Turning Points in History

The Moline Decision – John Deere’s Big Gambit

John Deere is one of the largest manufacturers of agricultural equipment in the world. Centered in Moline, Illinois, the company is known all over the world for its quality machines and products. However, one fateful decision made by John Deere in 1847 changed the company’s fortunes. That decision, simply put, was to move the company from Grand Detour, Illinois, its original location along the Rock River, to Moline, Illinois, along the Mississippi River. That one choice changed Deere, Inc. from a local blacksmith into a nationally known company and, eventually, a world renowned corporation.

The late 1830s and early 1840s saw rapid change in Illinois. The railroad made its way into the northern part of the state, the Illinois and Michigan Canal began construction, and Chicago was established as a city. However, the biggest change was the continued movement of the United States west. At the end of the 1830s, Illinois was still on the western edge of the formal United States. Settlers kept moving farther and farther west. By the end of the 1840s, the Mississippi River was no longer the western edge of the US, it was the jumping off point to new lands like Kansas, Nebraska, and the rest of the plains who would become states in the 1850s. If John Deere was to continue to grow as a company, it had to take advantage of that westward movement. Staying in Grand Detour would ensure that Deere would remain a local company that serviced just local farmers. Moving west, well, that was the thing to do. And, it was also a huge risk.

John Deere had a way with steel. In 1837, Deere invented a steel plow that could clean itself. This self scouring plow could rip through the thick black soil of northern Illinois prairies and not stick to the plow. The effect of that one invention changed farming in the 1830s and 1840s. Word of Deere’s magical “plough” soon spread across the northern part of the state, into central Illinois, and later Wisconsin, Indiana, and Iowa.

What began with one plow in 1837 soon grew to over 100 plows a year by 1843.

Deere did not have to do much advertising initially as his best source of spreading information about the qualities of his product was the word of farmers who transformed their land with his invention.

Named after a big bend in the Rock River, Grand Detour, Illinois was a nice place for John Deere to start his business. Local farmers could easily access the town and his shop was only a short walk from the river. If one were to start an implement company, there were not many better places to begin during an era dominated by river travel.

However, the 1840s saw America and transportation changing. Trains soon could move Deere’s “ploughs” faster than any river boat could. By the middle of the decade, Deere could send a plow anywhere there were tracks. However, when it came to the future of the US and farming, it was moving westward.

If John Deere was going to grow as a company, how long could Grand Detour continue to be his base?

Deere knew that he could make more money with his plows if he had access to more water, was closer to his resources, and he was more centrally located to ship his product to farmers in more states rather than Ogle, Lee, La Salle, Winnebago, and DeKalb counties.

After having moved from Vermont and rid himself of debt in less than 10 years, John Deere the man, was ready for the next challenge. But where would it be?

John Deere could have taken his plow works anywhere.

Chicago would have been a good choice with its access to railroads, the Great Lakes, and the eastern part of the country. However, Chicago lacked immediate access to the interior states in the 1840s, even with the I & M Canal in operation.

Another excellent choice, St. Louis was the gateway to the western part of the country. The city where Lewis and Clark began a journey some 40 years before had access to the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. However, Missouri did not have the need for the plow as its soil was not as thick.

As for Moline, on the surface it did not immediately stand out. But once Deere started digging deeper it soon became evident that Moline was the perfect place for his burgeoning business.
1. It had a huge water supply in the Mississippi River. This water supply would give Deere the energy he needed to run his new plant and production facilities.
2. The Mississippi River also provided access to the entirety of country from north to south.
3. Demographics played a role in the decision as well. The plow itself was designed to cut through thick black soil. That type of the soil could only be found in the prairie states. Within 20 years, Deere, Inc. would make a variety of plows to cut through many types of soil, the initial plows were all about prairie soil found in Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Indiana. Moline is centrally located to all of those states.
4. Last, and maybe most importantly, it would make it easier for Deere to get his own supplies. There’s just no easy way to get to Grand Detour in 1847. Locally, yes, one could get there fine. But if steel is being shipped in, it takes a while to get to Grand Detour thus driving up the price. Being on the Mississippi in Moline is much quicker, easier, and cheaper.

So, in essence, it was a major financial decisions with several factors.​

Hindsight is always 20/20. In 1847, not many understood Deere’s decision at first. It took a while to sink in.

When John Deere began the move, Moline was actually smaller than Grand Detour. The town began in 1843 and had a whopping 13 buildings when John Deere made the move. However, it had what John Deere wanted most, the MIssissippi River.

In 1848, Deere and his 16 employees made over 2,000 plows. In 1852, Deere bought out all his investors to take sole ownership of the company.

As John Deere grew, so did Moline. The town and the company soon became synonymous and even now, it is hard to separate the two. One cannot think of Moline without John Deere and John Deere without Moline. Deere’s son Charles would take over the company and expand it across the country and use advertising and branch dealerships to sell their products to the farmers all over the country.

Like John, Charles adapted to the changing times of the nation and business to keep the company moving forward.

Sources
Primary Documents
Historical Site Artifacts and Advertisements
John Deere Historical Site. Grand Detour, Illinois
John Deere Pavilion.
John Deere World Headquarters.

Secondary Sources
Journal Articles
Sutton, Robert M. “Illinois’ Year of Decision, 1837.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908-1984), Vol. 58, No. 1 (Spring, 1965), pp. 34-53

Books:
Bogue, Allan G. (1994). From Prairie to Corn Belt: Farming on the Illinois and Iowa Prairies in the nineteenth century. Iowa State University Press.

Earnest E. (1937, reprint, 1989). They Broke the Prairie: Being some account of the settlement of the upper Mississippi valley by religious and education pioneers, told in terms of Galesburg. University of Illinois Press.

Dahlstrom, Neil and Jeremy Dahlstrom. (2005) The John Deere Story: A Biography Of Plowmakers John & Charles Deere. Northern Illinois University Press; illustrated edition.

Wayne G. Broehl Jr (1984). John Deere’s Company: A History of Deere and Company and Its Times. Doubleday.

Newspapers
Nikolai, Geri. “Rock River Valley Insider: John Deere forged a new career in Illinois“ Rockford Register Star. July 21, 2013. Accessed online at: https://www.rrstar.com/x853690615/Rock-River-Valley-Insider-John-Deere-forged-a-new-career-in-Illinois.

Magazines
“Digging John Deere.” (Spring 2009). The Plowshare News for John Deere Collectors.. Issue 15, P. 1-2.
“175 Years of John Deere.” (Spring 2012). The Plowshare News for John Deere Collectors. Issue 26, P. 1-7.

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Comic Books and World War II: Buying into the War

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Total war is a concept foreign to most Americans. The idea that war so consumes our every thought, our every action is beyond comprehension. Yet, in World War II, Americans did expend every last bit of energy to do what they could to help win the war.

To ensure the American public never forgot the concept of total war, propaganda was unleashed in many forms. Most adults saw this in the forms of posters in shops or in short films before a movie. But for children, the rise of a new form of literature that became popular in the 1930s became the gateway for propaganda to be conveyed to a younger generation. The comic book embodied the virtues of what it was to fight evil during World War II. In fact, the comic book still embodies those same virtues today.

In 1977, Author Michael Uslan stated the following about the nature of comic books:

From the 1930’s through today comic books have expressed the trends, conventions, and concerns of American life…Comics have been a showcase for national views, slang, morals, customs, traditions, racial attitudes, fads, heroes of the day, and everything else that makes up our lifestyles.

And in World War II, this is what comic books would do but about war.

At the Time
In one form or another, comic books have been around since the 1500s. However, in the United States, the comic book as we know it today arrived in the late 1930s. In June of 1938, ACTION COMICS #1 was released and children would never be the same. Superman, the character who encapsulated all that was good about America and humanity, became a star as a result of the issue. Other characters soon followed including the Human Torch, Batman, the Sub-Mariner, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, The Shield, and Captain America. 19500-004-0F2CD3D7

Superman became popular for many reasons. Like many Americans, Superman was an immigrant – albeit an alien world. You could argue Superman was the ultimate immigrant being away from his parents. Secondly, Superman espoused the virtues of hard work, justice, and truth.

Comic books also became popular for other virtues in the Great Depression. Scott A. Cord claims:

Even as a form of escape, the comic book allowed readers to fantasize about punishing real life wrongdoers. Since the Depression was the overriding concern of Americans during the 1930s, readers enjoyed seeing superheroes fight against those who exploited the bad times for their own financial benefit. For example, early characters such as the Green Lantern, Superman, and Batman often took on corrupt businessmen who mistreated poor and desperate workers in the late 1930s.

But the depression would not be the overriding issue of the day for very much longer.

Comic Go to War before the War
In 1940 and 1941, many comic books had storylines about the events of the wars in Europe and Asia. These stances before the US entered the war quite controversial. At a time when most Americans wanted nothing to do with another war in Europe, the characters in the comic books did. Many of the writers of the comic book heroes were actually Jewish and felt it their duty to influence the American public of the dangers of what was taking place overseas.

In fact, a full nine months before the war, Captain America is seen punching Hitler in the face. Writers Joe Simon and Jack Kirby received hate mail about the goals and actions of Captain America. Many were opposed to such storylines. Captain America stood out in his patriotic red, white, and blue uniform while espousing the ideals of American nationalism. Within a year after Pearl Harbor, Captain America’s views and actions about evil and what to do became the norm.

detailWhen the war began, 15 million comic books were being published a month. Two and a half years later, 25 million copies were sold a month. Superman and Captain each sold over 1 million editions a month. And the largest single customer in the period was the United States Army. Originally, the Army was buying comic books as diversions, but soon many of the soldiers became hooked on the story lines, character development, and the virtuous fight against evil and oppression.

Throughout the war, the comic book super heroes were involved in doing things to help the war effort compared to fighting the war. They did things like deliver supplies, stop spies at home, and do whatever they could do to help the soldier while in the US. The depictions of the character’s action were simplistic and good always triumphed over evil. The characters always illustrated war aims and how children could help win the war.

Superman never fought the war. You would think that he could have ended the war by himself, but the authors of the comic did not want that to happen. Instead, Clark Kent’s anxiousness to pass his physical that he accidentally uses his X-Ray Vision to read the chart in the next room. He is declared 4-F and has to do what he can (along with Superman) in Metropolis.

The Shield was a comic book hero during World War II

The Shield was a comic book hero during World War II. Notice the red, white, and blue themed uniform.

Captain America was the exception. With his sidekick 12 year old Bucky Barnes, Captain America took a first–hand role in fighting the forces of evil. What made Captain America comics different was that they were violent, in fact, shockingly violent for the time period. Characters were shot between the eyes, left beaten and bloodied, and tortured.

Another aspect that endeared Captain America to many Americans was that he always fought by the “rules” of war and won. His antagonists always “cheated” and lost.

Soon other comics followed. Individual stories of bravery and courage ended with the American soldier overcoming fear and saving the day. Meant at first to inspire those at home, the characters wound up inspiring those abroad actually doing the fighting.

Many writers of the books actually were part of the Office of War Information and the War Writer’s Board. These organizations supposedly were interested in given accurate information about what was happening overseas. The comic book became a vessel to do so.

Even the advertisements in the comic books were war related.

“Junior air raid warden kits, aircraft recognition flash cards, paper drives, money for war bonds and scrap metal drives were all supposed to help children feel like they were doing their part for the war effort.”

In addition to the superheroes, ordinary people, women, and children characters had their own comics. Boy Commandos was a group of 12 year olds out to save the world. Wonder Woman, on the other hand, served as a nurse doing her part. In addition, comics portraying real people like Eleanor Roosevelt were made showing her contributions to the war.

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As the war wound down, so did many of the characters. Superman and Lois got hitched and had super babies, Batman went back to fighting the master villains of Gotham and in 1956, Captain America was cancelled.

Many soldiers who had read comics overseas found them to be a comfort item on their return. Maybe it was escapism, maybe it was a habit, but either way they were a solace to many of the soldiers who would later introduce the comics to their children. By 1947, comic books sold 60 million issues a month.

By the early 1950s, the so called “Golden Age of Comics” characters had transitioned to mundane activities. With no evil left to fight, comics like Archie, Veronica, Jughead, and Richie Rich became the mainstream from the middle 1950s through the middle 1960s.

Importance
Comic books in World War II played a significant role in education a young populace before, during and after the war. From Captain America punching Hitler in the face 9 months before Pearl Harbor to encouraging the war effort on the home front through actions and advertisements, these pieces of art helped educate a country in a total war.

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The most surprising influence the comics had was on those who actually participated in combat. The books were seen as something to take their mind off what was to come and what had taken place. They were cheap, easy to carry, and the comic itself didn’t require a college education to read. It was part entertainment, part instructional manual, and part psychologist for the solider.

While the comic books did display propaganda, it was also commercialism at its finest. Comic books were big money and portended the youth culture to come in the 1950s. The comic book actually became a part of the war itself. It showed what children and young men could do to help the effort through the character’s actions and through advertisements in the comic itself. Children used the comic to keep up to date on what was happening even though most comics took months to develop and illustrate.

The comic books published during the war laid the foundation for later comic books of the 1960s and film and TV today. Growing up in the late 60s and early 70s, my favorite comics and characters all had their roots in World War II. Captain America, Nick Fury, and the X-Men were the comics that I read as a boy and teenager and are based on, and influenced by, those comics and events from the era. Even looking at what movies to see this summer, or TV shows that I watch, they all come from comic books. For me, there is some morality I can agree with in their actions. There’s a goodness there, a sacrifice, first envisioned some 75 years ago that still resonates today.

Sources Used – Mostly PDF Files: Click Here

Using Baseball as a History Fair Topic – Instilling Changes

Baseball and history tend to go together. This blog is no different. As a practicing teacher whose students participate in the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency’s Student Historian Program (aka History Fair) and National History Day, I steer some reluctant kids towards baseball topics. It has worked and has changed lives. One of my most successful students did three baseball exhibits, two research papers, and one hockey exhibit over six years in route to six superior ribbons at the state history fair. He is now a sophomore in the honors program at Northern Illinois University and his work as a junior in high school can be read here. SAM_0643He spoke at a conference with me last fall and talked about how doing these projects made him a better student.

Choosing a baseball topic for a history fair project has many advantages. First, the use of newspapers and interviews as primary sources are great tools for any historian. Learning how to find information through these early accounts are exactly what historians do in researching any topic. Second, it teaches verb usage. Most of these accounts use verbs in the active tense. This creates a text that is more exciting, easy to read, and most importantly, makes the subject and writing come alive.

A third reason for using baseball as a history fair topic is that it teaches structure. Students learn how to organize information. They can organize their paper, board, website, or document chronologically, thematically, and statistically. With the plethora of sports statistic sites like Baseball Reference, Baseball Almanac, and Fan Graphs, it is easy for the student to acquire information and data to help prove their thesis. Whether it is numeric data, hitting charts, or hitting zones, the images can be  to cover a year, career, and any significant data stream the user requires or inputs.

The fourth, and maybe the most important, reason for choosing a baseball related topic is that the player or event showcases a change in American society that is reflected on the diamond. From the use of defense and pitching with Tinkers to Evers to Chance to the cheating and gambling industry of the White Sox Scandal to the creation of the Negro Leagues by Rube Foster, the history of baseball in Illinois shows the history of change in Illinois. One of the key aspects of grading any history fair project is can the student(s) show how their topic changed history. A baseball topic clearly does that using evidence over time.

Fifth, and most importantly for the student, it is fun. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I saw a student get excited about learning history by doing their history fair project about a baseball topic. Once that happens, the student is hooked and puts all their efforts into creating a product of which they are proud.

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1937 Construction of the Wrigley Field Scoreboard

As a teacher who is retiring in the next 5-8 years, when I look back at all the successful baseball projects my students created, I get a little misty because the topics were monumental events or personalities in the game. Students assembled projects on Mordecai Three Finger Brown, Albert Spalding, Tinkers to Evers to Chance, the 1906 World Series, Rube Foster, Baseball in Rockford in the 1800s, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Ron Santo, Bill Veeck, Margaret Donahue, 1937 Wrigley Field Changes, the 1907 – 1908 Cubs, The Rockford Peaches, The Chicago American Giants, Curt Flood and the Reserve Clause, and the first All-Star Game put together by Arch Ward.

With this year’s topics already selected, several students chose baseball topics for their websites or papers with Margaret Donahue being the most popular. The regional history fair is not until February 28, 2015. However, I have already started to cull some new topics and information for 2016 and will introduce a couple of new baseball topics.

First will be how baseball stadiums influence their teams. The focus will be on the old West Side Grounds and its mammoth 500 feet to center field design, the 1937 Wrigley Field changes, the old Comiskey Park, the Cell, and the new changes to Wrigley Field. It will be interesting to see if any student picks the topic or even just focuses in on one stadium (I would recommend the West Side Grounds). In fact, I might prefer they pick just one stadium so they can  go more in detail.

Old Hoss Radbourn

Old Hoss Radbourn

The second topic is a little more adult. Charles Radbourn was a pitcher for the Providence Grays in the 1880s. In 1884, he won 59 games as a starting pitcher. His prodigious events and life are chronicled in the spectacular book Fifty-Nine in ‘84 – Old Hoss Radbourn and Bare-Handed Baseball & the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had by Edward Achorn. I was also able to find some newspaper articles supplied by the Bloomington Pentagraph, Radbourn’s hometown in central Illinois. Combined with some PDF journal articles and the afore-mentioned websites, a student will not have any trouble finding information.

Here is your warning – Doing “Old Hoss” as a topic is reserved for the more mature student as “Old Hoss” lead quite a saucy life, and that is putting it mildly. I first became aware of the topic because I love baseball and I love Twitter. There is a Twitter account named @OldHossRadbourn, which I find hysterical at times. The account looks at modern day baseball through the eyes of “Old Hoss.” Needless to say, he does find their commitment and achievements lacking and paling in comparison to his. He was baseball’s first Ironman and his endurance, be it out of greed, stupidity, or pure genius, set one baseball record that will most likely never be broken. In reflecting on modern day baseball, Twitter’s @OldHossRadbourn does pinpoint the changes in the game and the changes in American society over the past 130 years. Those changes are essential to what a history fair project can do; it is just seen through the eyes of baseball.

Grant and the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House: Fighting It Out If It Takes All Summer

Incessant would be the best word to describe the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in May of 1864. With nearly 100,000 men in tow, General Ulysses S. Grant hammered away at the Army of Northern Virginia under the command of Robert E. Lee in mid May. Grant hoped to weaken and pound Lee’s forces into submission and shorten the war. Grant said, “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.” In what has become known as the second part of Grant’s Overland Campaign, the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House is was of the least known battles of the war, but it is well-known for its loss of life and the tenacity of Grant to attack at costs. Lee’s army began the battle with 52,000+ men. By the end of the battle, Lee would be left with just about 75% of his men.

After the Wilderness Campaign, Grant did something no Union General accomplished after a battle against Robert E. Lee, Grant kept advancing. His troops were enthused and the result would be known quickly within days. When Grant left the Wilderness battlefield, it soon became apparent to Robert E. Lee that he must keep the Army of Northern Virginia between the Union and Richmond. With his smaller and dwindling force, Lee was able to outmaneuver Grant after the Wilderness to gain a tactical advantage and set up defensive positions near Spotsylvania Court House. From May 8th to the 21st, the two generals would slug it out. Grant knew that Lee could take his punches, but sooner or later, Lee would ultimately run out of men and supplies. The Union could essentially manufacture both.

Over the course of two weeks, Grant tried to remove Lee from his defensive positions. It was to no avail. The tactics were beginning to change in this war. Lee could no longer afford to slug it out like boxers in the middle of a ring. He had to dig earthworks, arrange trees and other objects to provide cover, and most importantly, he had to keep his army alive. Resembling something of what would be World War I trenches some 50 years later, Lee had his soldiers build trenches all that summer to avoid Union sharpshooters and to thwart Union advances.

Heth's Salient at Spotsylvania Phot courtesy of the U.S. Army Military History Institute

Heth’s Salient at Spotsylvania Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Military History Institute

Over the course of the 14 days of the battle, heavy casualties made headlines. Grant would lose 18,000 of his 100,000 man army while Lee had 12,000 casualties. The loss of life was staggering to many in the press.

A Virginia newspaper account

A Virginia newspaper account

However, Grant was not one to dabble in what the press thought. He had one job to do and that was to destroy Lee’s army that summer. At a place called the Bloody Angle, Grant almost succeeded on May 12.

The most vulnerable point of the Bloody Angle for Lee was a place called the Muleshoe Salient which connected two parts of his lines. The Union tried to concentrate its attack there. For 22 hours, forces under the command of Colonel Emory Upton almost broke through the lines on May 10. Two days later, Upton would try again with an entire corps. The Union did capture a large number of Confederate forces but somehow Lee’s forces held on but a terrible cost. Historian Curtis Crockett describes Upton unusual formation for the attack:

Abandoning the standard attack—a line of men charging in a wave—he condensed his troops into a human battering ram, a tight column of men surging at lightning speed with one aim: to breach the enemy’s entrenchments. If it had worked at Rappahannock Station, it would work here. Upton was sure of it […] the struggle at the entrenchments lasted only seconds with the sheer numbers of Union troops prevailing. The first Union men to reach and climb over the works were shot instantly; many were bayonetted by the Georgians who initially refused to give ground. The Union troops gave as good as they got: The flag bearer of the 44th Georgia was stabbed 14 times by Upton’s men.

Earthworks at Spotsylvania

Earthworks at Spotsylvania

Attacking an entrenched position would be a struggle for Grant at Spotsylvania but also at the next battle at Cold Harbor. While taking heavy losses, Upton was able to create a small hole in the Salient, but was unable to hold any territory gained. For the Union soldiers, the attack was devastating. One soldier said, “I came back, tired out and heartsick. I sat down in the woods, and as I thought of the desolation and misery around me, my feelings overcame me and I cried like a little child.”

The carnage was unfathomable. Private G.N. Galloway recalled:

“The dead and wounded were torn to pieces by the canister as it swept the ground where they had fallen. The mud was halfway to our knees. . . Our losses were frightful. What remained of many different regiments that had come up to our support had concentrated at this point, and had planted their tattered colors upon a slight rise of ground where they stayed during the latter part of the day.”

The fighting that began at 5 a.m. on the 12th would last until 3 a.m. the next. 22 hours of hell on Earth. This was the highpoint of the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. When Lee moved back a few hundred yards to new even more fortified positions, the fighting at the Muleshoe Salient came to a close.

A Confederate counter attack on May 19 took extremely heavy casualties. Lee’s days of fighting an offensive war were over after Spotsylvania. He did not have the men to do so. He was also beginning to lose too many officers. With Longstreet injured at the Wilderness, Lee struggled to maintain his lines and ranks at Spotsylvania because of officers who lacked experience. In addition, while Spotsylvania was a military stalemate, Lee may thwarted Grant from winning the battle, but Lee had done nothing to stop Grant from winning the war. The war in the East would soon become a war of attrition. Grant would give a large-scale attack one more try at Cold Harbor, but soon, Grant would know that Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia did not have much left to fight with. So, he would attack and attack some more.

Books

Ordeal by Fire by James McPherson

Red River to Appamattox by Shelby Foote

Videos

The Valley of the Shadow of Death from Civil War by Ken Burns

Websites

http://www.nps.gov/frsp/wildspot.htm

http://www.nps.gov/frsp/spot.htm

http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/spotsylvania-court-house.html?tab=facts

http://www.nps.gov/frsp/bloody.htm

http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/wilderness/overland-campaign-overview/strategic-overview-the.html

http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/spotsylvaniacourthouse/spotsylvania-history/the-unions-bloody-miscue-at.html