William Deering was born in 1826 in Maine where his father ran a woolen mill. His ancestors were shipbuilders, farmers and seafaring men of New England. As a young man, Deering studied medicine – but postponed this formal education and moved to Chicago when he saw his future in the burgeoning activity out west.
At first, he developed agricultural machinery and equipment that created greater efficiencies in farming. In 1873, he moved his family to Illinois, purchased a farm equipment manufacturing firm and renamed it the Deering Harvester Company. In 1880, William’s two sons, Charles and James, joined their father at Deering Harvester along with their brother-in-law, Richard Howe, who was married to their sister Abby.
Not an inventor himself, William Deering loved innovation and hired experts to improve his harvesting machines, using cutting-edge technologies, changing from cast iron and wood to wrought iron and steel. William Deering, always the entrepreneur, also saw the great potential of the internal combustion engine and in 1900 exhibited at the Paris Exposition the first motor-mower ever made. Deering Harvester enabled farmers to harvest an acre of grain in an hour—a substantial increase in productivity that made commercial agriculture out west profitable.
Deering Harvester was also one of the first manufacturing endeavors to embark on a vertical expansion for their company by controlling raw materials through the purchase of timber lands. The timber was forested using scientific principles in keeping with the natural environment.
Known for his uncommon “common sense”, self-reliant and frugal, William Deering prided himself on “doing it himself”, did not use a secretary or personal assistant, and ran Deering Harvester with a firm and fair hand. For his services to agriculture, Deering was made an Officer of the Legion of Honor by the French Government. William retired in 1901 at age 75, leaving the company to his sons Charles and James and son-in-law, Richard.
In 1902 the House of Morgan arranged a merger between the Deering Harvester Company, the McCormick Reaper Company and some smaller companies to form the International Harvester Company. International Harvester quickly became one of the leading manufacturers of farm implements and remained so through much of the twentieth century.
William was extremely interested in philanthropy, including public welfare, education and other worthy charities. He served as president of the board of trustees of Northwestern University, the allied Garrett Biblical Institute, and was a founder of the Wesley Hospital in Chicago. In his later years, as his health weakened, William and his wife began spending winters in St. Augustine, Florida and by 1910 his permanent home was in Coconut Grove, just south of Miami. He died in Coconut Grove in 1913 at the age of 88.