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John Deere's Better Idea

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

In 1837, a young blacksmith named John Deere had an idea while working at his forge along the Rock River in Grand Detour, Illinois. He had noticed the difficulty farmers were having trying to break the tough and sticky Illinois prairie soil. Using steel from a broken saw blade, he fashioned a highly polished plow which cut through the prairie easily and scoured itself as it went. The prairie was finally subdued.

And there it might have ended, with the young blacksmith making plows for farmers around Grand Detour had not Deere had an even better idea. It was the custom in 1837 for blacksmiths to make tools for customers on order, one at a time. "I wonder what would happen," thought John Deere, "if I manufactured dozens of plows ahead of time, and then took them around to farms to try to sell them."

Such mass production was a revolutionary idea, and it faced a number of obstacles. There were few banks to make loans, transportation was primitive, waterpower not easily available, and such quantities of steel hard to get. But Deere would not let go of his idea. He ordered a large supply of rolled steel from England, had it shipped across the Atlantic, up the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers, and then overland to Grand Detour. The steel cost $300 a ton just to ship.

In 1848, in order to cut shipping costs and be near waterpower, Deere moved to Moline, Illinois, to build the world's first plow factory. He persuaded a Pittsburgh steel firm to roll the kind of steel he needed—the first rolled steel ever produced in the United States. The first shipment arrived at the new John Deere Plow Works in Moline in time for the factory opening.

John Deere not only revolutionized farming: his new idea of mass production soon made Moline the farm equipment capitol of the world. A reproduction of John Deere's first self-scouring steel plow sits proudly just inside the entrance of the John Deere Administrative Center amid the rolling hills of South Moline as a tribute to his first better idea. The building itself is the tribute to his second, even better idea.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.