By Ralph Hughes
Actually, there were four Velie “guys”—a father and three sons, each of whom contributed significantly to the growth and success of Deere and Company. In fact, for more than 75 years, the Velie name was almost as well known in Moline, Illinois as Deere, with which it was so closely associated. Today, however, if you asked the man on the street who Velie was, the reply probably would be that he built buggies or an automobile or an airplane or that he once owned a large mansion that became a famous restaurant. Few Moliners associate Velie with Deere. As Paul Harvey would say: “Here’s the rest of the story.”
Stephen Velie St., the father, came to Rock Island, Illinois in 1853 from his boyhood home near Hyde Park, New York via St. Louis, Missouri, where he worked for a few years to gain business experience. In Rock Island, a city bordering Moline, Velie was hired to manage a foundry owned by Christopher Webber, another transplanted New Yorker. Webber needed a manager because in 1851, he married Ellen Deere, John Deere’s daughter. A few months after the wedding, Webber joined his father-in-law’s plow business.
Undoubtedly it was Webber who introduced Stephen Velie to Emma Deere, another of John Deere’s daughters. Stephen and Emma were married in 1860. Three years later, Stephen also joined Deere’s company. By then, Charles Deere had become active in his father’s business and because Stephen Velie and Charles Deere were fairly close in age and were brothers-in-law, they became close friends.
In 1868, John and Charles Deere incorporated their firm as Deere and Company. Stephen Velie became one of the shareholders and was elected both a director and secretary of the new corporation. He retained both positions until his death in 1895. During the early years, Deere and Company was a highly centralized enterprise, managed by only a few men, nearly all of whom were related either by blood or marriage to John Deere. Although John Deere held the title of president, his son, Charles, was really the chief executive officer and Stephen Velie the chief financial officer. Historians today describe Charles Deere as the “visionary organization builder” and Stephen Velie as the “judicious financier.”
During Velie’s 32-year career, Deere and Company blossomed from a small, midwestern business into a nationally known enterprise. As the company grew through partnerships and acquisitions, Velie was involved with Charles Deere in the negotiations and ownership, thus accumulating considerable personal wealth.
Emma Deere and Stephen Velie had three sons who reached adulthood and eventually became active in the management of Deere and Company. It was said that they were born with “relative ability.” After all, their grandfather started the company, their uncle was the CEO and their father was a senior executive. Their first son was born in 1861 and named, not surprisingly, Charles Deere Velie. He attended public school, then enrolled in McMynns Academy is Racine, Wisconsin. Next, he studied engineering at Columbia College in New York City.
On Sept. 17, 1883, Charles Velie joined the warehouse crew in the John Deere Sales Branch in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Two years later, he moved up to the mail room, then to the billing department; finally, he went on the road as a “traveler,” a position known today as territory manager.
In 1888, Charles Velie left the Minneapolis branch to spend a year traveling around the world. On his return to the United States, he bought an interest in Deere and Webber Company, the reorganized John Deere sales branch in Minneapolis where he previously had worked. Charles Velie is credited with designing in 1896 the John Deere bicycle trademark which shows a deer riding a bicycle. By 1918, his title had become secretary-treasurer, vice president and joint branch manager. He shared the manager position with Charles Webber, another grandson of John Deere and the son of Christopher Webber, who originally hired Stephen Velie. By now, Charles Velie was also a director of Deere and Company. He remained with Deere and Webber until his death at age 67 in 1929.
Emma and Stephen Velie’s second son was born in 1862 and named after his father. Stephen Jr. attended public school in Moline before enrolling in a military academy. After that, he briefly attended a business college in Racine, Wisconsin. At age 19, Stephen Jr. returned to Moline to learn the plow business. He started in the shop, then advanced to shipping clerk and later to paymaster. In 1885, at age 23, he was sent to Helena, Arkansas to look after Deere and Company’s logging operations and sawmill business.
1892, Stephen Velie Jr. moved to Kansas City to join the John Deere sales branch in that city. To learn the farm equipment sales business, he once again started as a shipping clerk, then became a “traveler.” Next, he was promoted to assistant branch manager, then to secretary-treasurer; finally, Stephen Velie Jr. became vice president and branch manager in 1904. While working in Kansas City, he helped Deere and Company acquire and manage the Fort Smith Wagon Company in Fort Smith, Arkansas. He was appointed the first president of that new company, which shipped wooden wagons to John Deere dealers for several years.
Also while in Kansas City and with financial help from Charles Deere, Stephen Velie Jr. purchased the Buford and George Manufacturing Company and converted it into the Velie Saddlery Company. Charles Deere was president; Stephen Jr. was vice president. In a few years, this company became one of the largest harness manufacturing establishments in the United States. Also during this period, he helped his younger brother (who you will learn about later) start the Velie Carriage Company in Moline. Many John Deere dealers sold Velie buggies and carriages along with the full line of John Deere buggies and carriages. The Velie Carriage Company later became Velie Motors, Incorporated. In 1911, Stephen Velie Jr., along with his older brother Charles, was elected a director of Deere and Company.
Although Stephen Velie Jr. retained the title of vice president of the John Deere Plow Company of Kansas City, he withdrew from active management in 1915. He decided to devote more time to his other business interests, which included an exporting company in New York City and mining firms in Missouri. Also, on his large farm in Jackson County, Kansas, he bred race horses and trained them for polo; there he also maintained a fine herd of Hereford cattle. Stephen Jr. played polo for 30 years and was recognized as one of the country’s leading players. In November 1933, Stephen Velie Jr. died at home in Kansas City at age 71.
Willard Velie, the third son of Emma Deere and Stephen Velie Sr., was born in Moline in 1866. Judging by his successes, he was the most ambitious of the three Velie offspring and also the best educated. From public school, he entered a college preparatory academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Next came Yale University. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1888, Willard joined the Deere organization, but not at a sales branch as his two older brothers did. Instead, he was given a position at the Deere and Company headquarters in Moline. With a year’s experience as a clerk, he was promoted to sales and office manager—a big first step.
In 1892, William Butterworth married Katherine Deere, one of Charles Deere’s two daughters. The following year, Butterworth was elected a director, then treasurer of Deere and Company. When Stephen Velie Sr. died in 1895, Willard Velie replaced his father as both a director and secretary of the company. Willard now held a managerial position comparable to Butterworth’s. However, in 1900, Willard resigned his position as secretary to start the Velie Carriage Company, which he located on the same street in Moline as both the John Deere Wagon and Plow Works. He remained, however, a director of Deere and Company.
The next big change in Willard Velie’s career at Deere occurred in 1907 with the death of Charles Deere. William Butterworth was elected president and Willard Velie was given the position of vice president. Willard, however, felt that he should have more say in how the company was run and often didn’t agree with Butterworth’s decisions. To keep peace in the family, Willard was named chairman of a new seven-member executive committee in 1910. This appointment clearly made Willard the “number two man” in Deere and Company, but it did not end his disagreements with Butterworth.
For example, Butterworth wanted to build grain binders in the John Deere factory in Welland, Ontario “for the Canadian trade only.” Velie successfully convinced the board of directors that a new factory for manufacturing harvesting equipment should be built in the United States. Velie also pushed for the development of a John Deere tractor; Butterworth opposed the idea. Again, Velie won and the design and field testing of the John Deere all-wheel drive (“Dain”) tractor was begun. By 1912, the dissension between Velie and Butterworth became so disruptive and Deere’s board of directors chastised both men for their “ill will and failure to coordinate the activities.”
During this period, it became obvious to Willard Velie that the motor car would someday replace horse drawn vehicles so he began the Velie Motor Corporation to build automobiles and trucks. He had plenty of competition because there were 270 companies building automobiles in 1908. Within 20 years, however, fewer than two dozen automobile manufacturers were still in business. Both the Velie motor car and truck lines were well accepted and enjoyed increasing sales. In fact, hundreds of specially designed Velie trucks were shipped to France during World War I Willard Velie’s son, Willard Jr., dropped out of college to serve in the American Expeditionary Forces during the war.
The differences of opinion between Velie and Butterworth continued until 1918, when the inevitable break in their business relationship occurred. Butterworth persuaded Deere’s board that Deere and Company should buy the Waterloo Boy Tractor Company against Velie’s objections. Velie resigned from the executive committee and from his position as a vice president. He also stated that he would resign as a director as soon as he could sell his Deere stock, which he was able to do in 1921.
After World War I, Willard Velie became interested in airplanes. In early 1928, he bought control of the Mono Aircraft Company. That company’s first success was the two passenger, single wing Monocouple airplane. Development was begun on a larger, four passenger aircraft with a 180 horsepower, five cylinder radial engine. Before that aircraft could be put into production, Willard Velie died in October 1928 following a short illness. His son discontinued the production of automobiles after his father’s death and devoted his time to the aircraft business. Unfortunately, at the age of 33, Willard Velie Jr. died in 1929. The Mono Aircraft Company was sold to a St. Louis syndicate.
For 82 years, there were one or more members of the Velie family closely associated with Deere and Company. The father and all three sons served on the board of directors, where they helped to guide the growth of John Deere’s company. Two of Deere’s largest agricultural sales branches today were once managed by a Velie. The existence of Deere’s second largest factory—the John Deere Harvester Works in East Moline—can be attributed to the efforts of a Velie. A carriage, motor car and airplane built by a Velie company are now on display at the Quad City Airport in Moline, but few people passing through the airport are aware today of the connection of the Velie and Deere families.
Ralph Hughes was a director of advertising for Deere and Company, and editor of The Furrow.