“I will never put my name on a product that does not have in it the best that is in me.” John Deere

Hey, teacher! Don't mess with a kid on his tractor. courtesy John Deere Co.
Hey, teacher! Don’t mess with a kid on his tractor.
courtesy John Deere Co.

Here’s what happened when I taught school one day: A teacher assigns the now completely boring and overdone 4th grade project of doing a history report on a famous American. The “fun” part is coming in dressed like the figure. (Okay, I think George Washington Carver was kinda cool, but every year there’s like 20 kids dressed as him–couldn’t the teacher open the kids’ minds a little?).

One kid who normally has zero interest in school runs to the teacher’s desk all excited. “I’m gonna do John Deere!”

The teacher barely lifts her head to acknowledge the less-than-stellar student. “Who?”

“John Deere. My father has this great tractor and I started looking him up on-line–John Deere, I mean– and I’m gonna do him.”

The teacher shakes her head. She looks over her list. “Hmm. Well, he’s not really famous, is he?”

The kid shoves his hands in his pockets, thinking. “I know him–and there’s stuff on the computer about him.” The kid’s 4’6.” The teacher’s a goddess.

She moves her pencil down the list. “Let’s see what the other children are doing. Jane is being Harriet Tubman. Matt is doing George Washington Carver and Lucy is doing Brittney Spears. Does that give you a better idea what I’m looking for?”  (This really happened!)

The brief elation on the kid’s face, the one glimmer of excitement he has for school disappears. He doesn’t answer, just goes back to his seat.

His mother talks to me about it the next day. This kid despite his teacher’s suggestion and his mother’s misguided pleading decides that he’s going to do John Deere NO MATTER WHAT. This kid receives a star next to his name in my head. His sweet mother worries that he’ll cause trouble and she depends on a substitute job at the school to get by when milk prices and ridiculous regulations threaten to kill her husband’s farm livelihood.

“You’re kid’s a future leader,” I say. “They can’t fire you because your son thinks John Deere is cool. Half of Hollywood wears the company’s gear.”

I see that she loves her kid and doesn’t want him labeled a troublemaker. She a good mother. I tell her that. “You should go talk to the teacher. I’m sure she doesn’t realize she’s putting nails in your son’s educational coffin. You know your kid is right.”

I don’t know if the kid ever presented his project. I didn’t want to know because I suspect the mother was too afraid of the teacher. I hope I’m wrong. I hope that kid stayed brave. He’s a non-famous hero of mine.

courtesy John Deere
courtesy John Deere

Now here’s the history: Until I moved to Upstate New York I thought John Deere was a hipster fashion designer, but John has a history. It’s not as bold and crazy as Bruce Jenner’s history, but for the men who talk tractors up here Mr. Deere’s equipment is the stuff of romance. You have your International Harvester devotees and the old Ford machines set some men’s hearts thumping under their flannels (my husband), but John Deere is the man.

Young John was apprenticed out to a respected Vermont blacksmith at the age of 17 in 1821. He opened shop, failed at it and escaped west to Illinois with his wife to start over. John had a lot of sex with said wife–they produced nine kids. During a lull between sparking he invented a high polished steel plow to replace the cast iron and wood models that sod-busters were using with little success on the tough prairie soil.

The farmers LOVED it. The demand was great. John realized that if he manufactured extras customers could stop in and leave with the product in hand (not like in the old days when you had to put in your order and wait).

John took on a partner who didn’t like railroads. Mr. Deere wanted a railroad track right through town to send his plows to their new homes. This partner had questionable bookkeeping practices so John washed his hands of the partnership.

The company went on to do great things as we all know. Even Hollywood wears the gear.


The Other Deere

John Deere History and Values

Famous Vermont Residents

Quarterbacks and Chickens

The Sick Chicken by Winslow Homer
The Sick Chicken by Winslow Homer

The holidays have come and gone with hours spent on the couch “marathoning” Friday Night Lights with my teenaged kids (we’re obsessed). My husband hasn’t quite been sucked in. He says: “I don’t have to watch a show about football; I’ve lived it.”

It’s funny how in fiction a paralyzed high school quarterback looks glamorous–even the marital problems on the show are adorable. I LOVE IT.

In real life  a girl doesn’t have a great hair day after almost being raped and high school boys aren’t 30-year-old ex models, but I just don’t care. I hate the word gritty when it comes to art and movies (at least in January I do). The Wire was a realistic show, but I couldn’t watch it. I’m not saying I like to read or watch fluff all the time, but I do like a sheen of unrealistic beauty cast over characters. Isn’t real life ugly enough?

Yesterday I finally went food shopping after  weeks of eating cookies. I bought tons of lettuce. In the fictionalized version of my life I  would  have some lettuce growing in a raised bed. In the fiction world I wouldn’t have come home from Walmart (which is depressing in itself) to find an eerie quiet cast over our farm. Heading down to the barn I wouldn’t have noticed Gluck-Gluck (my favorite chicken) wandering around by herself.

Chicken guarding courtesy of Pinterest
Chicken guarding courtesy of Pinterest

In real life I picked her up and brought her to the coop. Only two chickens inside. Off in the distance I spotted the orange body of another chicken and then another and another. I found a scared and badly injured hen face-first in a rotting pile of hay trying to hide as bitter cold wind lashed her feathers. I carried her home, made her comfortable in an old coat and tucked her in a barrel. Thirteen chickens were carried off or left dead.

They say that once  chickens panic it drives  hungry foxes into a killing frenzy. In the snow there were signs of flapping wings in struggle, chicken prints and the prints of a fox following right along side.

Winslow Homer
Winslow Homer

This sort of thing happens often enough in life and it’s hard to find any beauty or shine in it all. People get crippled. Foxes go on feeding frenzies. Yet . . . in fiction (the kind I like) there’s hope. The wheelchair-bound athlete becomes a coach and sports agent. Gluck-Gluck the chicken manages an escape against all odds and maybe, just maybe the chicken sleeping next to the fire dies in peace instead of terror.

Horse Power, Hurray?

Watch out for the bump in the road!
Watch out for the bump in the road!

To everyone driving today in your car feeling incredibly guilty for destroying the environment, let’s get some perspective. The automobile was once rightly hailed as an environmental savior. I think most horses if they could talk would agree. In movies the horse drawn carriage looks pretty romantic, but imagine living in a city with a burgeoning population in the 19th century.

The roads were choked with horse traffic and urine and manure and flies and carcasses–in summer. In many cases it was deemed easier to let the body of the often overworked and sickly horse rot a little before coming in, chopping it up and moving out of the road to some dump. Imagine walking by in your pretty clothes.

Speaking of dumps, people back them weren’t as ignorant as we like to think (or as smart). The farmers early in the century were happy to pay for soil enriching manure, but as time went on and the influx of immigrants rose, more horses and more manure meant a glut on the market. By century’s end cities couldn’t give the crap away–especially in summer when farmers needed to be on their land so mountains of manure rose to epic heights on city lots. And lovely little flies formed clouds of swarming disease.

Insurance companies penalize young male drivers nowadays for being a little reckless–add to that a spooked horse, or a horse who’s slipped on cobblestone or a horse on its last leg. Financially it made more sense to work fewer horses to the bone and replace them when they dropped dead than to house more horses in a city where real estate was at a premium. We think cars kill. But not as much as horses killed.

I worked on a horse-powered organic farm for a summer and watched in dismay a man who’d been with horses for years lose control of a team of his horses at a summer fair crowded with young kids. I watched as this same man trained another guy to cut hay in the old way–again another near-death experience. This good intentioned man kept the horses on pasture when he was in a hurry because while it looked beautiful to see the chunky, powerful work horses loping along, it just took too long to get things done.

Do horses cause global warming or cooling? Do cars? Does the sun cause global warming? Maybe cows and people eating hamburgers–or maybe it’s all a big set up; a morality play with an ever shifting backdrop of problems and solutions and new problems.

Read all the details here in a great paper about horse power in the 19th century

Picture courtesy of  corktownhistory.blogspot.com