The real story behind the tractor plows that shaped America

2/3/2016 1:11:56 PM by

John Deere helped transform American agriculture. Prior to the steel plows and tractors that Deere made famous, much of the nation's farmers struggled to cultivate the rough land out West. The standard iron plows had difficulty cutting through the earth's tough roots and wet clay which often clumped up on the plow's blade. It would often take farmers too long to clean the plow and begin farming again.

Legend has it that John Deere invented the steel plow and farming was reinvented. Eventually the U.S. conquered the west and fortunes were made.

Peter Liebhold, curator of the division of work and industry at the Washington D.C. National Museum of American History said that's the more entertaining story but not entirely true.

"That's the old story and it's kind of true and kind of not," said Liebhold. "John Deere was one of a few plow makers who were all experimenting with new technologies. Plows were very regionally sold. He has a particularly good plow and as his business grows into new markets he is competing with other sellers. . . .They are all borrowing ideas from each other. By 'borrowing,' I mean stealing them."

That doesn't mean Deere didn't play a major role in changing the farming landscape, in more ways than one, or that he cheated his way to success. What he did do is make the steel plow better. He perfected it and invented a way to mass-produce it, as well as cultivators, combines and tractors.

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