Ag Innovators Such as McCormick and John Deere are Part of Illinois History
Now in its 200th year, the Land of Lincoln’s long legacy includes early innovators who lightened the load for generations of farmers and paved the way for the Industrial Age. Joining the likes of Lincoln, Illinois transplants Cyrus McCormick and John Deere became household names with their game-changing ingenuity.
The Reaper King
Though oldest son Cyrus became the face of the revolutionary reaper, the wheat harvesting machine represents a family affair.
“The McCormicks were a very inventive family. They made all sorts of blacksmith tools and farming contraptions at their bucolic farm, Walnut Grove, under the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia,” says Sargent McCormick, who shares their family tree. “Really, it was the father – Robert Hall McCormick – who originally built the reaper in 1832, and Cyrus took it to the next level in collaboration with his brothers.”
Assisted by Joe Anderson, one of the family’s slaves, Cyrus perfected a practical horse-drawn model that promised to end centuries of harvesting by hand.
The McCormicks’ remarkable reaper performed the backbreaking work of three men in a fraction of the time. Still, slave labor and uneven terrain squashed sales of the clever contraption in the breadbasket of the South.
Drawn by the Midwest’s abundance and easy access to river and rail transportation, Cyrus left Virginia for Chicago in 1847. Setting up shop on Pine Street (better known today as Michigan Avenue), the McCormick brothers began mass production in 1848 with Cyrus at the helm.
A marketing genius, Cyrus McCormick pioneered innovative business practices that became modern-day standards – from payment plans to field trials and product guarantees.
“Cyrus was such the business leader. Brother William was very much the operations guy and Leander the leading engineer,” says McCormick, who likens the brothers to the Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of their day. “Cyrus’ brothers were instrumental, but they don’t get as much credit. It really was a family affair.”
Before long, McCormick Reaper Works ranked among the country’s largest manufacturing operations, producing nearly one-half of the world’s farm machinery.
The arrival of the reaper allowed farm workers to migrate from farm to factory and paved the way for western expansion.
“The reaper helped people get off farms and into cities and gave them disposable income to buy things at Sears or Montgomery Ward,” McCormick says.
While creating a new generation of consumers, machines like the reaper helped establish Chicago as a bustling center of agriculture.
“The reaper was the base for the 19th-century revolution in cereal production that led to a complete change in the techniques of moving, storing and trading grain,” McCormick says. “Chicago was at the center of this transformation, developing a grain elevator system that was the most important advancement in the history of the world’s grain trade.”
In 1902, thanks to J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company, along with other Harvester Trusts, merged together to become the International Harvester Company, which remained a key player in Chicago manufacturing for more than 70 years.
As a testament to the practical design of the McCormick reaper, today’s wheat cutting equipment remains similar to the original machine that changed the world.
John Deere’s Plow
Around 1837 when the McCormick family was perfecting its revolutionary reaper, blacksmith John Deere proved the adage “necessity is the mother of invention.”
Designed for use in the sandy soil of eastern states, the wood and cast-iron plows used by Illinois farmers at the time proved no match for the Midwest’s rich, thick soil. Farmers were forced to continually stop and scrape the tool clean while they worked.
Working in his shop in Grand Detour, Deere adapted a broken saw blade to create a tool made for the Midwest.
“Deere’s plow was innovative in two ways: the shape and the material. Steel was rare on the prairie, and John Deere’s adaptation of a steel saw blade, properly shaped to shed the thick soil found in the Midwest, contributed to its success,” says Neil Dahlstrom, manager of Corporate Archives & History at John Deere.
That ingenuity gave birth to a business, as blacksmith became manufacturer. From its roots in agriculture, the John Deere Company branched out to become a leader in construction, forestry and consumer markets. Innovation became the common thread through the company’s ever-evolving catalog of products, from tractors to lawn mowers and excavators.
“From a safety standard on newly developed riding cultivators during the 1860s, to rollover protection (ROPS™) developed and licensed to the entire agricultural equipment industry in the 1960s, to ComfortGard™ cabs in the 1970s, John Deere has introduced countless innovations throughout its history,” Dahlstrom says. “Today, Deere is leading the way with integrated precision technologies that are making equipment smarter and more efficient.”
The company’s signature use of green and yellow and its leaping deer logo – in use since 1876 – signal quality to customers around the world. And it all began with that oh-so-pivotal plow. In fact, in 2013, Smithsonian Magazine selected John Deere’s plow from 137 million artifacts for its list of “101 Objects that Made America.”
The company’s early 20th century advertising proclaimed that John Deere “gave to the world the steel plow.” And Dahlstrom would add: “In many ways, the state of Illinois gave to the world John Deere.”
“The company has offices and facilities in more than 30 countries, but still calls Illinois home more than 180 years after John Deere’s arrival here,” he says. “The company and the state have evolved together; their histories are inextricably linked.”
Legacies Live On
John Deere spent much of his career in the field connecting with customers. Today, opportunities abound to connect with the company he founded. Dive deep into Deere history at the John Deere Pavilion, the company’s visitor center in Moline. You can also tour global headquarters in Moline or the Harvester Works factory in East Moline, and explore attractions like the John Deere Historic Site in Grand Detour. Visit deere.com to learn more.
Sargent McCormick explores the development of the reaper – and its far-reaching impact – in his book, “The McCormick Reaper Legend: The Story of a Revolutionary Invention,” which he first drafted while performing a special study for the McCormick Observatory at his alma mater, the University of Virginia. He tells the story through the eyes of Nettie Fowler McCormick, the wife of Cyrus Hall McCormick, who, upon his death, became one of the first female CEOs and a leader during the Progressive Era. It is slated for release later this year.