John Deere and his Plow
And How It Changed Everything
CK 50th Reunion Update
By now, you should have received the invitations in the mail or by email…or both. If not, go to this link to register. You’ll notice that Cookie’s concert in the Little Gym now has a reservation slot, which is a good thing. Hope to see you all there.
John Deere and his Plow
On this day in 1837, John Deere, a blacksmith working in Grand Detour, Illinois, made his first cast steel, self-scouring moldboard plow.
OK, it doesn’t look like much to us sophisticates in the 21st Century, but in Illinois in the early 19th, it was a marvel. Deere got the idea from his childhood, working in his father’s tailor shop back in New Hampshire. It was his job, among others, to sharpen the needles by sticking them into sand, repeatedly, much like modern rosin balls that do the same. The soil in Illinois was sticky clay that clung to iron plows like glue. That made the farmer stop, peel the soil and sod away, and get started again…not very efficient.
The polished steel moldboard was the key.
If you look at the plow itself (not the wood parts), the moldboard is the curved surface behind the pointy bit, or share, that, in operation, does the soil-breaking and sod-cutting. When in motion, the soil comes up over the share and is deflected by the moldboard to just fall off. This self-scouring action keeps the plow moving…or allows it to keep moving. Older metal plows could cut 100 yards of furrow an hour; Deere plows could cut 300 yards or more. When the sod-cutter was added later, that increased to as much as 500 yards an hour.
And that changed everything.
Soil conditions in the “west”—then anywhere west of the Alleghenies—were unlike those anywhere else. The reasons are in some dispute, but one explanation has been…a combination of buffalo and limited cultivation. The bison roamed pre-Columbian North America from coast to coast for ten thousand years, give or take a millennium. Other than the clay soils of the Ohio country that were formed by flooding, the prairie was formed by simply waiting for thousands of years while those bison roamed around with their sharp hooves cutting and packing and cutting and packing the soil and the thin prairie grass.
The result was a yard of topsoil under a foot of sod in some places.
The Native American Indians, who barely had copper by the time the white invasions started, used digging sticks to plant, resulting in thin subsistence agriculture and little more. The early plows brought from Europe could work the thinner sods of New England and the Atlantic coast, but the further west the Europeans and the African allies went, the thicker the sod or the shallower the clay.
Deere’s plow changed all that.
Agricultural output in the Ohio Country exploded…then it crossed the Mississippi and…the sky became the limit for most farmers. Crops of all kinds, from alfalfa to wheat, shot up in volume. Ag output in 1830 was about 30 bushels an acre; by 1860, it was nearly 100 in the northern and trans-Mississippi states. Deere’s plow made the Midwest the Breadbasket of America. Canada, which had similar soil issues on the prairie, also used Deere’s plow to increase their food production nearly eight-fold.
And then the trouble started…and not just where you think.
While ag output in the North steadily increased, the poorer-soil South relied on cash crops and subsistence farming. That tension was bad enough, but the Indians noticed the invaders were better fed and, given the Native American male’s lower motility, the white birth rate was orders of magnitude higher. Others noticed, too, namely Great Britain, which by 1860 had to import over half its food. And France, which had some fine agricultural output but lousy distribution. And Germany, that had a system of agricultural production that was too Byzantine to try to explain here, wondered at the expanding American goliath. The Indians and Europe watched, agape, as American agriculture output overtook the rest of the world by 1870, even with a civil war. Europe’s appreciation and apprehension of the New World originated in part in John Deere’s plow…that they didn’t need.
This is how history works.
Throughout the past, the accumulation of minor factors has a tendency to result in big changes. Politicians, pundits and other blowhards have declared that they know what the "right side of history" is, but that’s more political whistling in the dark. The next John Deere plow that could change everything could be right around the corner…but I don’t think it’ll be AI.
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Writing History For Entertainment.
On 6 May:
1884: Judah P. Benjamin died it Paris, France. An astute legal mind, Benjamin served Louisiana in the US Senate from 1853 to 1861, was the Confederacy’s first attorney general, its second secretary of war, and its third and last secretary of state. After the war, he was a barrister in England.
1954: Roger Bannister broke the legendary four-minute mile—if barely—in Oxford, England. When he finished his 3 minutes 59.4 second run, his last lap-440 yards for those who don’t know—in 59 seconds.
And today is NATIONAL NURSES DAY. A tip of the hat to all those women in white (and all the other colors) who are the lynchpins of modern health care. Thanks, Barb and Joann, for all the people you and your fellow nurses have served over the years.