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John Deere and tractors are as synonymous as water and H2O. So it is ironic that the man who started Deere & Co., one of the oldest and largest American corporations, with annual sales exceeding $21 billion, never produced a single tractor in his life. He may have seen one of the 30,000-pound steam-traction behemoths built in the 1870s, but tractors as we know them did not exist in his lifetime.
John was born in Rutland, Vt., in 1804 and was raised in nearby Middlebury. When John was 4, his father went to England and left the following note: "I hope to obtain the means of paying my debts and making our family comfortable. My Dear Child as I am to be absent from you many months I wish you to attend to a few kinds of instructions . . . Let truth and honesty be your guide . . . Be dutiful to your mother, kind to your sister and brothers . . ."
John never saw his father again, and the task of raising the children fell on his mother's shoulders. Living at the edge of poverty, there was little time for education; work was a priority. Grinding bark for a tanner in exchange for some coins, a pair of shoes and a suit of clothes was John's first job.
In 1821, John apprenticed with Capt. Benjamin Lawrence, a prosperous blacksmith in Middlebury. The captain, a stern but skilled mentor, provided room and board in his comfortable home, an annual stipend of $30 and served as John's surrogate father. During his apprenticeship, John met Demarius Lamp, a pretty, well-educated girl from nearby Hancock, Vt., but he was too poor to propose marriage.