2. A Spatial Story > John Deere & Prairie Restoration

I'll begin with an example, one that is relevant to the story and one that, taken on its own, demonstrates the unique character of a spatial story.

Driving east on I-74, just beyond the city limits of Urbana, drivers speedily pass beneath 1700E. There is nothing exceptional about this road. Nothing to suggest that it is any different than the rest of the small country roads - encountered at intervals so regular they eliminate the need for an odometer.

But 1700E is unique. Slowing down and looking to the north, one might glimpse Trelease Prairie, a twenty acre restored tallgrass prairie, maintained by the University of Illinois since 1942. Looking to the south, one sees Arends Brothers Incorporated, a third-generation John Deere dealership that has been selling agricultural equipment since 1932.

This pairing can be read as an ironic and amusing compression of nearly 200 years of history - of cause and effect redoubled - into a stretch of road less than a mile in length. The interstate bisects this road, keeping at bay two histories that are, in fact, deeply intertwined.


When they reached the western edge of the place we now call Indiana, the forests stopped; ahead lay a thousand miles of the great grass prairie. The Europeans were puzzled by this new environment. Some even called it "the Great Desert." It seemed untillable. The earth was often very wet, and it was covered with centuries of tangled and matted grasses.

With their cast iron plows, the settlers found that the prairie sod could not be cut and the wet earth stuck to their plowshares. Even a team of the best oxen bogged down after a few yards of tugging. The iron plow was a useless tool to farm the prairie soil. The pioneers were stymied for nearly two decades. Their western march was halted and they filled in the eastern regions of the Midwest.

In 1837 a blacksmith in the town of Grand Detour, Illinois, invented a new tool. His name was John Deere, and the tool was a plow made of steel. It was sharp enough to cut through matted grasses and smooth enough to cast off the mud. It was a simple tool, the "sodbuster" which opened the great prairies to agricultural development.

When the European settlers arrived at the Sauk prairie in 1837, the government forced the native Sauk people west of the Mississippi River. The settlers came with John Deere's new invention and used the tool to open the area to a new kind of agriculture. They ignored the traditional ways of the Sauk Indians and used their sodbusting tool for planting wheat.

Initially the soil was generous and the farmers thrived. Each year, however, the soil lost more of its nurturing power. Within thirty years after the Europeans arrived with their new technology, the land was depleted. Wheat farming became uneconomic, and tens of thousands of farmers left Wisconsin seeking new land with sod to bust.

It took the Europeans and their new technology just one generation to make their homeland into a desert. The Sauk Indians, who knew how to sustain themselves on the Sauk prairieland, were banished to another kind of desert called a reservation. And even they forgot about the techniques and tools that had sustained them on the prairie for generations unrecorded.

"John Deere and the Bereavement Counselor" (1985)
John McKnight


Breaking prairie was the most beautiful, the most epochal, the most hopeful, and as I look back on it, in one way the most pathetic thing man ever did, for in it, one of the loveliest things ever created began to come to its predestined end.

Vandemark's Folly (1922)
Herbert Quick


We can trace our company's commitment to integrity to our founder, John Deere. In 1837 - Deere, a transplanted Vermont blacksmith, used American ingenuity to forge a special plow from a discarded saw blade. And, in doing so allowed farmers to till the sticky soil of the Great Plains, ensuring Westward expansion.

"Building A Business As Great As Our Products" (2003)
Robert W. Lane / Chairman & Chief Executive Officer / Deere & Company


"John Deere Contribution Aids Tallgrass Prairie Documentary" (2004)

Donations from John Deere and a variety of other sources have enabled a Cedar Falls, Iowa, professor to share his love of the prairie with millions of TV viewers.

Dr. Daryl Smith, a professor of biology and science education at the University of Northern Iowa, recently completed a documentary entitled "America's Lost Landscape: The Tallgrass Prairie," about the ecosystem that used to cover more than 240 million acres across America's heartland. The documentary... is slated to air on PBS stations throughout the United States in 2005.

Smith has a real passion for the prairie. So much so, that he uses prairie grass plots at Deere's Donald Street plant and Product Engineering Center in Waterloo, Iowa, to teach his students about the prairie ecosystem and how to preserve it.

Fundraising for the documentary, which took more than eight years, received a $10,000 (U.S.) boost from John Deere last year. The one-hour film also exclusively features footage of John Deere agricultural equipment....


By the 1970s, when the state undertook its first major natural history survey, only some 2,000 acres of Illinois - less than 0.01% of the state's landmass - remained original prairie. Illinois has also been the site of one of the 20th century's best-coordinated and most successful habitat restoration movements.

"Campus Prairie: A Community Assesses Its Landscape" (2002)
Benjamin Goluboff

NEXT > Background

Table of Contents