GRAND DETOUR – Themes of ingenuity and perseverance permeate the histories of successful American entrepreneurs.
Moline native Chris Burke hopes to capture that spirit in a documentary about a man who changed the agricultural world: John Deere.
Burke, 41, focused the storyline of his screenplay on Deere’s early life – the parts that made the young man a renowned innovator – and soon will use the John Deere Historic Site in Grand Detour as a backdrop.
The new documentary, “The Best That Is In Me: Mr. John Deere’s Dream,” produced by Fourth Wall Films of Moline, will be narrated by venerable actor Rance Howard. It is scheduled to be released in early 2016.
Tribute to Mom
Burke, who lives in Aurora with his wife, Jennifer, 40, and three daughters, started the project shortly after his mom, Karen, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in January 2008.
“She was the martyr,” Burke said. You could hear him smile over the phone as he reminisced.
“She was the type of person who always tried to do everything for everyone, kept the family in line, and was a remarkably hard worker. She was a special person.”
Born in 1942 in Moline, for 20 years Karen was an office manager for Donohoo Steel Treating Co., in Bettendorf, Iowa. She retired early because of her illness.
Burke would make the 4-hour round-trip to see her as often as possible, and on his way home, often would stop in Dixon.
Within a few months, his mom, who stood all of about 5-foot-2, had fallen to well below 100 pounds, he said.
“She was just so tiny. She didn’t have anything to fight it.”
The stress surrounding his mom’s diagnosis was overwhelming, he said, and so one day, on a trip back to Aurora, he detoured to visit the John Deere Historic Site; maybe to cope with the emotional deluge and to “perhaps delay the inevitable.”
Throughout the tour, Burke identified with Deere’s motivation for self-improvement, and he became enamored with the story of Deere's early life, he said.
Deere was a blacksmith who discovered that the plow design used on farms in the east wouldn’t work on the Midwest's chunky clay soil. He grappled with economic turmoil in an era when the nation faced an uncertain future. His father disappeared at sea.
“[The tour] was fantastic,” Burke said, adding that he knew Deere existed, but nothing beyond that.
Back home to Aurora, he called his mom. He wondered why Deere’s upbringing hadn’t yet been told in a way that could reach a large audience.
“Why don’t you do it?” Karen asked.
“Yeah, right,” Burke said as he laughed and shrugged off the idea.
That exchange turned out to be one of their last. By the time tests shed light on what was going on with his mom, the cancer had spread to her brain. About 2 weeks later, about 5 months after the initial diagnosis, Karen died. She was 65.
A great story
The day after her death, Burke told Jennifer he wanted to work on the screenplay. The focus he placed on writing became a sort of therapy, he said.
“Now she likes it, but for a while, she thought I was absolutely crazy.”
“Screenwriting for Dummies” was one of the first resources he used to help him get started, he said, working in business development by day and on the screenplay at night.
“The first draft was pretty horrible,” Burke confessed. “It took about 4 or 5 months [to assemble]."
Several Hollywood studios rejected the script, but Burke, like Deere, never accepted defeat.
“[John Deere’s life] is a great story of Americana ... of overcoming challenges.”
It would be 2 to 3 years more before he felt confident enough to make it a movie, he said.
Fourth Wall Films, operated by husband-and-wife Kelly and Tammy Rundle is making the documentary.
Kelly, 55, grew up in the Quad Cities; coincidentally, his dad was a barber at John Deere Inc. headquarters more than 30 years.
“So, I’ve heard a lot about [the company] over the years,” he said with a laugh.
Tammy’s father, too, had a connection to the company: He was a welder at a Deere factory in Waterloo, Iowa, for more than 30 years.
“She ... would have grown up with a significant awareness of the company. … Probably not John Deere the man,” Kelly said. “It’s been overlooked. A lot of people focus on his life from the time of the plow’s invention to today.”
After Fourth Wall and Burke connected, they approached John Deere Inc. to iron out legal details and identify anything that could derail or halt production, he said.
“A lot of people know about John Deere, but they don’t understand that it’s not just a brand …There’s a person with a fascinating story.”
At this point, fundraising is ongoing, and the documentary is in pre-production. The team plans to film at the John Deere site in Grand Detour next summer or fall.
“I think John Deere belongs on a long list of American innovators and inventors. … People like Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Thomas Edison,” Kelly said. “He’s not usually included on those lists.”
He said sharing awareness of Deere’s early life and his accomplishments is a primary goal of the project. It could just be that his story hasn’t been told in a way that captured the public’s attention.
“That’s what we hope to do.”
You can play a role
You can help to complete the project by making a tax-deductible donation. Go to mrjohndeeremovie.com or facebook.com/mrjohndeeremovie for details on how to contribute and for updates on the documentary.