THE BLOG
02/11/2013 12:41 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2013

A Governor, a Canal, John Deere and the First American Agricultural Revolution

February 16 marks the anniversary of the ratification of the Treaty of Ghent by the U.S. Senate, officially ending the War of 1812. Looking back, it seems that the year 2012 managed to pass by without any significant reference to it having been the bicentennial anniversary of that conflict with Great Britain. While that may seem understandable since my home state of Iowa had been part of the United States for just eight years when the war broke out, in retrospect, the War of 1812 had an enormous impact in transforming Iowa's future and also bringing about the first American agricultural revolution. The story goes something like this:

The War of 1812 had been so damaging economically to the United States that by 1817 the country was in a deep recession. In the hope of providing a stimulus to promote economic growth, the Governor of New York went to Washington with a proposal to build of a set of canals which would not only generate jobs but also open passages to the territories west of the Appalachians. Specifically, the Governor sought federal funding for the Erie Canal as well as the construction of a connector canal to the north which could link it to Lake Champlain, which bordered Vermont.

While retired President George Washington was supportive of the proposal, Thomas Jefferson derided it, calling it "...little short of madness...".This opposition killed the bill in Congress and left the Governor with no choice but to seek to build both canals with his state's own resources. Construction was completed in the 1825.

The practical consequences for Iowa came a decade later when an even more devastating depression - the Panic of 1837 - swept across the United States, devastating large and small businesses including a blacksmith shop in Middlebury, Vermont operated by a man named John Deere.

In a desperate move to seek a new livelihood, John Deere boarded a barge which took him down the Champlain Canal and then onto the Erie Canal to Buffalo. From there, he made his way across the Great Lakes eventually ending up in Grand Detour, Illinois where he established a new blacksmith shop.

At that time, the Iowa territory had been open for settlement for only a few years. Surprising as it might seem now, many of those early settlers were giving up because their wooden plows were unable to break the thick Iowa prairie sod. It was then that the new steel plow, developed by John Deere, was brought across the Mississippi River.

The impact was dramatic. Suddenly, the fertile Iowa soil could be brought under cultivation. People flooded into the state in such numbers that Iowa was able to attain statehood just nine years later in 1846. The Champlain Canal, built by that New York governor, had wrought a fundamental change in the future of Iowa and indeed much of the American middle west. Agricultural production increased so greatly that it helped lead the country out of the recession and into the prosperity of the 1840s.

Iowa native and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr. Norman Borlaug, the founder of the World Food Prize, often emphasized the transformative power of infrastructure, be it the farm to market roads of the 20th century or the 19th century canals that brought John Deere from Vermont to Iowa. In that regard, it is important to recognize that from the first day the federal land offices opened in 1838 until today, the one name that has always been associated with economic development in Iowa is John Deere.

Given this special place in Iowa's agricultural heritage, it seemed especially appropriate that in 2012, the year in which the John Deere Company celebrated the 175th anniversary of its founding, the World Food Prize was able to unveil a bust of John Deere the man in the Iowa Galley of our Dr. Norman E. Borlaug Hall of Laureates.

But what about that governor of New York, without whom John Deere might never have made it to Iowa? "Doesn't he deserve recognition?" you might ask. Actually, he does have a place in Iowa history. It is interesting to note that if, after visiting the John Deere headquarters and museum in Moline, IL, you drive across the bridge on Interstate 80 into Iowa, and make a right turn onto Highway 61 and head north, you come to the town of DeWitt. From there you can travel to the nearby city of Clinton. Both are named for that governor of New York who in 1817 made the decisions that would so dramatically impact the state of Iowa and transform agriculture in the American heartland - DeWitt Clinton.