One of my professors gave me perhaps the best research advice I’ve ever received. It was early in my college career. It was simple. “The book you need is next to the book you’re looking for.” He was referring to the library bookshelf. You search for a title or topic in the card catalog, which leads you to a shelf and that book. Take the time, he advised the class, to see what’s nearby. Chances are you’ll find something that better fits your needs.
I’ve carried this advice with me for my entire career.
For my first book, it actually started with a letter. John Deere was 81 years old in the winter of 1885, and his nephew was furious. John and his wife wintered in California, and their nephew, George, had spotted John with another woman. The letter was sent to Moline, addressed to John’s son Charles. The letter was an advance warning, just in case he needed to board a train to California and intervene. George would send a telegram if an urgent situation arose.
Well, that was all I needed. I was hooked. Who was this scandalous man, John Deere? And why had I not learned this version in school? Fast forward several years. George left out that fact that John’s wife Lusena was with John and the other woman, and that she and her husband were family friends from Moline. George also left out that he was upset at uncle John for his unwillingness to loan him money to build a house. John, it turned out, was in the clear. George, on the other hand…
My favorite part of the letter (which was one of several on the subject), was the closing which asked Charles to burn the letter. The letter I was reading! Its amazing how sometimes history survives. And even more amazing to consider why it survives. As I held the letter in my hand, it was easy to picture Charles Deere, sitting by the fire, reading the letter. Perhaps he was worried. Perhaps he knew cousin George all too well to waste his time on such nonsense. All I knew was that it was incredibly cool that I was holding the letter 116 years later.
Of course, I had to know more. It led to the next letter. And the next. And then to a four year investigation into the life and legacy of John Deere the man. And then his son, Charles. That work became The John Deere Story: A Biography of Plowmakers John and Charles Deere, published in 2005. And yes, even on my own shelf I sometimes pull the book sitting next to it.