Chuck (charlesofcamden) wrote,

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Over the Memorial Day weekend, I visited the sleepy town of Grand Detour, Illinois (2010 pop. 429). There are no streetlights in Grand Detour. There are no sewers. I was unable to get a signal for my cell phone there. In many ways, it remains the town it’s been for over a century. I’ve read that Orson Welles spent several summers there as a youth. Welles once said this about the place: “Where I do see some kind of Rosebud, perhaps, is in that world of Grand Detour. A childhood there was like a childhood in the 1870s… Grand Detour was one of those lost worlds, one of those Edens that you get tossed out of.” I dig you, Orson.

* * *

What brought me to Grand Detour was the establishment referred to in the sign to the left. One of their newest tour guides is none other than my friend CC. It’s pretty much a perfect match of a person and a job. CC has always had a passion for history, so she has hurled herself into learning about the significance of John Deere and his profound impact on American agriculture, a subject about which she possessed virtually no knowledge two months ago. Also, preparing for tourist season meant getting the Heritage Gardens ready, and CC has been a gardener all her life, so once again, person meets job. And of course, CC has been an actress and a teacher for most of her life, so she excels at the human interaction and entertainment instincts required of a good tour guide.

When we hear the name John Deere, most of us probably think of tractors. It’s certainly true that the company he founded is well known for its tractors, but Mr. Deere himself never sold, or even saw, a tractor during his lifetime. Deere was a blacksmith by trade, and his singular contribution was the invention of the first successful steel plow.

I’m not going to get too long-winded about this (since you really ought to visit Grand Detour to get the full story), but the basics are these: Plows before John Deere had either wooden or iron blades. Iron was just fine for the sandy soil of America’s east coast, but the soil of the Midwest was something else entirely. Iron plows quickly became covered and encrusted in what the farmers called “gumbo soil,” forcing the farmer to stop and clean the blade every few feet. Deere’s 1837 innovation was to make the blade out of highly polished steel and to fashion it so that the device was self-scouring. Here’s a reproduction of one of Deere’s early plows:

It is interesting to note that the John Deere home has had to settle for merely having a reproduction. There are two known early Deere plows. One is in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC. The other is at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, MI – a place I worked at quite a bit during my years in Detroit. So if you’re one of my Michigan friends, please find and appreciate Mr. Deere’s plow the next time you visit there.

There are three major segments to a tour of the John Deere Historic Site. One is the house that Deere built for his wife and children. Very little of it is roped off, so you can really get a feel of what it was like to live there. While very little of the furnishings are original to the Deere family, they have been replaced by genuine antiques of the appropriate age and style.

Another segment is the archaeological dig site, which is housed in a modern building. Why was a dig necessary? Well, by the time the site was recognized for its historical importance, Deere’s blacksmith shop, where that historic plow had first been created, was long gone. Starting in about 1962, excavations were conducted to determine the precise location and configuration of the shop. It turned out there was quite a bit down there waiting to be unearthed, and it’s now on display, some of it in glass cases and some of it still lying in situ. And while you’re in the archaeology building, a screen is lowered and you get to sit in air conditioned comfort and watch a 10-minute film about John Deere’s life and work.

The other segment is a working blacksmith shop – the “new” blacksmith shop, that is. It stands near the original and was built to closely match the original’s specifications. A blacksmith is on duty there and he gives an entertaining talk and demonstration of blacksmithing techniques.

If you should ever plan to go there, be advised that there is a picnic area, although the only food/drink actually available on site is a soda pop machine. And yes, there is a gift shop. Being a bit of a history buff myself, I had a great time. It helped that I had such an engaging tour guide, but it’s a genuinely fascinating place.

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