Reflections – Deere in DeKalb County

April 6, 2023

John Deere’s 1837 work on his scouring plow in nearby Grand Detour made the rapid development of agriculture possible in DeKalb County. But Deere’s wider influence in DeKalb County is less well known.

When they arrived here in 1835, settlers of DeKalb County witnessed “an unbroken wilderness consisting mostly of prairie.” Henry Boies’1868 History of DeKalb County recounts their doubts about the land’s usefulness. Boies writes, “The first settlers of the country naturally made their claims in close proximity to the groves and streams; and could hardly believe that the distant prairies would ever serve any other purpose than that of a vast range for flocks and herds.”

In 1842, “For the first time, the bright steel scouring ploughs came into use, and proved one of the most important improvements ever invented for the prairie farmer.” The plow was so effective that settlers virtually eradicated the prairie from DeKalb County. By 1868, “scarcely a vacant spot of the wild prairie can be found throughout [DeKalb County’s] entire extent.”

In Sycamore, from at least 1857, Ruben Ellwood, barbed wire tycoon Isaac Ellwood’s brother, was the exclusive dealer of Deere machinery, along with “the best makes of plows,” (including ones Ruben himself invented in 1879). Ellwood ran advertisements offering Deere plows in the Sycamore True Republican (right) that boasted of a newly patented improvement.

John Deere was an early adopter and supporter of the DeKalb County product that an 1885 history argued, “has probably given the county its greatest reputation”—barbed wire. Barbed wire manufacturing began in DeKalb in the fall of 1873 and Joseph Glidden and Isaac Ellwood became business partners the following spring.

Isaac Ellwood was an early innovator in marketing as well. In 1876, his company published an illustrated booklet The Utility, Efficiency and Economy of Barbed Fence: A Book for the Farmer, the Gardener, and the Country Gentleman, that explained the benefits of the product and printed testimonials. Included was a short but robust endorsement from John Deere: “Dear Sir: In reply to your letter of inquiry in regard to the Barb Wire Fence, I would say that I find it a complete success as no stock will go through it, and I consider it the best and cheapest fence in use. I am waiting for that last ordered, and shall use a large quantity after harvest. Truly yours, John Deere.”

Deere’s impression of the fence was that it was “the best,” both in terms of effectiveness and of cost. He finds it “a complete success.” Importantly, Deere’s letter is a reply dated June 15, 1875, which suggests that Deere purchased his first barbed wire within the first year of its production.

But John isn’t the only Deere to make an impact on DeKalb County. His son, Charles H. Deere held the post of trustee on the first Board of Trustees for the Northern Illinois State Normal School (now NIU) during the school’s opening year. In this role, Deere had also taken part in the crucial vote to bring the Normal School to DeKalb.

Ruben Ellwood, barbed wire tycoon Isaac Ellwood’s brother, was the exclusive dealer of John Deere machinery in Sycamore. Ellwood ran advertisements in 1870 offering Deere plows in the Sycamore True Republican that boasted of a newly patented improvement.

Information provided by the DeKalb County History Center. For more information visit
www.DeKalbCountyHistory.org.


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