The Plow that Changed the Prairie

It doesn’t look like much, does it? A scrap of iron, a couple of pieces of wood.

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At the John Deere museum in Grand Detour, IL, you may listen to the story of a tailor turned blacksmith who changed the destiny of prairie. The site is owned by the John Deere company, so the spin is positive: John Deere, you’ll hear, “opened up” the prairie to agriculture with his invention of the steel plow.


And that he did. Millions of acres of rich, Illinois sod which had resisted the cut and tear of older, less efficient plows, turned over and gave up the ghost in the wake of Deere’s invention.


Families struggling to make a hardscrabble life on the prairies of Illinois and the Midwest sang the praises of the new plow. It’s impossible for us to realize what a godsend it was for our early settlers, trying to make a new life in a new land. Trying to feed their families. Trying to make a fresh start.

And yet.


The wheels of John Deere’s imagination must have turned quickly. He heated his irons; forged his steel plows. One or two, then twenty. Two hundred.


The future was bright for farmers. John Deere was a hero.

Perhaps the losses weren’t noticeable at first. Big bluestem no longer waved against a brilliant sky.

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Little bluestem’s puffs of cottony seeds disappeared with the wind.


Bison moved west, hunted almost to extinction.

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Where Indian grass once shed its confetti of yellow petals, corn tasseled out.


And the flowers.


So many different flowers. Where did they go?


Their seeds persisted for a while, then vanished.

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If you would have known what we know now, John Deere, would you have taken that scrap of saw blade, tinkered with it in your shop, and changed our prairie landscape forever?   Perhaps. You made some money, paid off  your debts, fed and housed your family. Made a good life for yourself. Isn’t that what most of us try to do?


When our technology leaps ahead of our wisdom, sometimes losses accrue that we don’t yet know are losses.  But those who follow us — our children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren — will be left to count the cost.


Oh, John Deere. The decisions you made— the road you took— to better the lives of your generation for good has had outcomes you couldn’t imagine. May we have wisdom to see how our choices may influence the future.

(All photos by Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom): John Deere plow, John Deere Historical Site, Grand Detour, IL; sign, John Deere Historical Site; August on the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wheel, JDHS; forge, JDHS;  big bluestem (Andropogon geradii), SP; little bluestem, (Schizachyrium scoparium) SP; bison, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; Indian grass (Sorgastrum nutans), SP; hoary vervain (Verbena stricta) NG; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), SP; Illinois tick trefoil (Desmodium illinoense), SP; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), SP: the forge shop at John Deere Historical Site; road through Nachusa Grasslands bison unit, NG.)

4 responses to “The Plow that Changed the Prairie

  1. Oh, that we could be wise enough to glimpse the long-term effects of every decision!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Really good thoughts, Cindy. A friend of mine often says, “they just didn’t play the tape all the way to the end “. Thanks for reminding us we need to think beyond the moment.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Love the line: When our technology leaps ahead of our wisdom, sometimes losses accrue that we don’t yet know are losses. I think we might be in a similar spot now, only with different technologies.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you all for your thoughtful comments!


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