By Ralph Hughes
When John Deere’s wife, Demarius, stepped off the boat that ferried her across the Rock River in 1838, she discovered that Grand Detour, Illinois was still a frontier settlement. There were 20 or more log cabins scattered among the trees and a half dozen frame structures, including the small house her husband had just completed. According to a Deere family tradition, as John arrived to meet her, Demarius handed him their baby son, who was born after John left Vermont. That son, their second, was Charles Henry Deere. “Here, John,” she said. “I carried him all the way from Vermont,” which was probably not much of an exaggeration because Demarius, her five children and her brother-in-law, John Peek, had traveled most of the way with a wagon loaded with furniture and other household goods. Demarius also soon discovered that there were still Indians living nearby, although Chief Blackhawk and his hostile Sac and Fox warriors had been driven out of that area five years earlier.
Much has been written about John Deere, the man. From these various family and business histories, it is obvious that he was a hardworking blacksmith with an inventive mind. Once established in Grand Detour, he earned a reputation for making dependable, quality products—whether it was a simple gate hinge, a pitchfork or a walking plow. During his first 10 years in Grand Detour, it also is obvious that Deere was less than an astute businessman. He repeatedly ran short of capital and was forced to turn to other men for financial assistance. Most of his money problems were due, of course, to the rapid expansion of his plow business.
In 1847, John Deere decided to move his plow shop to Moline. He also wanted to bring his older son, 19-year-old Francis, into the business to help keep straight those accounts that John Deere so incompletely understood. The move took place as planned in 1848, but that year Francis died, leaving John and Demarius with four daughters and a young son, Charles, now age 11. As soon as the Deere family settled in Moline, educating Charles became a priority. He first attended small schools in private homes, then was sent across the Mississippi River to Davenport’s Iowa College. Next, for a year, he attended Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. Finally, he enrolled in Bell’s Commercial College in Chicago, from which he graduated in 1853. With diploma in hand, at 16 years of age, Charles went to work for his father as a bookkeeper. That year, John Deere’s shop produced nearly 4,000 walking plows.
Four years later, the Deere firm was changed into a partnership with four “equal” partners: John and Charles Deere, Luke Hemenway and David Bugbee. The new organization was named John Deere and Company. Hemenway and Bugbee, however, were considered “junior partners” and paid a salary. This arrangement lasted only one year. In 1858, the partnership was dissolved and the firm reverted to a single proprietorship owned by John Deere. There was, however, one other significant change: Charles, now 21 years of age, assumed nearly total control of the financial end of the business, freeing his father to run the manufacturing side.
Having weathered the company’s many money problems, Charles Deere looked forward to the 1860s. He expanded the general catalog and even embellished it with a few woodcut illustrations of the gold medals recently awarded to John Deere walking plows. Tempering Charles’ enthusiasm, his father offered him sound advice in a letter: “Bear in mind that keeping expenditures within income means self-respect, independence and a competency, while the reverse, expenditure beyond income, leads to mortification and ultimate failure.” Charles must have taken his father’s advice seriously because the Deere & Company Archives has a handwritten note signed by Charles Deere stating that, “I will never from this Seventh day of February Eighteen Hundred Sixty AD put my name to a paper that I do not expect to pay—so help me God.”
Changes came quickly in the 1860s. First, the Civil War disrupted much of America’s agriculture. Both John and Charles Deere agreed to help defray the cost incurred for 100 days in raising and equipping a company of volunteers from the Moline area. (It was commonly thought that the war would not last longer than three months.) In 1862, Charles Deere married Mary Little Dickinson, a 21-year-old lady from Chicago. In 1863, the company started manufacturing riding cultivators. The following year, Gilpin Moore joined Deere. Soon the company had what was then considered the best sulky plow available and one of Deere’s best selling products for the next 20 years.
In 1864, the firm was once again reorganized. It became Deere & Company with Charles Deere an equal partner with his father. John Deere retained his interest in improving and developing new products. During this year and the next, he obtained U.S. patents
“related to improved methods of plow manufacturing.” Another reorganization took place in 1868; this time, the firm became a corporation for the first time with six stockholders. The company’s shares were divided as follows: Charles Deere, 40 percent; John Deere, 25 percent; Stephen Velie, 14 percent; George Vinton, 10 percent; Gilpin Moore, 6 percent; and Charles Nason, 5 percent. Only Moore was not related to John Deere by birth or marriage. John Deere was given the titular title of president, although it was widely conceded that Charles was in charge. Charles was elected vice president and Velie became the secretary and financial officer. Moore was superintendent of the iron works; Nason, superintendent of the wood shop; and Vinton was appointed general sales manager. With the production of 41,133 plows, cultivators and harrows in 1868, the company’s annual revenue reached the $650,000 level.
Perhaps the single, most important contribution Charles Deere made to the future success of Deere and Company began in 1869. That year, he decided to expand the distribution of John Deere products through independent, manager operated sales branches. The first such branch house was established in Kansas City. It was followed by similar wholesale outlets in St. Louis, Minneapolis, Council Bluffs/Omaha and San Francisco. Each of these branches was organized as separate businesses, taking orders and directions from the parent company in Moline; yet, at the same time, they were run by a local manager and part owner, who exercised considerable autonomy.
Branches often set their own prices when distributing John Deere products to independent dealerships and made recommendations as to the retail price. This practice sometimes caused problems when two dealers from separate branches were located close together and competed against each other. John Deere sales branches frequently distributed farm implements manufactured by other companies. Often, these products competed directly with similar John Deere products. Charles Deere visited each of the branch houses regularly and always reported back to the factory any shortcomings he or branch people discovered in John Deere product quality.
Business concerns weren’t Charles Deere’s only interest. He had a happy family and social life. He built a large home on a hilltop in Moline from which he could see the John Deere Plow Works. The house was named “Overlook” and was described in the local newspaper in 1872 as a “Swiss villa.” (Tours of his home are still conducted today.) The family also spent much time on a houseboat with a steam powered, sternwheeler tow boat that pushed it up and down the Mississippi River. The houseboat was named “Time and Tide;” the sternwheeler, “Mascot.” Charles and Mary Deere had two daughters, Anna and Katherine. In 1890, Anna married William Wiman and in 1892, Katherine married William Butterworth. The husband in the second marriage and a son from the first eventually became presidents of Deere and Company.
When John Deere died in 1886, he left the bulk of his estate and company stock holdings to Charles Deere’s four sisters. However, Charles Deere remained the major stockholder and was elected president of the company. He also took an active management role in other enterprises, such as the Hennepin Canal project, which connected the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. He maintained an interest in the Moline firefighting companies. When he was younger (in 1850-1855), he was a volunteer fireman and was injured once from a fall from a ladder while fighting a fire. In 1870, he helped finance the Deere Hose Company. He also was one of the founders of the Moline Water Company and, with his father, helped establish the Moline National Bank. Later, he became a director of three Chicago banks or trust companies and a railroad and electric light company in the Moline area.
During Charles Deere’s career, he faced many difficult business decisions—several of which were critical to the future of Deere & Company. Perhaps one of the toughest decisions occurred shortly after his father’s death when a British syndicate offered to purchase the company. The proposition, if accepted, would bring a lot of money to Charles, his sisters and a few associates. After many hours, days, even weeks of complicated and frustrating negotiations, Charles Deere decided that the company should remain a family firm.
Due to failing health, Charles Deere was persuaded in 1900 to turn over some of his company responsibilities to his son-in-law, William Butterworth, who was by then a vice president of Deere. By 1906, it was evident that Charles Deere was seriously ill and, while on a business trip to Chicago, he died at the Lakota Hotel on Oct. 29, 1907.
What kind of man or employer was Charles Henry Deere? A magazine article written in 1919 included comments by several longtime Deere workers. One man offered these thoughts: “The boys in the shop knew him; he was a personal friend of many who are still on the job. Because of his advice and encouragement, some of the men now own their homes.” Another said: “It was seldom that I came to work in the morning that he was not there first. His great aim appeared to be the welfare of Deere & Company and the superiority of the plows manufactured by this concern.”
People were not aware of the extent of Charles Deere’s charitable nature. He often made contributions directly “from his purse or pocket” or indirectly with his identity withheld. Few Moline residents knew that he personally pledged $10,000 to aid the families of men who fought in the Spanish-American War in 1868. He also contributed liberally to the Army and Navy League. And finally:
“Charles Deere was a gentleman of the old school, courteous, considerate, always approachable. He was a man of few words, but always spurred his men to their best efforts.” It might be said that although John Deere founded Deere & Company, his second son, Charles Henry Deere, may have saved it.