Auburn-based DICKEY-john Corp. got its start in 1960, when Chatham-area farmer Robert Dickey was in the hospital recuperating from a lawn-mower accident that had cost him his right eye. One of his visitors was a minister.
“In talking about farming, the minister wondered why someone didn’t invent a gauge to tell when a planter box runs out of seed,” according to a 1966 Illinois State Journal article written by C.F. Marley.
As it happened, Dickey had been thinking about exactly that problem for years, according to DICKEY-john’s corporate history. At the time, farmers had no easy way to tell if their corn or soybean planter was working.
The only way to verify the seeding process was to physically turn around and observe the seeds dropping or periodically get off his tractor and perform spot checks. Bob considered options that might help simplify this process, but then, wrapped up in the business of farming, he shelved the budding idea.
Dickey farmed 320 acres of his own and did custom planting as well, so he didn’t start to work seriously on a planting monitor until his accident. It helped that Dickey’s brother-in-law, Jack Littlejohn (1932-2003), who had been an electronics technician with Douglas Aircraft in California, had recently moved to central Illinois.
“Through great expense and effort, Dickey and Littlejohn developed a monitor to keep tab (of seeds) and organized a corporation to manufacture and sell the item,” Marley wrote. “Farmers using their seed monitor have in front of them a flashing light for each planter unit. The instant a planter unit quits, the light stops flashing.”
DICKEY-john began as the smallest of businesses, according to the corporate history.
For the first year, Bob Dickey operated out of his farmhouse, with his wife serving as his secretary. They began receiving hundreds of inquiries due to an ad they placed in Prairie Farmer magazine. Farmers from hundreds of miles away came to see this new technology.
The company was incorporated in 1966 (the lower-case “john” in the company’s name is a graphic pun based on Jack Littlejohn’s last name). Dickey, Littlejohn and a small group of investors also approached Springfield’s Sangamo Electric Co., where they interested Robert Lanphier III in the project. Lanphier later became president of the company.
DICKEY-john at first operated in small rented facilities in both Auburn and Chatham (where the company occupied a former Chevrolet dealership), but continued growth led DICKEY-john to build new facilities south of Auburn. The company moved in there in fall 1972; with later additions, the plant grew to total more than 100,000 square feet.
As many as 900 people worked at DICKEY-john’s Auburn facility in the early 1980s, but the farm crisis of the ‘80s forced a series of layoffs, and more production workers later lost their jobs to automation. The company had about 300 employees in 2016. Churchill Industries, an investment firm based in Minneapolis, acquired DICKEY-john in 1988.
The company’s web site lists a series of technology “firsts” pioneered by DICKEY-john:
- First successful planter monitor
- First successful grain moisture analyzer
- First Doppler radar velocity sensor for agricultural use
- First high accuracy seed sensor
- First electronic planter controller
- First accurate handheld instrument capable of measuring viscosity
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