Barns Full of Machines
Tinkerers make Illinois safe for farming
See Illinois (unpublished)
Another excerpt adapted from from my unpublished guide to Illinois history and culture. In the mid- to late-19th century, the part of Illinois north of today's I-80 was a workshop for agricultural innovations, many of them from the imaginations of immigrants from New England and the mid-Atlantic states who were as clever as they were thrifty.
Not many 40-year-old office buildings are tourist destinations. The John Deere Administrative Center, corporate headquarters for the world's largest manufacturer of farm equipment, attracts between 40,000 and 50,000 visitors a year. Master architect Eero Saarinen designed the seven-story main office building, which presides over more than a thousand acres of hilly ground on Moline’s southern flank, overlooking the Rock River. The complex (which includes a 400-seat auditorium and exhibition space fronting a Japanese-style garden) was as grand as corporate vanity and indulgent shareholders could make it, and remains an excellent early example of a suburban corporate Versailles of the sort built all over suburban America in the 1970s and ‘80s. The “Rust Palace” is notable as the first major building to use Cor-Ten steel, which rusts to form its own weather-coating. The frames of Chicago’s Time-Life Building and Civic Center were fashioned from the same metal shortly thereafter—a rare case of Moline beating Chicago to a trend.
Roughly 80 miles upstream on the Rock from Moline (reachable today by Interstate 88, which roughly parallels the river) lies the village of Grand Detour. The name of this hamlet on the southern border of Ogle County is French, ultimately—French traders so dubbed the great bend in the river in which the village sits—and it was here that the 33-year old blacksmith from Vermont named John Deere set up shop in 1837.
That house, now restored, is today part of a National Park Service National Historic Landmark. Deere didn’t farm but his neighbors in Grand Detour did, and they found that the iron-bladed plows they brought with them from New England were as useful in an Illinois field as a parasol in a pew. The silty soils known as Illinois gumbo that had developed under Illinois’s prairies and marshes are as sticky as putty. Plowing them meant stopping often to clean plow blades by hand. Like most blacksmiths, Deere was a tinkerer, and in 1837 he took a piece of slick Sheffield steel salvaged from a discarded saw blade and made a “self-polishing“ or “self-scouring” plow blade from whose slick curled surface the soil peeled right off.
Demand for Deere’s plow quickly outran his ability to make them by hand, so Deere in 1841 turned from making plows to making a plow company, in partnership with a local entrepreneur. Grand Detour became (in the context of the frontier’s primitive manufacturing economy) a proto-Detroit until Deere left Grand Detour in 1847, to open his own, larger factory in Moline. His new shop was on the Mississippi River, which offered more water power and better shipping access to both customers and raw material than did the Rock, advantages that turned his shop into a factory, and eventually into an industry.
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Just as the Deere Administrative Center is a symbol of Deere & Co., Deere & Co. is an apt symbol of northern Illinois outside Chicago. The region bears an old name, Sinnissippi, derived from the Indian word for the Rock River, which runs through the region’s history the way it runs through John Deere’s. His story—his New England origins, his gift for tinkering, his transforming a practical innovation into a business product, and the product into an industrial giant—is Sinnissippi’s story, because northern Illinois was built by such men and women.
Farming in the 1830s was backbreaking work, and hiring hands to help do it was expensive, as good workers were scarce. A market for mechanical substitutes for labor thus existed on every farm. This was the case across Illinois and the rest of the old Northwest Territory, of course. What was not the case everywhere in Illinois was the presence of people who not only were skilled at tinkering but who had (or could find) the money to risk turning homemade inventions into products.
The city slicker doesn’t realize how many tasks are required of a farmer in the old days until she looks at the barnful of machines that had to be invented before he could be replaced—rakes and binders, reapers and threshers, planters and cultivators, mowers and plows, to name only a few. (The catalog of devices needed to replace the labor of the farm wife, of course, were nearly as comprehensive.) Deere’s self-scouring plow was only one of these marvels that were improved if not invented in Sinnissippi, which in time became a national center for the manufacture of farm implements. “The Yankees who pioneered in the northern two-fifths of Illinois,” wrote sociologist Daniel Elazar in the 1970s, “were responsible, in the main, for the development of the technology that was needed for the conquest of the prairies” of the nation’s midsection.
Many of the region’s first businessmen were owner-inventors, small-scale entrepreneurs who dabbled in invention as they adapted existing appliances to frontier realities. The comparison may seem strained, but the farm implement business in the early 1800s was much like the early computer industry, and Sinnissippi was Illinois’s Silicon Valley. As historian James E. Davis describes it, the 1840s—a period when a critical mass of inventors, capital, technological breakthroughs, and avid demand produced gadget after gadget whose adoption had aspects of crazes—sound a lot like the computer-crazy 1990s. And as happened in the 1990s, innovations spawned giant firms to exploit them. Deere and Cyrus McCormick, the reaper-maker who founded International Harvester, were industrialists as well as inventors—the Bill Gates and David Packard of their days.
Every other barn, it seemed harbored a tinkerer. In 1848, Pells Manny of Stephenson County built a harvesting machine that did a superior job of slicing off the grain-laden heads of wheat and oats in the field; the "Manny Header" became the centerpiece of a factory run by Manny’s sons in Rockford that was devoted to mass manufacture of it and its companion machine, the Manny Reaper. In 1869, George Spaulding of Rockford built a grain binder (a machine that tied up the stalks of cut grain with wire into sheaves for handling) followed by the first successful twine binder in 1878.
By 1860, Illinois produced more agricultural machinery than any other state. Much of that production then and for some decades was centered in Sinnissippi. Notable among the companies were John Deere, which manufactured corn and cotton planters, disc harrows, beet tools, stalk cutters, plows, and wagons at Moline and ran an iron works at East Moline; J. I. Case Co., which had plants at Rockford and Rock Island; Minneapolis-Moline, also at Moline; and International Harvester, based in Chicago but which also manufactured corn shellers, harrows, and hay loaders at Rock Falls. By the early 1880’s Sycamore, in Boone County, had developed a substantial industrial base including the Marsh Harvester Manufacturing Co. and the Reuben Ellwood Manufacturing Co., whose work force of 200 could turn out 50 riding cultivators a day.
Through the Civil War era Illinois fields were barricaded from hungry livestock using the Virginia rail fence that consisted of stacked split rails of the sort made famous by Lincoln. The rail fence was comparatively easy to erect and was in wide use. These fences consumed a lot of land—which most farmers from Illinois westward had—but also a lot of wood, which many of them didn’t. (Making rails also was onerous work; Lincoln, it should be noted, studied law so he would never have to split another one.) Plain wire fence was an obvious alternative, but livestock simply pushed them down.
A wire that made such vandalism painful to livestock was the solution. Making such wire was an old idea, but in its early versions barbed wire was a lousy product. Turning barbed wire into a practical product, and that product into an industry, is a tale that has many twists of its own involving patent disputes and corporate buy-outs. Much of it involved three DeKalb farmer-businessmen, J. F. Glidden, Jacob Haish, and Isaac Ellwood. In 1873 the three were at the county fair in De Kalb when they stopped to examine an exhibit of barbed wire recently invented by Henry M. Rose. The proverbial light bulb went off in the minds of two of the men, who began work on improvements. By 1884 there were 13 different manufacturers of barbed wire in the vicinity of DeKalb, each making its own particular style barb. (The Ellwood House Museum in De Kalb has 200 styles of barbed wire on display.)
DeKalb thus was in one sense America's first wired town. Together DeKalb firms in 1880s turned out enough wire each year to circle the globe ten times. Until 1938, when the industry set up shop elsewhere, DeKalb was known as the “barbed wire capital of the world” or, more pointedly, as “Barb City,” a nickname that survives its origins in local businesses to this day.
It was not only farm equipment that excited the inventor in Sinnissippi’s brighter minds. German-born Frederick William Matthiessen came to the United States in 1857, and with partner Edward C. Hegeler ended up in Sinnissippi. To two men looking to build a zinc smelter, this was Eden. The site they picked out at La Salle offered coal to run the furnaces, the Illinois River to move products and raw materials, and zinc ore near at hand in Galena and the rest of the Platteville ore district of Wisconsin. The Matthiessen and Hegeler Zinc Co. undertook the first commercial production of zinc in the United States, and by 1880 the complex on La Harpe Street was the largest of its kind in the U.S.
Having made themselves rich in zinc, the two founders went on to other careers. Frederick Matthiessen invested successfully in other local businesses, the most famous of which was the Western Clock Manufacturing Company, later known as Westclox. At its peak the local works, which covered seven blocks on U.S. 6 at the eastern edge of town, employed some 4,000 people who could turn out tens of thousands of watches, clocks, and alarm clocks a day. Among the firm’s signature products was the "Big Ben" alarm clock, which has probably got more Americans to work on time than any other brand; more than 50 million had been sold by the 1950s.
In his later years Matthiessen devoted himself to good works, mainly in public health and education. In the late 1800s he had purchased 176 acres of land a few miles east of town on the south side of the Illinois River and developed it as a park, profits from whose operation he turned over to local charities. The property was known as Deer Park, and consisted primarily of a long narrow canyon with a small stream flowing through it; it got its name in part because Indians were said to have trapped deer in this canyon on their hunts. After Matthiessen's death in 1918, the park was donated to the state’s Department of Conservation, which in 1943 renamed it in his honor.
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In the pre-railroad days, a mill was the essential economic institution in every Illinois town. Most processed local goods for local use. However, virtually every town in the region also had its John Deere making goods for export to other places. One such was Hanover, in Jo Daviess County. The power of water tumbling toward the Mississippi via the Apple River canyon there drew not only the usual grist mill, saw mill, and flour mills but, in 1863, the Hanover Woolen mill; in 1929 the company built the four-story plant beside Crescent Falls Dam that operated there until 1949. These mills were cutting edge manufacturing technologies. The Dixon knitting factory used a new high-tech innovation—the Jacquard loom—to manufacture wool coverlets for export.
Proud symbols of the economic future when they were new, within a century water mills symbolized a quaint technological past whose only appeal is to tourists, not investors. Almost all the old mills are long gone. In 1866 the owner of the Dixon Flax Mill made good money selling cheap cloth with which to bale cotton to Southern growers. The mill on East River Street thrived until the 1880s, but then Congress removed the tariff on imported jute, thus providing cotton growers with better baling material at cheaper prices—an early lesson in the risks of competing in a globally integrated economy without government protection. The factory building was used for various purposes (mainly storage) until it was torn down in 1997 to make room for a hospital parking lot—a more violent example than usual of the transition from a manufacturing to a service economy.
Surviving mills are few, and all the more valued because of it. One is the Old Mill in Morrison, a grist mill built in the 1850s that clanked away until the 1920s. The Franklin Creek Preservation Area Committee has reconstructed a grist mill that once stood on that Lee County stream, allowing visitors to see what the committee describes as the state's only truly water-powered grist mill. It is equipped with a learning center and computerized slide programs to explain to disbelieving youngsters how a pond used to be considered a high-tech energy source.
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It was not only farm machines that Sinnissippi innovators set about improving. Crop seeds—nature’s farm machines—were improved too. Illinois was the scene of much of the pioneering research in “crossing” corn varieties to produce hybrids with agronomically desirable traits. Three of the Big Four pioneers in commercial corn hybridization in the early decades of the 20th century worked in the state—Gene Funk of Bloomington, Lester Pfister of El Paso (Illinois), and C. L. Gunn of De Kalb. Rockford sits at about the same latitude as Boston, and in the 1920s Gunn, working under the aegis of the De Kalb Agricultural Association, Inc., began experimenting with seeds from various northern climes to find seeds suited to Sinnissippi’s shortish growing season and that were resistant to the diseases and insects peculiar to those latitudes. One of Gunn’s hybrids from the mid-1930s increased farmers’ corn production by some twenty-five percent.
The Association (the name was later changed to De Kalb Ag Research, Inc., later still to De Kalb Genetics) quickly expanded into the production of new seeds for the western and southern reaches of the corn belt until it was the world’s largest hybrid corn producer. (Later purchased by Monsanto, the firm remains a world leader in hybrid seed development and genetic research and pioneered in GMO organisms, including pesticide-resistant corn.) DeKalb Genetics’ popular “flying corn” logo was invented in 1934. Company historians note that it is a symbolic image. In those days, the basic crop or product farmers grew to cover the fixed costs of their farming operation was known as a “mortgage lifter.” Hybrid seeds like DeKalb’s meant that grain henceforth could be relied on to be a mortgage lifter—thus the symbolism of wings attached to an ear of corn.
Food processing improvements also are among Sinnissippi’s legacy of innovation. Henry B. Gurler—another New Englander, from New Hampshire—owned a dairy and several creameries in Afton Township, south of DeKalb. In 1895, the dairy herd at Gurler’s Clover Farm was the first in the state of Illinois to be tested for tuberculosis. Henry received a gold medal at the 1900 Paris Exposition for his innovations of clean milk and cold storage which kept his milk drinkable after seventeen days and 4,000 miles of travel.
Sinnissippi farmers and stock men put their minds to work on problems unimagined by city people. Cow horns were revealed to be a dangerous defect in product design when cattle gored each other when crowded into rail cars. In 1878, Henry Haaff, a wealthy Henry County farmer, was attacked by a bull and so in turn attacked the problem’s root causes—he sawed off the animal's horns. Haaf began preaching the virtues of dehorning, which in 1885 led to his trial on a charge of cruelty to animals. He was acquitted, and continued to proselytize for dehorning. (His slogan: “The Horns Must Go.”) Haaff even developed and sold tools for the job tied to a self-help guide—yes, even then—that he titled The Practical Dehorner, or Every Man His Own Dehorner.
Sinnissippi farmers also were early enthusiasts for innovations in farm finance such as farmer-owned cooperatives. Good old Yankee thrift was a motive, because collective buying meant farmers as a group could get access to services and supplies they couldn’t afford alone. The movement never replaced the private grain dealer. By 1900 only sixteen such elevators were running, and they had about the same impact on farm economies as third-party movements have on politics. Still, the co-ops became important parts of some farm communities. A co-op such as Pearl City Elevator has been in business since 1918, and today keeps more than 1,400 member farmers in and around that Stephenson County town supplied with fuel, propane, feed, and chemicals and fertilizer as well as providing traditional grain handling services.
Farmers themselves needed improvement too, and in no place in Illinois might a farmer get as improved as in Sinnissippi. Local farmer’s clubs collected dues that were used to hire “farm advisors” who taught farmers how to treat grain against diseases, to use nitrogen-rich soil amendments, to apply ground limestone to sweeten over-acid soil. In 1912 one of these groups, the De Kalb County Soil Improvement Association, spawned the DeKalb County Farm Bureau, the first such group of its kind in the nation and one that subsequently led to the American Farm Bureau movement. One innovation spawned others; Association members purchased ground limestone on a cooperative basis; it was the subsidiary formed to purchase such commodities, the DeKalb County Agricultural Association, that developed into the high-yielding hybrid itself known as DeKalb Genetics.
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The heyday of the inventor-entrepreneur is long gone in Illinois. Sinnissippi might have been the Silicon Valley of the mid-1800s, but today the real Silicon Valley is on a newer frontier 2.100 miles to the west. The innovators in today’s Sinnissippi don’t build things; instead they build corporations that can buy the companies that make things. That’s how Freeport-based Newell Co. became housewares giant Newell-Rubbermaid, turning itself via a series of bold acquisitions into today’s $7-billion-a-year company.
The visitor must be forgiven for concluding that a place that once made business history is now content to celebrate it. Moline’s riverfront, for example, has been turned into a veritable John Deere theme park. The center of what was a $50 million renewal project is the John Deere Commons, which includes the John Deere Pavilion. Opened in 1997, the pavilion is touted as the most comprehensive agricultural exhibit in the world. It quickly became the Quad Cities' most popular tourist attraction; in its first three years of operation, it attracted nearly 570,000 guests from over 45 countries and all 50 states.
The Deere & Co. logo and its signature green and yellow paint scheme are respected as icons of corporate design among marketing cognoscenti, but they have more personal associations for millions of farm families. Sharing the John Deere Commons is the John Deere Store that sells Deere memorabilia; in a boot store on the Commons one can choose from among more than 40 models of work boots stamped with the John Deere name. East of the John Deere Commons is the John Deere Collectors Center, a 1950s-style John Deere dealership installed in the firm’s former Moline Heating and Construction building where visitors may see vintage Deere equipment and memorabilia.
No firm has more successfully corporatized the old Sinnissippi virtues than Deere & Co. Alone among Sinnissippi’s pioneer farm machinery makers, it remains unmerged and unconglomerated. The firm is second to none in the enthusiasm with which it markets its own past, but nostalgia is not all it is selling. Deere is looking forward and backward at the same time. As early as the 1950s it was plain that the market for farm machinery in the U.S. would soon be saturated. A company like Deere needed to look to new frontiers, much the way John Deere himself did in the 1830s. In the 1960s those frontiers were in other countries and in other forms of “agriculture,” such as home gardening and lawn care, golf courses (Deere is the official golf course equipment provider to the PGA Tour), commercial forestry, and professional landscaping.
Innovation remains an essential part of Deere & Co.’s corporate identity. The company spends heavily on research and development, enough to put it at or near the top among farm and industrial-equipment companies in the ratio of R&D investment to sales. In 2000, Deere R&D spending topped $500 million. Deere uses virtual reality technologies at its trade shows—a long way from the booth at the county fair. The molded plastic panels on its grain-harvesting combines are made from resin derived from soybeans. Its product line includes the GreenStar farming system that combines satellite positioning, precision sensors, and software to track and maximize yield by field, crop, and seed type. In the works is a driverless tractor for use in areas where chemical spraying could harm a human operator. The old Vermont blacksmith would be proud. ●