also help to spur the growth of farming in the Midwest including the railroad, a new city on the shores of Lake Michigan, a canal linking the Illinois River to Lake Michigan, and the removal of the Indians from the upper Midwest. The population of the state boomed in the north. The Illinois Country would never be the same.
The Deere family continued to live in tiny Ogle County until 1847 and 1848 when John Deere packed up his family and business and moved to Moline to take advantage of the Mississippi River for its trade and travel opportunities. Charles was only 11. That same year, Francis Albert Deere died suddenly in the Ogle County Flu Epidemic and Charles’ life forever changed. He was now expected to go into the family business. But Charles was different from his father. While John liked to tinker with steel and machines, Charles did not.
In 1853, Charles, at the age of 16, graduated from Bell’s Commercial School in Chicago. He joined the company business as a bookkeeper. He quickly advanced up the company ladder to become head of sales. The “Panic of 1857” almost doomed the company. The raw materials and natural resources needed to build the plows was far outstripping their sales. In other words, they had a serious financial problem. While John Deere remained President of the company, he turned the day-to-day running of the business side over to Charles. At the age of 21, Charles Deere was now the one on whom John Deere entrusted his legacy.
Over the next forty-six years, Charles would do more than run a company, he would transform and innovate business in America and the Midwest. His major accomplishment was the branch house.
From selling directly to the dealer, a system of branch stores-which later became branch houses-grew under his direction, till at the time of his death any one of the fifteen or more at Omaha, St. Louis, Minneapolis. Kansas City, Winnipeg, San Francisco and other centers represented a volume of business worthy of the undivided attention of a business genius…His great structure comprehended the entire field of agriculture.1
What Charles Deere had done was to cut out the independent dealer and sell straight to the farmer. What the farmer had done was go to the dealer and tell him what else Deere could make for him. This diversification of industry would soon make Deere, Incorporated (1868) into the world’s leading supplier of farm implements and not just plows. Deere was the forerunner of the corporate franchise of the twentieth century. Charles did not think of this all by himself; he had stolen the idea from Isaac Singer who was selling his sewing machines all over the country.
Charles Deere is still well thought of in Moline. His charitable work and investment in the town and other industries in the town are well known there. Not everything he touched turned to gold though. He once partnered up for an ill fated venture into the automobile industry.
In the end, when you talk about John Deere and Charles Deere, you really can’t talk about the one without the other. Without John Deere inventing the plow, there would be no Charles Deere. However, without the Charles’s business sense, the name of the John Deere has been ensured.
1 – Biographical History of Rock Island County’s Early Settlers and Leading Business Men.
Book to Read
The John Deere Story: A Biography of Plowmakers John & Charles Deere by Neil Dahlstrom and Jeremy Dahlstrom