Cornell’s Founding Fathers: Ezra Cornell

27 06 2009



So, one of the comments received recently on this blog suggested I write an article on an individual. I thought about it, and then  decided against it. I’m limited in what I can say, as I’m sure people have both good and bad opinions of this person, as they would anybody. I write about Cornell and groups that comprise it, but with the extraordinary exception of Mary Tomlan ’71, I generally limit myself in comments on individuals.

However, I decided to take the idea and run with it in another direction, by revealing a little of the history of the founders who shaped much of the university in its formative years. This entry will cover Dear old Ezra Cornell himself. Any citations within the entry will refer to Morris Bishop’s History of Cornell unless otherwise noted.

A lot of Cornellians know bits and pieces about the founders of Cornell. Dear old Ezra himself, born in 1807 in downstate New York to a quaker family (Bishop 8), moving to the Cortland County town of DeRuyter at 12, and then to the boomtown of Ithaca in 1828. According to Bishop, he was a tall, gaunt gentleman, disinclined to show emotion or to talk more than necessary. He married Mary Ann Wood in 1831 (12). Initially, Ezra made his living operating a flouring mill for Col. Jeremiah Beebe (flouring mills would ground up gypsum to be used in fertilizer). After the Panic of 1837 (akin to today’s economic crisis, only craploads worse), he lost his job and tried his hand at several ventures, including selling plows in Maine and Georgia, which failed (15). When he went back on another trip to Maine in 1843, he lucked out, and an accquaintance asked him to design a machine to lay telegraph lines. Being a self-taught mechanic, he built it, received a contract to lay the wire, became convinced it was bad method, and read up on electricity, coming to the conclusion that overhead wires were best (16).

As a builder of wires, he made his fortune, and by 1849 had laid one-third of telegraph wires operating in the U.S. (17). Since he took his payment in stock, when Western Union bought him out around 1855, he was a made man. He went back to Ithaca, bought the land where CU sits today, and ran a model farm. He became president of the NYS Agricultural Society, and used some of his money to donate a library to Ithaca City (which was built at the SE corner of Seneca and Tioga it was demolished in 1960 as part of urban renewal. It was turned into a parking lot). He was the oldest member of the State Senate when he was elected in 1863 (persumably in the days before they had political gridlocks that accomplished nothing but gave everyone a mighty headache). It was here that he met A.D. White, when he was getting a bill of incorporation for the library (White, as the head of the Literature committee, had to approve the bill). I’ll be covering Andrew Dickson White in an entry in not too near future.

So anyways, the basic facts are great and all, but Ezra also had his oddities and faults. These are the facts Cornell probably doesn’t share so much. Can’t blame them-

~Ezra was extremely self-righteous, which led to him being scorned by most of the Ithaca community. He was also extremely forgetful with regards to his debts, and his family’s needs (Bishop 13). People did not trust him, especially with money. For many years, his wife and kids had to live off her father thanks to his lack of provisions.

~He was apparently quite tactless as well. Col. Beebe, and later Samuel Morse (of Morse code fame) would have a hard time dealing with his demeanor. Beebe called him “coarse and impudent” (13), and Morse referred to him as “the plague” (17).

~Carl Becker just out-and-out called him a bad businessman. The fact that he managed to make a fortune in the telegraph industry was astounding to even his own family and friends. He beat competitors by “starving them out”, even if it meant keeping himself in the poorhouse. (18)

~Family and friends did not pronounce his last name Cor-nell. They pronounced it Corn’ll. His own pronounciation of his name changed sometime in the late 1840s or early 1850s. (19)

~Cornell hated Syracuse. He referred to as “that Gomorrah” (11) after he was cheated out of some wages when he was young. Kinda funny that A.D. White represented Syracuse in the State Senate. When White proposed using a large hill to the south of Syracuse, Cornell threatened to withdraw from the proposal unless the university was moved to Ithaca, which he had hopes of becoming a major city. Well, it didn’t, and the proposed hill was where Syracuse University established itself in 1870.

~Cornell’s vision of the campus was that of an industrial campus, egalitarian in nature. Namely, anyone could work their way through school, in the chair factory and shoe factory he proposed to set up on campus (126),like a trade school. One could not have been farther from the classical college educations of that time, or from A.D. White’s vision of CU.

~Perhaps tying to Cornell’s unorthodox nature, a Rochester newspaper concocted a story in October 1869 that Cornell sought to make a huge personal profit out the university (183). Doesn’t sound too different from the stories you find in editorials in the Ithaca Journal about how Cornell ruins the city. It came up again in 1873, when a Schuyler County legislator accused Cornell of defrauding the Morrill Act in order to make a $22 million profit, which resulting in a formal state invesitgation (it cleared Cornell in April 1874[186]).

~Cornell loved to invest in railroads as much as he did his own university. His desire to make Ithaca a major city resulted in a constant investment in new railroads in and around the area, such as the Elmira-Ithaca-Cortland route and a proposed route to Auburn. He invested so much that White and Cornell’s attorney thought he might go bankrupt if something were to happen, like the Panic of 1873. Uncle Ezra lost a lot on those failed railroads (187).

~In what I can only describe as completely creepy, Ezra had nine kids [1], and sadly, one of them, Charles Carroll Cornell, died at the age of 4 in 1837. So Two years later, his wife had another son. They named him Charles Carroll Cornell. This child died at two years of age, so at least he never had to realize the utter sketchiness associated with named after one of your dead older brothers.

Long story short, Cornell could be stereotyped as the rather crotchety old man who would scare small children at a glance and launch into stories of “when I was your age” to be shared with the students.




3 responses

23 07 2009
Phillip Michaels

I am wondering if you might be able to direct me to information on Ezra Cornell’s family or whether he was related to a Mary Ellen Cornell. Thank you.

30 07 2009
B. C.

Your best bet might be to get in touch with the folks at Cornell’s Kroch Library, particularly the curators of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Collection. They might have that information on file. Good luck!

15 12 2020

I know this is over 10 years old, but people will still find it, and I think it is far too reductionist.

– Samuel Morse was an anti-immigrant racist who supported slavery. If anyone was “the plague,” it was him.

– Carl Becker calling him a bad businessman is pretty funny, since “starving out your competition” to form Western Union (a company still in business today), and becoming its biggest shareholder for over 15 years actually sounds like pretty good business…

– The library he built may have been demolished, but the organization and the thousands of books he donated to the city of Ithaca still exist as the Tompkins County Public Library.

– Naming a newborn after a previously deceased child was extremely common practice in the 1800’s, and wasn’t considered creepy in the least.

He may have had a coarse demeanor, but he was one of the least selfish people of all time, especially for someone who happened upon such wealth.

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