IN THE 1800’S there were fur presses commonly seen throughout America, especially on its frontier. Northwest Illinois being then still wilderness. Those fur presses stood beside the trappers’ cabins or trading posts, riverside. They were simple but crude framework in which animal pelts were added time to time until flat and stretched to “go to market.” The sturdy little fur trappers, (most of them were French in the early day) were said to carry pelts weighing eighty-seven pounds with his other gear but only that for survival in the remoteness of this great land. Pounds wouldn’t have been the measure at the time but you get the idea.
Reference points out that the fur press was the symbol of the earliest chapter of our history and as civilization moved westward it faded into oblivion, moldering with the hovel of a cabin it stood near. The familiar structure would be unrecognizable today. How times change. It changed drastically at Grand Detour in just a few years.
The modern day manifested itself there in 1837 when a new kind of plow became an innovation every farmer desired ... It had a steel model board, vastly different than to those of wood or iron before it.
As the white man settled at the Great Bend in the Rock River not only was history changed but so was the name Grande de Tour, so romantic looking spelled the French way. And it probably sounded that way, too. But Americans have little time for pretty sounding words or sounds so the place was, bluntly, Grand Detour! The people there were so industrious and ambitious they had to be blunt to get it all done.
It had been Leonard Andrus from the Green Mountain state, Vermont, who started it by becoming its first settler at the site of the ancient trading post with its transient trappers before him.
He claimed land there in 1834 (last week) and then returned to Vermont to settle business and to recruit others to join him to fill in all the slots of industry necessary in that era. It was quite a troupe that decided to migrate to the Illinois country about which they were hearing such glowing praise.
Andrus completed his business arrangements at Royalton, Vermont which was a busy hub for several stage coach lines that brought in travelers, business, trades and so forth. Horse shoeing was abundant, naturally, repair of wagons and coaches, too, but one of the blacksmith’s there thought about going west but demurred to that first wagon train.
It wasn’t until about a year later that he set off alone for the Far West, arriving in Chicago in the fall of 1836. He described it as “a boggy little town” with no prospects for advancement. There were ample opportunities, however, for John Deere to find work but he decided to press on to the Rock River to join those of his state, this time accompanying a small group of pioneers headed in that direction.
It must have been quite a loss to the Vermont neighborhoods in which those new “Illinoisans” lived. They seemed such energetic, educated, responsible folk. But it was our gain here on the Western frontier to have them.
John Deere had been disappointed with the lower profits he’d accumulated in Vermont for all his hard work. He’d left wife and family there to travel to the Illinois country to test the waters. He’d return to bring them out—maybe.
He arrived in the “wonder city of the West,” as it was called, in fall, 1836 finding that he was alledgedly, the only blacksmith within forty miles. And though it was said he purchased his tools on credit, he could see very soon he’d make a go of it.
During the ensuing year into 1837 several residents of the village had organized what was named the “Hydraulic Company” to exploit the water power of the river and develop the place as a bustling town. Hydraulic was the buzz word of the time just as iPad or Facebook or Apple are today. In!
The first plan of the Hydraulic Co. was to build a dam, mill race and sawmill, the latter being the first “industry” of most communities because dimensioned lumber was needed to build structures, mills, stores, homes, etc. And although construction began in 1837, without the machinery we have today. Construction took awhile.
Meanwhile, Deere, the blacksmith, made the agricultural implements blacksmiths made for public consumption; shovels and pitchforks and other homestead needs.
Within two years Andrus and Deere formed a partnership of that same name. Manufacturing of plows with the “scouring” moldboard that all area farmers had readily accepted. The heavy, fertile Illinois soil fell away before it.
Myth has persisted since the beginning that the sun shining on a gleaming saw blade near the forge gave John Deere the glimmer of an idea for material that might well be the thing he’d been seeking for ever so long. Whether it’s true or not is unimportant. This idea was the most significant in agriculture since time began. A heavy stick may have been the first instrument to make a furrow. Many centuries passed before a plow of some kind occurred. This plow in Grand Detour changed the world ... It happened here in Northwest Illinois!
The idea came to Deere soon after his arrival although he’d tinkered for many months before. Was it the fresh routine he’d developed since arriving? Was it a challenge of the new place to keep up with others, or ahead of them? The encouragement or friendly needling of his neighbors that gave birth to the simple but magnificent thought?
The sight of such a small, remote village may have kick started the creative process. Disappointment at lack of progress back in Vermont must have assisted in the thought. Did anyone then realize the impact this plow would make on global society? That was 1837.
Andrus and Deere established a routine for manufacture of the moldboard; Deere shaping the hard metal to the face of the plow, Andrus hauling them across the river to use the only grindstone in the neighborhood to smooth them throughout, then haul them back to Grand Detour to finish.
The Grand Detour Plow works was then built on the banks of the Rock River, an impressive factory. Its site can be seen on the east bank of the “peninsula” off Route 2 ... An empty lot with a stone wall bordering the roadside limits, remnants of the factory itself (see).
The year 1839 was a momentous one in many ways for the village. John Deere’s wife and family finally arrived in Illinois, he certain by then that he’d remain.
The grist mill was accomplished after a long delay. It was to have been the main feature with its christening at the Fourth of July celebration in 1838. But it wouldn’t start. It had taken many months to correct what had gone wrong with all sorts of suggestions and reasons submitted. Its run of three stones, however, barely kept up with the demand. Nearly every day after its initiation, long lines of wagons were seen at the mill. What with the Plow Works, now the grist mill, the village was fast becoming a manufacturing center.
In 1839 also the Methodist Church was built and a schoolhouse, too. Other churches preceded it and the Wesleyans had met for some time, but it was another step up to permanency.
That year saw the formation of the Temperance Society with seventy-one members, a large number for so small a place. Reference suggests that the reason so many joined was that they were well educated and understood the importance of sobriety and its companion habits.
An Abolition Society was also organized with twenty-nine men, twenty-three women. The anti-slavery issue was already reaching deep into the heartland. Source claims that the Grand Detour Abolition Society was a milestone in the Far West because it had been only six years since the first group was organized in Philadelphia and not that many since. The standards of the community were evident. A quote remarked, “The village was in the vanguard of what later became a mighty onward movement in civic righteousness reflecting credit on everyone who espoused its cause especially in its infancy.”
Indeed, Temperance and Abolition were the causes of the hour. Of course, they were social times but also planted the seeds of tolerance and good living.
The breadth of industry and social concern was making Grand Detour a center of importance in the area. Another manufacturer was making itself known, too. The grain cradle factory ... The cradle being an ancient agricultural implement whose curved pieces of simple design were walked through harvest-ready fields of grain, the user swinging it rhythmically. Sometimes more than ove harvester did the job. For at least two years the factory produced five thousand of the handmade implements. It was just one of the trades, industries growing up at the site of the old trading post, now rotting into the earth as was the fur press behind it.
But this chapter in history was about to drastically change again.