A county seal is like a signature for the government. Before modern printing equipment, a “seal” was a device used to make an impression in wax and press on a document to authenticate it. The St. Louis County seal features a plow. More specifically, a moldboard plow, invented by Thomas Jefferson and perfected by John Deere. This is the image St. Louis County chose to use as its John Hancock.
The plow has a deep symbolic value here, and it all comes down to St. Louis as the Gateway to the West.
The function of a plow is to cut into the dirt, breaking apart the roots of the weeds already growing, and loosening the soil to prepare it for planting. The prairie soil west of the Mississippi is hard and it requires intense effort to till. In the early 1800s, the Mississippi River was considered the frontier boundary line.
The plow takes on special meaning here because we crossed that line, literally breaking ground and planting seeds beyond the frontier. The ground is rich at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers—waterways that also provided efficient, long-distance transportation. This location has boarded agricultural societies and traders for several hundred years, including prehistoric Cahokia, the first and largest Native American city inside today’s United States.
Later, the 19th century saw the development of railways, and St. Louis’s location in the center of the nation made it a major crossroads for cargo trains. By 1812, when the county was incorporated, St. Louis was an American beacon of progress.
About ten years later, in 1823, the City of St. Louis was incorporated, and the hundred-year-old settlement was finally official. Thus began the close but complicated relationship between agriculture and industry that still flows through the city’s veins.
At this time, farmers made up almost 90% of the American workforce, reflecting the 90% of the population that lived on farms. On average, each of these farms produced enough food to feed 4-5 people. In the middle of the 19th century, famine and revolution drove Western Europeans across the pond to make lives on the fresh soil of the new world, and the East Coast pushed them toward the frontier. St. Louis reflected the national population boom, and by 1880, farmers made up just under half of the American workforce.
The new majority took charge in St. Louis when the city voted to separate from the county. By percentage, rural county residents voted massively against separation, but the population of the City was so much larger that it didn’t matter. Once again embodying the plow, cutting the ground itself, St. Louis became an independent city in 1876. The two remain separate to this day.
In 2021, when farmers make up less than 2% of the population, the plow seems like a mysterious choice to represent the signature of St. Louis County. However, this place continues to till the ground. St. Louis is home to some of the largest agricultural companies on planet earth. Out on Highway 64 toward Chesterfield is the headquarters of Bunge, a food crop company operating on five continents. And Bayer Crop Sciences, which bought the famous Saint Louis corporation Monsanto, is still leading the pack in agricultural bioengineering. Beyond that are the countless independent farmers that still work the plains surrounding the city in both Missouri and Illinois.
With that innovation framing our farming context today, the image of a moldboard plow might feel a little dated. But the history is just one more layer to our signature. The plow is a literary symbol almost as old as the wheel. From planting to harvest, farming is life itself—literally and metaphorically. And it all starts with breaking ground. It all starts with a plow.