History: Pilgrimage to John Deere country.

November 25, 2019

Waterloo Boy manufactured by John Deere after the purchase of the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company

History: Pilgrimage to John Deere country.

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief.

Editor’s Note: This history column is a presentation of Ludington Woods Assisted Living and Memory Care. The majority of these columns concentrate on local history. But, from time to time, there are stories beyond the boundaries of Mason County that may also be of interest to MCP’s readership.

When you grow up in a John Deere dealership and on a family farm that uses nothing but John Deere tractors and implements, there are certain things that are engrained into you. Among them are: John Deere was a blacksmith who was born and raised in Vermont and then moved to Grand Detour, Illinois where he invented (some say perfected) the steel plow; Deere & Company is based in Moline, Illinois. and Waterloo, Iowa is the birthplace of the John Deere tractor. Oh, and one more thing: the 4020 was the greatest tractor ever built.

Blacksmith demonstration at the John Deere Historical Site in Grand Detour, Ill.

Though our family no longer has a dealership, we still bleed green and still farm with many of the two-cylinder and New Generation tractors (John Deere’s first diesel tractors).

Many people who know him, know that my dad, Dick Alway, is an avid collector and restorer of antique John Deere tractors. He fell in love with the tractors when his dad, Tom Alway, bought his first John Deere MT. 

So, with all those things said, it’s only natural that we take a pilgrimage to John Deere country from time to time. Early last Tuesday morning, Nov. 19, 2019 we set out for Grand Detour, population 429, located in north-central Illinois. All three of the John Deere historical tours, along with the exhibit at World Headquarters, are free.

We made it to Grand Detour early afternoon and were two of three visitors there. We were greeted by a guide who led us into a building that was built over the archeological dig of John Deere’s blacksmith shop where we watched a short biographical video on John Deere. We were then led to the replica blacksmith shop where we watched a blacksmith demonstration. The rest of the tour included viewing the Deere house and, of course, the gift shop.

John Deere’s home in Grand Detour, Ill.

In 1837, at the age of 33, John Deere, a blacksmith, set out from Rutland, Vermont to Grand Detour, which was founded by his friend and fellow Vermont native Leonard Andrus. The town lacked a blacksmith. Within two days of arriving, Deere set up business with Andrus as a partner.

At first, he started making cast-iron plows, just like he had done in Vermont. Soil conditions in Illinois are different, however, compared to Vermont. After experimenting, he developed a plow made of steel. Business started to increase and by 1847, Deere had decided that Grand Detour was not well situated in regard to transportation and resources. He sold his interest in the shop to Andrus, sold the house, and moved to Moline, Ill., located on the Mississippi River.

Deere’s granddaughter, Katherine Deere Butterworth purchased the house several years later and used it as a retreat. In the 1960s the property was sold to Deere & Co. The house was restored close to its original condition. The blacksmith shop no longer existed but historical records and an architectural dig was able to supply information for the construction of a replica a few feet from the original site.

The historical site exists on four acres within a residential neighborhood in the small village, located a short distance from Dixon, Ill. (population 15,733), the boyhood home of President Ronald Reagan.

John Deere Pavilion.

About an hour southwest of Grand Detour is Moline (population 42,000), which is part of what is called the Quad Cities (Illinois cities of Moline, Rock Island, East Moline and Iowa cities of Davenport and Bettendorf). The total population of this area is 383,781. The area includes Deere world headquarters along with multiple offices and plants on both sides of the river for agricultural and construction and forestry products.

On the site of the original plow works, on River Street near the Mississippi River, is the John Deere Pavilion, which is a multi-use building that contains a large display with a variety of antique, prototypes and modern equipment, along with the ever-so-important John Deere Store.

Like the historical site in Grand Detour, the Pavilion is free and the staff is friendly and helpful. I have to admit that I had been hoping to see more historical tractors at this site. But, it was still worth the trip.

Probably the most unique item was a 1918 Dain all-wheel drive experimental tractor. This was Deere & Company’s first attempt at building a tractor. Deere had spent six years experimenting with tractors. They included the Sklovsky one-piece east iron body, the Melvin integral power lift; and the Dain tractor transmission. While preceeded by the Melvin and succeeded by the Sklovsky, the Dain has special significance because it was the first tractor to bear the name John Deere on its hood.

The John Deere AWD Dain tractor.

In 1907, Deere & Co. had its third president, William Butterworth, who was married to Katherine Deere, daughter of Charles Deere, John’s son and second president of the company. Butterworth led the company through a series of acquisitions, rebuilding the organizational structure, integrating product lines, and pretty much creating an entirely new business.

In the first decade of the 20th century it seemed Deere had a complete line of farming equipment. But, a new technology was rising, the tractor. Deere considered several acquisition opportunities as well as joint ventures.  Ultimately, in 1912, company leadership decided to pursue internal development.

Designer Charles Melvin was allocated $6,000 and a room at the John Deere Plow Works in Moline to begin the design and construction of an experimental tractor plow. The first tractor was based loosely on the design of an existing Hackney Motor Plow. Field trials, however, were disappointing, and by early 1914 the Melvin design was abandoned.

In 1914, Vice President Joseph Dain (founder of Dain Manufacturing Company, which had merged with Deere in 1911), began work on his concept for an all-wheel-drive tractor. Concurrently, head engineer Max Sklovsky began work on a smaller tractor called the A-2. The Sklovsky A-2 plowed its first field on November 20, 1915, at the John Deere Malleable Works in East Moline, the site that would serve as the tractor “skunkworks,” or experimental facility, during this testing period.

Experimental crawling forestry harvester

Sklovsky’s second design, the B-2, was described as a “small edition of the Dain machine.” It included a pivot-axle, automobile-type steering, and a four-cylinder Northway engine. The B-2 was tested for eight weeks during the summer of 1916. Leadership was pleased with the progress, but wasn’t convinced that customers wanted a four-cylinder tractor that burned gasoline. At the time, the United States had not yet entered World War I, but if that happened, the price of gasoline and steel would surely spike, they believed. In addition, the rapid growth of the automobile over the next decade provided a blueprint for other customer requirements.

Dain was appropriated funds in late 1914 to build his own prototype. In 1916, another $25,000 was allocated for new machinery, patterns, and tools. By the end of the summer, five more tractors had been built. The progress was notable enough to cancel further development of Sklovsky’s design.

In early 1917, tractor development was nearing completion. As Deere & Company was projecting record revenues, the United States entered World War I, which drew labor away from farms and created a labor shortage. That shortage, combined with increased pressures to produce more food, spiked tractor sales – from 14,000 units in 1914, to 63,000 units in 1917.

Deere’s tractor development program was dealt a severe blow by the unexpected deaths of both Charles Melvin and Joseph Dain in 1917. Less than three weeks after Dain’s death, the board of directors gave its approval for “the manufacture of 100 tractors of the Dain type. The tractors were built at the Deere Tenth Street factory in East Moline.

Experimental autonomous tractor

While the Dain All-Wheel-Drive tractor was approved for production, it did not meet all of the requirements Deere established, including the burning of kerosene, low purchase price, ease of maintenance, and durability. These requirements were important, as tractor companies were failing just as quickly as they were forming. William Morgan, manager of the John Deere Harvester Works, encouraged the company not to waste any more time figuring out what type of tractor to build.

As a result, in 1918, Deere & Co. purchased the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company, which had already been manufacturing the successful Waterloo Boy tractor, which is likely why it halted production on the Dain.

There are only two or three Dain tractors left. One made its way to the Western Michigan Old Engine Club in Scottville a few years ago.

Another rare tractor on display is a 1935 model DI, the first official industrial tractor John Deere built. Most tractor fans know that the model D was the first tractor designed and built by John Deere for mass production after it had purchased Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company but from 1924 to 1935, the models were basically used in agriculture. The early industrial line eventually expanded to models A, B, L and M and in 1956, the industrial division was created. Today, it is known as the John Deere Construction and Forestry division.

Another unique piece of equipment on display is the walking forestry harvester. This thing looks like it was inspired by “Star Wars.” Built in 1995, with a later version in 2000, the machine never was developed. But it sure is cool.

The Pavilion also features an autonomous lawn mower, which is being produced, and also an experimental autonomous tractor.

A trip to Moline wouldn’t be complete without a visit to World Headquarters. Located about five miles outside of downtown, the building was designed in the early 1960s by architect Eero Saarinen, who also designed the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. The public portion of the building features a huge display space featuring the latest John Deere agricultural, lawn and garden, and construction and forestry equipment.

John Deere World Headquarters

Our initial plans were to end the trip after the visit to the world headquarters. But, we had extra time and Waterloo was just two hours away. So, we got in the car and headed back on I-80.

A side note, halfway between Moline and Iowa City is West Branch, Iowa, birthplace of President Herbert Hoover, and also home of the Presidential Library and Museum and the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site. We diverted and visited the museum, which was well worth the stop. I learned a lot about the 31st president, who, unfortunately, is mis-credited with being responsible for the Great Depression. Hoover, was orphaned at the age of 10, put himself through college, and then became a self-made millionaire. He is credited with leading the efforts to evacuating Americans from mainland Europe and the British Isles at the start of World War I, and negotiating between the Allies and Germans to bring humanitarian relief to Belgium during the war. After World War II, President Harry Truman recruited Hoover to lead humanitarian efforts for all of Europe (something I am thankful for since my grandparents and mother lived in the Netherlands during and after the war).

John Deere World Headquarters agricultural display

The grand finale of our trip was the John Deere Tractor and Engine Museum, located on the site of the original Deere tractor factory. In fact, the museum’s floor is the factory floor. The museum did not disappoint. Upon entering, the first exhibit you see is a Waterloo Boy, the first tractor built by the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company and then by John Deere. This was the tractor I had come to see. The museum includes two Waterloo Boys, including one privately owned that was one of the last made by the Waterloo company before it was sold to Deere. In fact, most of the tractors at the museum are privately owned and on loan.

Another interesting display was a full-scale replica of the Froelich Traction Engine. In 1892, John Froelich of northwest Iowa produced the first recorded successful gasoline tractor that could be driven backwards and frontwards (the term “tractor” wasn’t used in those days) using a Van Duzen vertical cylinder engine on a Robinson running gear. Froelich incorporated a traction drive of his own design. At that time, steam-powered engines were used to thresh wheat and Froelich was frustrated with the problems associated with steam engines, they were heavy and bulky, hard to maneuver. They were always threatening to set fire to the grain and stubble in the fields – and on a flat prairie, with a wind blowing, that was serious.

Froelich Traction Engine replica

With the help of investors, Froelich started the Waterloo Gasoline Traction Engine Company. Unfortunately, efforts to sell the gasoline-powered tractor failed. Two were sold and both were shortly returned. In 1895, the company was renamed the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company and concentrated on stationary engines until 1914 when it manufactured the Waterloo Boy Model R and then later the Model N.

The replica was built in 1937 by Deere & Co. for the company’s centennial celebration. It is the only known full scale version of the tractor and was built using parts from local scrap yards and off experimental equipment. The engine in the replica is a single-cylinder Model D test engine. The tractor was used in the filming of “Making Tractor History,” a movie commissioned by Deere to document the history of the company. It was almost scrapped during World War II, but at the last minute the company decided to keep it.

I don’t want to give away too much more about the tractor museum. You’ll need to see it for yourself. Though I went on this trip with my dad, I could just as easily take my elementary-aged children as well, the three museums each include kid-friendly activities.

John Deere Tractor and Engine Museum in Waterloo, Iowa.

Another fun component of visiting the three museums is the John Deere passport. You can obtain the free passport at any of the John Deere sites where they will stamp a page with a seal. When you visit all three sites, you get a free John Deere hat. Other sites, like World Headquarters and any of the free factory tours will also stamp the passport.

Presented by Ludington Woods Assisted Living and Memory Care, 502 N. Sherman St., Ludington, MI 49431; 231-845-6100; www.ludingtonwoods.com.

This story is copyrighted © 2019, all rights reserved by Media Group 31, LLC, PO Box 21, Scottville, MI 49454. No portion of this story or images may be reproduced in any way, including print or broadcast, without expressed written consent.

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