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Ickes: Off Limits at John Deere Corporate Archives

From the Barb Ickes takes us inside these 'off limits' places series
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What a wonderful surprise.

I had no idea the John Deere Corporate Archives exists, let alone right under our noses.

In the rear of a plain-looking building on 13th Street in East Moline is a lovingly kept collection of everything you can imagine — and plenty you can't — that tells the story of the blacksmith who put Moline on the map and the company that changed the world.

From row after row of high-tech shelving (it moves and lights up at the touch of a button), to the 70,000 square feet of warehouse space is the vast Deere collection. Legal documents, manuals, advertising, film, toys, tractors, Gators — even John Deere's two-piece wool bathing suit — have been carefully collected and stored.

I have no doubt, if the legal department would permit it, that many especially earnest John Deere collectors would wish to have their ashes stored there, too.

An Off Limits Places invitation by Dan Bernick, public relations manager, got me in the door. And I'm happy to hold it open for you.

How it got there

The John Deere Corporate Archives & History is relatively new, which sounds like an oxymoron.

But the collection didn't exist until 1976. When you consider the company is 181 years old, 42 years of archiving suggests a belated beginning. And it was.

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Deere & Co. Manager, Corporate Archives & History Neil Dahlstrom points to volumes of the Patent gazette of the United States Patent Office from the 1860's at the John Deere Corporate Archives in East Moline.

"It all started with two boxes, one was marked 'Keep,' and the other was marked, 'Garbage,'" said Neil Dahlstrom, manager of the archives.

In the early years, the collection came mostly from employees. And the loot was stored in the basement of the Deere headquarters in Moline. In 1997, the archive was moved to the East Moline location, where it has grown into a full-fledged museum that still is expanding. Though some employees are granted tours and/or access to records, the archives are off limits to the public.

"This is not where records go to die," Dahlstrom said. "These records are used, and it is our job to know the collection."

And what a job.

Consider this: If the acid-free boxes that are stored on the mobile shelving were placed end-to-end, they would match the distance of 400 football fields or the length of 1,537 Model D tractors. And, given the rate of expansion, it seems possible the number rose to 1,538 tractors in the six days since our visit.

"We have about 180,000 catalogued items, but one item could contain hundreds of records," Dahlstrom said. "Research requests we got a few years ago that would take us the whole day now take just a couple of minutes, thanks to digitization."

But you can't digitize a tractor.

What they do

The archives are managed by a six-person staff, led by Dahlstrom.

The half-dozen brains each stores a specific collection of knowledge. No one person could ever contain it all.

For instance, when we were studying shelves full of John Deere toys, collections manager Nathan Augustine pointed out that some pieces that were thought to be toys were, in fact, prototypes. How, I asked, could they tell the difference?

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Items once thought to be toys are instead historical design samples, now stored in the John Deere Corporate Archives.

"There are six of us with different areas of expertise," Dahlstrom said. "We can recognize and identify toys and prototypes, because we've looked at so many."

At more than one point during our tour, I apologized for spending so much time gawking in the same area. But Quad-City Times photographer Kevin Schmidt agreed we easily could have spent a full day looking at the collection, and we'd still only scratch the surface.

"It's OK; I understand," Dahlstrom said. "I'm 15 years in, and I have that same look on my face most days."

While archivists serve a high enough purpose, the John Deere staff does much more. They are historians, librarians, curators, media producers, muscle, spokespeople and tour guides.

"We collect in real time," Dahlstrom said, meaning the archive is being constantly updated as new products are introduced. "But you can only have so much shelf space. For instance, we have operator's manuals in dozens and dozens of languages.

"Our goal is not to have one of everything but to have a representative sample."

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The John Deere Corporate Archives contain 180,000 items listed in their catalog.

In fact, the old records get new uses pretty much every day. For example, the archive staff spent two years preparing historical material for the upcoming celebration of Deere's 100th anniversary in the tractor business and a kickoff event at the John Deere Tractor and Engine Museum in Waterloo.

"Our job is to know the collection," Dahlstrom reminded.

And that includes the origin of the collection. Keep in mind: John Deere, like many companies, has amended its corporate structure over the course of nearly two centuries. Departments and divisions have been added, eliminated or renamed. To get at the correct records, Dahlstrom and the team have to know what people are asking for — even when the people doing the asking aren't entirely sure.

"We can get some very general requests, like a tractor advertisement somebody saw in 1954," he said. "But one of us can usually get to the bottom of the request. We like to prove things.

"Because of our research and our access to these records, we know things about John Deere tractors that wasn't known 10 years ago."

As it occurred to me that the research, records, fact-finding and storytelling sounded familiar, Dahlstrom read my mind, saying, "It's like what you do, except we're often looking for information on people who have been dead for 150 years."

The documents

I admit: In some cases, talk turns to historic documents, and my mind wanders off to what I'm going to eat next.

That wasn't the case here.

The archives' main office contains row after row of mobile shelves, stocked with thousands of acid-free containers — each about twice the size of a shoe box.

Dahlstrom randomly pulled a box from a shelf and opened it, carefully pulling out an advertisement from 1919. He did this several times, revealing catalogues and sales brochures. Even if you have zero interest in a John Deere-VanBrunt Grain Drill with Double Run Feeds, you'd have to appreciate the quality of the image. These documents were and are, literally, pieces of art. The colors are beautiful, and the images transport you right into the fields, next to the farmer.

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Original advertising for a John Deere-Van Brunt Grain Drill dated 1919 in the John Deere Corporate Archives.

"Our goal — and we're successful in most cases — is to have two copies," he said. "That's because you have to cut the spines to digitize, and it destroys the document."

The manuals and sales materials are priceless to John Deere collectors and collectors' clubs.

"If you're restoring an old tractor, and you're not sure what color the rims are supposed to be, it's all in here," he said. "We could tell you what day many tractors were built, based on the serial number."

Also vast is the patent collection, which is comprised primarily of copies of the voluminous Patent Gazettes; printed from 1790 to 2002.

"All new patent attorneys are trained down here," Dahlstrom said.

Also occupying considerable shelf space is the archive's collection of 8,000 to 10,000 (16mm) films, many of which also have been digitized.

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Thousands of 16 mm films are part of the John Deere Corporate Archives.

The light-and-temperature controlled document library also contains Charles Deere's papers; the company's second CEO.

Temporary home

On the floor in an aisle between sections of the massive shelving, a couple of pieces clearly were out of place.

Called pediments, the large, carved-wood pieces once sat atop oversized doors in the board room when the Deere headquarters was downtown Moline. Located at 1325 3rd Ave., the building sat roughly where the Radisson at John Deere Commons sits today.

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Hand carved wooden pediments that once adorned the doors to the boardroom in the former John Deere building in downtown Moline are now stored at Deere's corporate archives.

Built in 1891, a fourth floor was added in 1921, which is when the board room was built. The archives contain several items from the old board room, including pillars, sconces, chairs, desks and the doors that were centered below those pediments.

A pair of the doors were leaning on a wall at the end of a row of shelving.

Augustine, the collections manager, pointed out something intriguing: "If you look at this side of the door — the plain side — that's what the employees saw. Then look at this side of the door — the really beautiful, ornamental side — that's the side the board members saw."

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Ornate wooden doors from the boardroom at the former downtown Moline John Deere building. Board members saw the ornate side of the doors from inside the boardroom. From outside the boardroom, employees saw a plain door.

Dahlstrom had been listening and added: "This door was on that board room from 1921 to 1964, and it was opened by every important character; from John Deere's grandson (Charles Deere Wiman) to (CEO William) Hewitt."

He then reached for the handle but kept his hand upon it only briefly. As he pulled his hand away, a smile came over him as he declared, "That's the first time I touched that door handle, and it gave me the willies."


The archives' stockpile of vintage toys would make a collector weep.

The pieces share shelves with Deere & Co. awards, ashtrays from dealerships, salesman samples, license plates — you name it.

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John Deere Collections Manager Nathan Augustine talks about the variety of items house in its archives.

But there's a trick to it. With the salesman's samples, for instance, many did not survive. Since salesmen couldn't very well haul tractors around to dealers, they took small models. And, since they were so often used and handled, many were discarded, because they were in poor condition.

That's not the case with John Deere caps.

Neither Dahlstrom nor Augustine would even venture a guess as to how many company caps have been made over the years, and there would simply be no way of collecting and storing them all.

"Again, what we aspire to is a representative sample," Dahlstrom said.

Amazing art

I recognized the wire-backed racks from our Off Limits tour at the Figge Art Museum.

While the Corporate Archives contain many pieces of art, the company correctly keeps most of it on display in locations around the world. One of the most fortunate such locales is the John Deere World Headquarters in Moline.

Deere's sixth president, William Hewitt, was responsible for the creation of the administrative center and was heaped with well-deserved praise for its celebrated architecture.

It was completed in 1964, and Hewitt took it upon himself, Augustine said, to furnish the so-called "Glass Palace" with a vast and varied art collection. While most of Deere's art is on display, a considerable collection resides in a row of racks in the archives.

"He wasn't just doing tractors and agriculture (art)," Augustine said. "He was making people think ... including abstract impressionism from the 1960s.

"We also have five Grant Wood drawings, and one Wood painting — with a John Deere plow front and center."

The warehouses

I couldn't focus on one thing. My eyes were being greedy and impatient, simultaneously registering tractors, a race car, a steamer trunk, stamped-copper deer heads, a safe, a dealer sign with broken neon.

We toured one of two equally-sized warehouses that contain a combined 70,000 square feet.

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A Hydrogen Fuel Cell Gator that was only used for demonstrations is housed in the John Deere Corporate Archives.

Dahlstrom solved my distraction problem by pointing to a 1942 tractor. Due to limitations placed on the use of steel during World War II, "This was strictly R and D (research and development), because the war meant we couldn't introduce anything new," he said.

He explained how many of the large pieces in the warehouse — along with the artwork and some documents — are treated the same as pieces in any museum. They are rotated in displays and made available to others after loan agreements, appraisals and insurance matters have been settled.

When we came upon a 1913 corn sheller, someone mentioned that corn shelling typically was the kids' job, which made me wince. If you ever doubted the dangers associated with farming, look no further than a child's hands upon a 1913 corn sheller.

Dahlstrom also touched on the long-standing dispute surrounding the identify of the first John Deere tractor. Some say it was the (Joseph) Dain while others argue for the Waterloo Boy.

"If you line up when they were built, it's Waterloo Boy by acquisition," he said. "I'll be giving a presentation on it at the (March 21-24) Gathering of the Green. We'll see if anybody throws food at me."

We then came upon the oldest existing lawn and garden tractor, built in 1963. The archives has the first of the model 110, and its serial number is 110-110. The 5 millionth garden tractor was built 50 years later; 2013.

On large racks on one wall of the warehouse was a lineup of Gators. The collection includes one of the first ever made and the 500,000th Gator to come off the line. There was even a hydrogen-powered Gator, which is not on the market.

"We hold on to a lot of experimental machines," Dahlstrom said. "You don't know for 40 or 50 years how important they're going to be."

Many pieces of equipment in the archives never were used and were snatched up right off the assembly line. But some pieces, affectionately called "Shop Mules," were used in factories for 30 or 40 years, he said.

As we stood beside the John Deere race car that competed in the Winston Cup, I noticed a seemingly odd juxtaposition: The Gators were stored next to the ancient John Deere buggies.

"It's the same machine, 100 years apart," Dahlstrom said.

"Utility vehicles have always been for getting around the farm — feeding livestock and checking the crops," Augustine added.

On the way out

One thing that strikes you in touring the Corporate Archives is the number of acquisitions accomplished by Deere & Co. over so many years. Part of the company's genius has been its ability to spot opportunity and potential anywhere in the world.

We also were taken by the variety and volume of products and, of course, the parts that had to be produced to keep them in the fields or on the road or in the toy box.

On our way out of the warehouse, we came upon a display of two particularly old pieces. One was a John Deere bicycle, made in 1894. It had bent hickory rims and an uncomfortable-looking seat that was stuffed with horse hair. Its head badge, which is so important to bike collectors, is ornamental and pristine.

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The emblem on the Deere bicycle dated from 1894. The bicycle features wooden wheels and a horse hair stuffed seat and is part of the collection at the John Deere Corporate Archives.

Next to the bike, and not nearly as pristine, is a plow that is estimated to have been built around 1853. It was a gift from John Deere to Elisha Benedict whom he met in his home state of Vermont.

Benedict is believed to have once loaned money to Deere. When both wound up in Illinois, Deere repaid the loan and built the plow, which bears a message to Benedict.

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The oldest plow in the John Deere Corporate Archives.

Charles Deere, John’s son and the company's second CEO, bought the plow from the Benedict family in 1901, and it became part of a farm show display, Dahlstrom said.

As everyone knows, the polished-steel plow was John Deere's claim to advanced-technology fame. It delivered pioneering farmers from the struggle of clearing cast-iron blades of the heavy prairie soil that clung to them. He made life easier.

It may have taken 140 years to start a company collection in earnest, but the archives are quickly catching up to the past. As today's historians sort out the best way to keep records that remain useful in modern times, they too are making life easier for the next generation of John Deere.

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Contact Barb Ickes at 563-383-2316 or