Digging up dirt on John Deere.

My aunt and uncle recently sent me pictures taken on Maine Maple Sunday, an event that includes maple syrup tasting. My guess is that this process is a bit like wine tasting in Napa, but with more sugar and no hangover. It was fun to see photos of my syrup-tipsy family, but what really caught my eye was the John Deere tractor with the vat of maple sap in back.

According to my aunt, this “modern hauling vehicle” replaced the horse and sled that were traditionally used for transporting the sap. It takes 40 gallons of maple sap to make one gallon of pure maple syrup, but I have no doubt that John Deere is up to the task.

Indulging my passion for these green-and-yellow machines (what is it about them that reminds me of basketball uniforms?), I researched John Deere and discovered that the future-founder of the farm-machinery conglomerate began his career as a blacksmith in Illinois. In 1836, he was approached by a group of farmers who asked, “How can we stop the #&*$%! soil from jamming up our #&*$%! plows?”

Deere quickly recognized that cast iron wasn’t the right material for cultivating the sticky soil in the Midwest, so in 1837 he introduced his “self-polishing” plow made of steel that the soil would not adhere to. Combining innovative thinking with an expertise in materials, Deere solved the farmers’ problem. Today his steel plow is archived at the Smithsonian.

Fast forward 100 years and countless happy farmers later, the John Deere Company decided to design a new building for its Moline, Illinois, headquarters. With a goal to create something that was unique but also reflected the character of the company, their choice of architects was none other than Eero Saarinen.

Staying true to Deere’s legacy, Saarinen designed the building in steel. Not polished steel like the plow, but rather Cor-ten® steel, a material that had never before been used in architecture. When this material is left unpainted, “a rust coating forms which becomes a protective skin over the steel itself,” explained Saarinen. This corrosion-resistant coating gives the steel an earthy color that the folks at John Deere describe as being “much like newly plowed soil.”

If you know anything about Saarinen, you know that one of his greatest strengths was the ability to express a client’s identity through architecture. That talent is made even more notable here by the fact that the architect died in 1961, two years before the John Deere building was completed. If you’d like to see the structure, it’s open to visitors 365 days a year. In addition to marveling at Saarinen’s work, be sure to check out the 180-foot-long mural by Alexander Girard. This three-dimensional timeline depicts the company’s first 75 years of operation, from 1837 to 1918, and contains 2,200 pieces of memorabilia (it would take a genius like Girard to make that look interesting). And of course, be sure to check out the displays of John Deere products.

Gwendolyn Horton