The Great River Road, Part 6: Grand Detour, IL to Davenport, IA

Sometimes the most scenic roads in life are the detours you didn’t mean to take. – Angela N. Blount

 August 29, 2015 – Day 8 – Grand Detour, Illinois

Today was supposed to be just an easy travel day for Big Steve and me. There were no attractions to see or agenda items to check off. We simply wanted to get from Huntley, Illinois to Davenport, Iowa to rest up before continuing our journey down the Great River Road. Sometimes God has other plans.

As we traveled through the aptly named little town of Grand Detour, Illinois, Steve noticed a sign for the “John Deere Historic Site”. Being a history buff and fan of unplanned stops, Steve said, “let’s check this out” and went down a side road and into the parking lot. Honestly, I had my doubts. I’m not all that in to tractors, so I thought we should probably pass on this one. That would have been a mistake. Steve would want me to add here…that for the record he was RIGHT in choosing this stop!

John Deere's Home
John Deere’s Home

We paid a modest entry fee and began a guided tour of the John Deere homestead. It was incredible…what a pleasant surprise. I quickly became aware that John Deere was an actual person, not just the green and yellow tractor we associate with that name. The tour guide had a firm grasp of John Deere’s story, and walked us around the property and through the main house. He went through key events in family history and pointed out several features of the house and its furnishings. It was like stepping back in time. One of my favorite items in the house was a rocking chair. The tour guide explained to us that they used the rocking chair as a way to dry their hair by hanging it over the back of the chair. How creative is that? We then headed over to the original blacksmith’s shop, which is an archaeological dig and historic site. Our guide pointed out the artifacts that had been dug up and their purpose, and then we watched a video of the John Deere story. Three things stood out to me:

Deere Statue
Deere Statue

1. John Deere didn’t invent or build tractors. In fact, the first Deere tractor prototype  didn’t come along until nearly 30 years after his death. He never used any of the fancy green and yellow farm equipment that is associated with his name. The first John Deere tractors were created by his son.

Deere's Kitchen w/ Hair Drying Rocker to the left
Deere’s Kitchen w/ Hair Drying Rocker to the left

2. John Deere was an innovative problem solver. He noticed that plows that easily cut through soil in the Northeast struggled in the sticky black earth of the Midwest. Farmers had to constantly stop to wipe soil off the plow, which made farming more difficult and less profitable. So John Deere went to work in his blacksmith shop. Through trial and error and perseverance, he built a better plow…a steel one that would easily slice through midwestern soil. That 1837  innovation opened the vast rich prairies to agricultural development and laid the groundwork for what eventually would become the John Deere Company we know today.

Replica of Deere's Steel Plow
Replica of Deere’s Steel Plow

3. Most people aren’t familiar with Captain Benjamin Lawrence, but he plays an important role in this story. You see he was the blacksmith who invited 17-year-old John Deere to apprentice in his shop for three years. He taught John the tools of the trade, like sharpening hayforks and rakes, forming and fitting shoes for horses, and later fixing ironwork for stagecoaches. As a result, John Deere became a master of his craft. Later, he himself took in apprentices and taught them the craft. Our society values and honors the “John Deere’s”, and rightly so because their innovations have changed the course of history. But behind every John Deere there is a Benjamin Lawrence who plays an important role in mentoring, shaping, and encouraging future inventors and innovators. We may never become a famous John Deere, but I hope all of us will try to be a Benjamin Lawrence to someone.

Archaeological Dig of Deere's Blacksmith Shop
Archaeological Dig of Deere’s Blacksmith Shop

Our final stop on the tour was the working blacksmith shop, a recreation of the one John Deere would have used. The blacksmith who gave the blacksmithing demonstration was Rick, who just so happened to be an Air Force veteran. That gave him an instant bond with Steve, and the two of them shared details of their careers using acronyms that only military people can understand. He gave us even more details on John Deere’s life and work as a blacksmith, and then expertly demonstrated how to turn a steel rod into a beautiful, decorative leaf petal. He was really good. In fact, if John Deere hadn’t invented that new plow, I think Rick eventually would have.

Rick Doin' Work
Rick Doin’ Work

As the demonstration came to an end, he asked where we currently worked. We told him we had taken some time off to tour the country by RV, but that we had previously worked at a private Christian school. His ears perked up, a smile came across his face and he said, “So, you’re believers, then?” Steve and I nodded and he then proceeded to roll up his sleeve and proudly show us his cross tattoo. In addition to the military bond, we had identified a bond that goes much deeper…our Christian faith. He said, “hold on for a minute…don’t leave…I’ve got something for you” and then politely waited for the other customers to exit the shop. He went back into blacksmith mode and heated up the steel rod with the leaf petal on the end. After a few more steps, this master craftsman presented me with a beautiful leaf petal pendant, forged in fire. It was really touching. And then he said, “Let me tell you one more blacksmith story.” He then told us the following fictional, but inspiring story, which I have attempted to capture from memory. We hope it blesses you as much as it blessed us…

The Blacksmith

There was a blacksmith about 2,000 years ago who was working hard in his shop. He had finally begun to make a name for himself in town and had several orders to be filled. This was good news to him and his wife. One day when he was working in his shop a Roman soldier came rushing in and ordered that he stop whatever he was doing and make his order top priority. When the blacksmith asked him what he needed, the soldier said, “three long nails” and commanded that they be ready upon his return. He turned and rushed out of the shop. The blacksmith knew it was in his best interest to do exactly what the soldier had ordered him to do, hoping this might lead to future jobs for the government. The blacksmith was a crafty artisan and nails were not the most intriguing product, but he knew he needed to do his best and have the nails ready when the soldier returned.

The soldier returned shortly and the blacksmith had the nails ready and waiting for him. He came rushing in again and asked for the nails. The blacksmith presented the three nails to him and the soldier grabbed them, threw some change his way, and turned to leave. As the soldier was leaving, the blacksmith said, “Sir, do you mind telling me what you’re making that you only need three nails?” The soldier turned and looked at him and said, “We are crucifying the King of the Jews today, and these are the nails that are needed for his cross.” Then he turned and left.


The blacksmith had heard of this man that people were calling the “King of the Jews” and his special powers, but he wasn’t so sure what he thought about the guy. So he didn’t think much more about the nails, and went back to work on his other orders. A few hours later, the sky went black, the earth began to shake and rocks were split, the temple’s curtain was torn in two, tombs were broken open and dead bodies were raised to life. This certainly got the blacksmith’s attention. He began to think there might be something more to the story of the “King of the Jews”. Maybe he really was who he said he was? He began to feel bad that he had played a part in crucifying this man.

What this blacksmith didn’t understand was that even though he furnished the nails that were used to crucify this man named Jesus, this was all part of a bigger plan…God’s plan. Jesus had to be the ultimate sacrifice for all and the nails were a necessary part of the event. We should all approach the things we do for a living as a means to fulfill God’s plan. We should choose to do whatever we do with all our might and give God the glory for it. He will take our actions and efforts, however small and meager, and work them into his marvelous plan.

We thanked Rick, our new favorite blacksmith, for the story and leaf petal, and then exchanged hugs and got back on the road. As mentioned in the opening quote, sometimes the most scenic roads in life are the detours you didn’t mean to take. Today we took an unplanned detour…a Grand Detour, in fact…and it was the most pleasant and encouraging surprise on our trip thus far. We learned about John Deere, an innovative blacksmith who invented a better plow, founded a company, and changed farming forever. More importantly, we were reminded of a Jewish carpenter who, 2000 years ago, selflessly gave up his own life, and by doing so made redemption possible and changed the course of history.

Lil Jan

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2 thoughts on “The Great River Road, Part 6: Grand Detour, IL to Davenport, IA”

  1. The day you visited the John Deere Historic Site in Grand Detour, IL I was your tour guide. I am glad you enjoyed the tour and were able to learn something. One clarification, it was John Deere’s grandson by marriage, Wm. Butterworth, that got Deere & Co. in the tractor business, not his son Charles.

    1. Thanks again for the awesome tour, and the clarification. This was one of the best stops on our entire trip.

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