John Deere – early beginnings of farm machinery giant

Deere and Co, the company behind the John Deere brand name and the leaping deer emblem, is the world’s biggest tractor and farm machinery manufacturer. But its history started before the days of power farming.

Like many farm machinery pioneers, the man who started the company and gave it his name was a blacksmith. John Deere’s parents had emigrated from England to the United States, where John was born in 1804.

See also: John Deere profits slump as UK tractor sales drop 28%

John-Deere

John Deere

He was 19 years old when he began working for a local blacksmith, and he started his own business in 1836 making hand tools and repairing farm machinery.

The breakthrough that set his business on track to become the world’s biggest farm equipment company arrived in 1837 when Mr Deere developed a better plough. He used high-grade steel for the mouldboard to give increased wear resistance, and he polished the surface to provide more effective self-cleaning.

Local farmers liked the new plough and sales increased as its reputation spread. The type of steel needed for the mouldboards was not produced in America at that time, so John Deere used steel from England until 1848, when American-made supplies became available.

It was also in 1848 that increasing sales encouraged him to move to bigger premises in Moline, Illinois, where production increased rapidly to reach more than 13,000 ploughs during 1856. Cultivators and other implements were added to the range and by the early 1900s there was a wide range of John Deere machines.

The first tractor

The first experimental tractor was built in America in 1889, and one of the very early pioneers was John Froelich, who designed and built a tractor in 1892 for his contracting business. Based on a wooden chassis with a 35.3-litre single-cylinder engine developing a modest 16hp, it was probably the first tractor with a reverse gear and it played an important part in the future development of John Deere tractors.

Antique-John-Deere

This replica is of the 1892 Froelich that was the earliest ancestor of all John Deere tractors.

Impressed by the performance of the Froelich tractor, a group of businessmen formed the Waterloo Gasoline Traction Engine Co in Waterloo, Iowa, to build tractors and engines designed by Froelich. Production started in 1893, making it the world’s first tractor factory.

The Waterloo Boy brand name was adopted later for tractors from the Waterloo factory, and they became popular during the 1914-18 war sales boom. Some were exported to the UK, prompting their dealer based in Belfast to take a lifelong interest in tractor design. His name was Harry Ferguson. 

Meanwhile, Deere and Co continued to specialise in machinery production plus trailers and a brief venture into bicycle production. A project to develop a John Deere tractor was later abandoned, and instead the decision was taken to buy an established tractor manufacturer.

Dated design

They chose the Waterloo company, which was purchased in 1918 for $3.76m (£2.4m), giving Deere a tractor with a good reputation for reliability, but a design that was becoming dated. Production continued after the takeover, but the John Deere name was not used until a new model had been developed.

The new tractor designed by John Deere was the Model D, announced in 1923, much more up-to-date in every way apart from the engine.

Antique John Deere tractor

The Model D was the first tractor designed and built by John Deere.

The Waterloo Boy engine had two horizontal cylinders, but by the early 1920s, most leading tractor makers had switched to four vertical cylinders. Instead of following the industry fashion with a new four-cylinder power unit, the new John Deere tractor arrived with an engine developed from the two-cylinder Waterloo design, and customers approved.

John Deere fact file

  • Company Deere & Co
  • Brand name John Deere
  • Ownership publicly owned
  • Headquarters Moline, Illinois, USA
  • Turnover $36bn (£23bn) sales and other revenues in 2014
  • Manufacturing locations 47 located in 15 countries
  • Employees 59,600 worldwide
  • Principal activities Manufacturing agricultural tractors and machinery, equipment for domestic and professional turf care, construction and forestry machinery, financial services

Fewer working parts

Tractor reliability remained an important issue while trained mechanics were still a rarity and most tractor drivers had previously worked with horses. So two-cylinder John Deere engines with fewer working parts and easier access for maintenance became a popular choice on American farms.

Engines based on the two-cylinder design powered almost every John Deere production tractor between 1923 and 1961, including diesel versions available from 1948. It has been described as the most successful engine series the tractor industry has produced and it played an important part in Deere’s success.

The first John Deere combine harvester arrived almost 90 years ago, and Deere is now the world’s biggest combine harvester manufacturer. Production started in 1927 with trailed combines followed in 1947 by the 55 model – the first John Deere self-propelled combine, which was powered by a 60hp engine and came in both bagging and tanker versions.

The John Deere 55 arrived when large numbers of farmers were switching from harvesting with a binder to self-propelled combines, and the standard model remained in production until 1959.

International development is one area where John Deere allowed rival companies to take the lead. While some farm equipment companies were quick to expand overseas with marketing and, in some cases, manufacturing activities, Deere had concentrated mainly on developing its American and Canadian business plus more limited activity in South America.

John Deere’s first diesel was the Model R announced in 1948 with the familiar two-cylinder engine layout.

John Deere’s first diesel was the Model R announced in 1948 with the familiar two-cylinder engine layout.

Global expansion

The change to a global expansion policy began in the 1950s. Europe was a priority, and some of Deere’s rivals had already established a manufacturing base in the UK. Britain was Deere’s first choice for European tractor production, but the opportunity to buy the Lanz company, one of the biggest German tractor manufacturers, was a more attractive option and the takeover was completed in 1959.

Man in John Deere tractor cabin

Small numbers of John Deere tractors had arrived in Britain since the 1930s through dealer initiatives, but since the Langar, Nottinghamshire, headquarters opened in 1966, John Deere has gone from strength to strength in the UK with agricultural and turf care equipment. Successes include UK tractor market leadership with almost 30% of the total registrations in the latest AEA league table.  

John Deere’s expansion from being predominantly North American to become the leading global farm equipment brand has been dramatic. The company now has 47 manufacturing locations of which 34 are outside the US and Canada – including six in China – and slightly more than half of all John Deere employees now work outside North America.

John-Deere-S690i

John Deere S690i

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