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Economic Development is . . . (increasing the flow) of capital through the community and reducing its leakage.

Build a Better Mousetrap

“Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door” is a phrase attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson in the late nineteenth century. The phrase is actually a misquotation of the statement:

If a man has good corn or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.—Ralph Waldo Emerson. Today’s article looks at how a guy named Johnathan built something better.

Jonathan was born in Rutland, Vermont, February 7, 1804. He spent his boyhood and young adulthood in Middlebury, Vermont, where he received a common school education and served a four-year apprenticeship learning the blacksmith’s trade.

When Jonathan was 21 he began his career as a journeyman blacksmith and soon gained considerable fame for his careful workmanship and ingenuity. His highly polished hay forks and shovels especially were in great demand throughout western Vermont. But business conditions in Vermont became depressed in the mid-1830s, and the future looked gloomy for the ambitious young blacksmith. Many natives of Vermont emigrated to the West, and the tales of golden opportunity that filtered back to Vermont so stirred Jonathan’s enthusiasm that he decided to dispose of his business and join the pioneers.

He left his wife and family, who were to join him later, and set out with a bundle of tools and a small amount of cash. After traveling many weeks by canal boat, lake boat, and stagecoach, he reached the village of Grand Detour, which had been settled by Leonard Andrus and others from his native Vermont. The need for a blacksmith was so great that two days after his arrival in 1836 he had built a forge and was busy serving the community.

There was much to be done – shoeing horses and oxen, and repairing the plows and other equipment for the farmers. From them he learned of the serious problem they encountered in trying to farm the fertile soil of the Midwest. The cast-iron plows they had brought with them from the East were designed for the light, sandy New England soil. The rich Midwestern soil clung to the plow bottoms and every few steps it was necessary to scrape the soil from the plow. Plowing was a slow and laborious task. Many people were discouraged and were considering moving on, or heading back east.

Jonathan studied the problem and became convinced that a plow with a highly polished and properly shaped moldboard and share ought to scour itself as it turned the furrow slice. He built a plow in 1837, using the steel from a broken saw blade, and successfully tested it on the farm of Lewis Crandall near Grand Detour.

Jonathan’s plow design proved to be the answer that farmers needed. But his contribution far exceeded just the development of a successful plow. It was the practice of that day for blacksmiths to build tools on order for customers. But Jonathan went into the business of manufacturing plows before he had orders for them. He would produce a supply of plows and then take them to the country to be sold – an entirely new approach to manufacturing and selling in those early pioneer days, and one that quickly spread the word of Jonathan’s “self-polishers.”

It took Jonathan 49 years before he incorporated his plow company and it wasn’t until 1918 (81 years later) when the company he started purchased the Waterloo Gasoline Traction Engine Company in Waterloo, Iowa, that tractors became an important part of the business. For the Jonathan who solved a problem with the plow was none other than . . . John Deere.

Just as John Deere built a better plow it is time to begin taking our ideas and building them into the “NEW” economy of Tama County.

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One Comment on “Build a Better Mousetrap”

  1. sgboatsz November 10, 2012 at 8:43 am #

    The post is very interesting. Thank you for writing it up.

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