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Tuesday April 2, 2013 Edition
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Another Sign Of Spring: Time To Till The Soil

On the streets of Middlebury is a fitting tribute to Vermonter John Deere and his invention of the steel plow that revolutionized farming.
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On the streets of Middlebury is a fitting tribute to Vermonter John Deere and his invention of the steel plow that revolutionized farming.

Tuesday April 2, 2013

By Cookie Steponaitis

    Walking down the main street of Middlebury, Vermont there are signs of spring are all around us. The sunlight’s warmth is beckoning plants to wake from their winter slumber, the cacophony of the songs of the birds returning to the area adds to the delight of the passerby and the smells of spring tweak our nostrils and senses. There is a sign marker with engraving showing its age that stands silently at attention on the main street speaking to another part of spring, the tilling of the soil and a man who earned a place not only in Vermont history but in the world, John Deere.

    Now don’t get too excited because while many people swear that, “nothing runs like a Deere,” there are devout Allis Chalmers farmers and other brands as well. While that debate will continue spring  after spring into infinity farmers and non- farmers alike agree that the man known as John Deere was at the heart of a revolution in agriculture that set into motion what we understand as farming today. John Deere was born on February 7, 1804 in Rutland, Vermont,  raised by his mom and attended school in the Rutland area. He lived in Vermont for thirty-three years and acquired not only an education here but also learned the blacksmith trade from Captain Benjamin Lawrence in Middlebury, Vermont during 1821-1825 at a shop located in what is now called Frog Hollow.

    Deere settled in Grand Detour, Illinois, and made his living mostly repairing the broken plows of farmers and began to realize that wood and cast iron plows that could turn the sod of eastern farm soil were not up to the challenge of the thicker and heavier prairie soil.  He worked and tested his product at local farms and invented the first steel moldboard plow in 1838. By the time one decade had passed Deere was making and selling 1000 plows a year. He moved his operations to Moline, Illinois where he had access to waterpower and the shipping lanes of the Mississippi River and also began importing British steel in 1850 producing not only 1600 plows per year but a new line of products to help farmers be more successful.  As word spread of the high level quality of the $20.00 plow and the demand increased, Deere hired on sixteen men and took production to 2,136 plows a year.

    Before Deere’s invention the turning of the soil on the prairie would take a team of between six to eight oxen pulling a heavy plow. The process was costly and relegated people to a small amount of acreage for planting due to time and cost. Deere visited a local sawmill and picked up a broken steel saw, chiseled off the teeth and by heating it shaped it, creating his first prototype steel plow which he immediately lent to local farmers to see if it worked. He built two more plows in 1838 one of which was sold to Joseph Brieton and luckily was found and purchased by Charles Deere and is on display at the Smithsonian Institution.

    While Deere’s intention was to, “create a quality product that worked well and long,” he in fact set agriculture on a revolutionary path. The farmer could plant and harvest more and expand to meet the needs of a growing nation and world. Here in Addison County another sign of spring is the farmers again working the land and tilling the soil with tractors and equipment that while John Deere could have never imagined where his revolution would lead, are all based on the premise of that long ago steel plow. His revolutionary idea led to creating tools to increase productivity giving the family farm a chance to be successful living and working on the land.

    So while you are thinking spring think Deere, and maybe, just maybe look at the newest generation of young Vermont women and men who are on their way up and ponder what revolution they may bring to the spring season and the lifestyle so long associated with Addison County and this special place we call home.

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