JAN./FEB. 2007 VOLUME 109 NUMBER 4
By Beth Saulnier
he was nineteen when he left home to seek his fortune. He set out on foot, walking thirty-three miles to Syracuse from the family home in De Ruyter, nine dollars in his pocket and some clothes bundled in a handkerchief. In Syracuse, he found work as a carpenter, but he didn't stay long; within a week he'd been robbed twice. He moved on to Homer, working in a shop that made wool-carding machinery, supplementing his third-grade education by studying books on mechanics in his spare time.
His father was a farmer who owned a modest pottery works and traveled throughout Upstate New York selling his wares; he likely told his son about the little boomtown at the southern tip of Cayuga Lake. In two decades, Ithaca had grown from practically nothing to a bustling community of 2,000.With the expansion of the railroads--and the imminent building of the Sodus Canal to connect the Erie Canal to Lake Ontario--Ithaca was poised to become a major shipping hub, a center of commerce. So on a mid-April day in 1828 he walked down the hill into Ithaca, betting that it was the sort of place where a man unafraid of hard work and hard times could make a name for himself.
That name, of course, is everywhere now: on sweatshirts and ivy-covered buildings, diplomas and buses, a dairy bar and a particle accelerator. It's on a radio telescope in Puerto Rico, a medical school in Qatar, a marine research station off the coast of Maine. Ezra Cornell always had big dreams; still, one suspects that on that fateful day nearly 180 years ago, even he couldn't possibly have imagined how far his name would spread.
January 11 is the bicentennial of Ezra's birth. The day itself will be marked by celebrations in departments and offices on the Hill, with campus-wide festivities set for after the students return from Winter Break.Most Cornellians are familiar with the founder's image: his profile graces the University's Great Seal, and his statue sits on the Arts Quad opposite that of inaugural President Andrew Dickson White. They call him "Ezra," like a favorite uncle (and, infact,"Uncle Ezra" is the name of Cornell's online question-and-answer service). They know that he grew up poor, got rich in the telegraph business, and used that money to endow a certain institution far above Cayuga's waters where "any person can find instruction in any study."
Those are the highlights; the details are even more interesting. Ezra Cornell wasn't just an American success story: he was also a failure. He was a loving husband, an attentive father, a lapsed Quaker, a politician, a lousy manager, a brilliant engineer, a civic booster, a rabid book collector, a self-taught aficionado of animal husbandry. He could walk forty miles a day with ease. In an era of robber barons, he gave away a fortune.With White, he founded a university whose commitment to inclusivity, though the norm today, was at the time radical to the point of scandalous. He was both a man of his time and a man before it.
"Everybody talks about him as 'rough,'" says history lecturer Carol Kammen, author of Cornell: Glorious to View. "One early student said Ezra was not a handshaking man.What that seems to mean is that he wasn't a man you walked up to and said, 'Hey, Ezra!'He was a man of few words. He's been described as dour. He's also been described as a loving father. He adored his wife. So I think you have many Ezra Cornells."He's been the subject of several biographies, including True and Firm, a paean published by his eldest son in 1884; the equally adoring Ezra Cornell: A Character Study by Albert W. Smith (1934); and The Builder (1952), a dense and surprisingly entertaining book by Philip Dorf '24.
There's little tangible evidence left in Ithaca of Ezra's day-to-day life, no place that can claim "the founder slept here" (except, perhaps, his tomb in Sage Chapel). The house just north of Fall Creek where he and his wife raised their family, a humble cottage known as the Nook, is long gone, as is Forest Park, the farmhouse at the bottom of Libe Slope where they moved when their fortunes improved, and the brick house at the corner of Tioga and Seneca streets where Ezra spent the last years of his life. The library he endowed for the citizens of Ithaca, his first major philanthropic project, fell victim to urban renewal in the 1950s. Llenroc, the mansion now home to Delta Phi fraternity, was still incomplete when Ezra died in 1874--and building such an ornate Gothic villa never did seem in keeping with his character. The original university buildings-- Morrill,McGraw, and White, made of sturdy gray stone--were Ezra's creations, and the closest one can come to walking in his footsteps.
To get inside his head requires a trip to the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, where the founder's papers are kept--thirty cubic feet of boxes filled with thousands of documents (some of which are available online). In an era before the telephone--and before the telegraph that would transform Ezra's life--letters were the way the itinerant businessman kept in touch with his family. He writes of minor household matters and major national issues, of the cost of meals and the evils of slavery. His handwriting is even, inelegant, and (to the modern eye, at least) often impenetrable. "I can assure you my Dear that I breathe freer and deeper than I have done for some time past," Ezra wrote to his wife in October 1843, when he was first finding success in the telegraph trade. "I feel as though Old Dame Fortune was bestirring herself to make amends as far as may be for her past neglect, but I am cool."
ezra Cornell was born on January 11, 1807, in Westchester Landing, New York (now the Bronx). His father was twice as old as his bride on their wedding day: thirtyfour to her seventeen. Elijah Cornell had been raised on a farm and apprenticed to a potter; Eunice Barnard was the daughter of a New England sea captain. Ezra was their first child (they would have eleven, all surviving to adulthood), and by the time he was a toddler the family had suffered a financial reversal: a ship in which Elijah and his brother had invested much of their money sank on its maiden voyage.
The Cornells went west to De Ruyter, New York, where they bought a 150-acre farm; they moved several times before settling there for good in 1819. Elijah opened a pottery, and between helping his father there and working on the farm, Ezra had little time for school. "I think, to a certain extent, he was so dedicated to learning because he didn't have those opportunities himself," says University Archivist Elaine Engst, MA '72. "To his family, education was a luxury. But you get the sense that he had an insatiable curiosity, that he was interested in everything."
There are plenty of stories that reveal the hardworking young Ezra, the studious and industrious Ezra.When he was a boy, a peddler came to the door, and Ezra longed for a biography of Andrew Jackson; his mother allowed him to have it as long as he collected rags from around the house to make up the price. In the summer of 1824, when the contractor his father had hired to build a new pottery made a mistake in crafting the frame, it was the seventeen-year-old Ezra who braved his ire by pointing it out. He was just a year older when he built a new house for the family, cutting the timber and designing it himself. The following year, he set out for Syracuse."He was an enterprising young man, a clever young man," Kammen says."He was mechanically inclined, in that he could look at a problem and figure it out."
There's also a vision of Ezra as a Zelig-like character--a man who comes from obscurity and intersects with history. Turning a corner in New York City, he happened upon Abraham Lincoln in mid-oratory, and later attended the president's first inauguration.While delivering supplies to Union troops from Tompkins County, he found himself caught up in the first Battle of Bull Run. He went to Maine to sell plows--and wound up an instrumental figure in the founding of the American telegraph industry.
When Ezra came to Ithaca at the age of twenty-one, writes Carl Becker in Cornell University: Founders and the Founding, he was "a tall, angular, physically powerful man." Becker parses a photo of Ezra taken at the time, noting his large head, high cheekbones, carefully brushed dark hair, and well-shaped forehead. It is, he writes, "altogether a face that reveals character--the self-reliance of a man who has learned to take it, who proposes to meet without fear or elation a world that he knows to be exacting and unromantic, and to make the most of whatever it may have to offer to one upon whom Fortune has conferred no extraneous favors, no favors at all except good health, tempered courage, and sound common sense."
Ezra's first job in Ithaca was as a carpenter.He eventually became a mechanic at Otis Eddy's cotton mill on Cascadilla Creek, then was hired to overhaul Jeremiah Beebe's plaster mill on Fall Creek. The year 1831 was a big one: he completed a tunnel he'd designed to better power Beebe's mill, blasting through the rock so accurately that when the two ends met they were off by only a few inches. That same year, he married Mary Ann Wood, the daughter of a Dryden farmer. It was, Engst says, "absolutely a love match."And a mixed marriage: she was Episcopalian.
"His family were quite serious Quakers," Engst says. "Marrying Mary Ann was a major step. He gets a letter where his parents are horrified and they tell him he can't come back to the Quaker meeting. About a year later, they write back and say, 'Maybe we'll change our minds if you apologize.' And he writes this letter saying, 'I won't apologize--this is the best thing I ever did.'"
The couple's first child--Alonzo, who would serve a term as governor of New York--was born in 1834. Ezra and Mary Ann would have nine children, five of whom would live to adulthood. (Three sons died in infancy, and a daughter--Elizabeth, a smart and vivacious girl whom Ezra adored--lived to fourteen.) In 1839, after Beebe sold his mill, Ezra was out of a job. He turned to farming and real estate investment, becoming active in local agricultural affairs. By 1841, he'd become prominent enough to be named a swine judge at the State Fair. The following year, with the town's prosperity on the wane, he bought the rights to sell a new kind of plow in Maine and Georgia and hit the road--walking 160 miles to Albany to catch a train to Boston. He wouldn't return to Ithaca permanently for the better part of two decades.
"He took terrible risks," Kammen says. "Any sensible man would have stayed home and taken care of his family. He went off, and the question is why. I think he was somewhat restless and opportunities in Ithaca were limited. He believed he would get rich someday, and it wasn't going to happen here." Kammen recites her favorite line from Becker's book: "Above all he was not a prudent man intent upon a small security; or a vain man living in the opinion of others and vulnerable to ridicule; or a self-regarding man reluctant to expose himself by going out on a limb."
Georgia proved to be a failure. In addition to viewing the horrors of slavery firsthand, Ezra found the state to be arid sales ground. But Maine was a fateful destination: it was there that he met F. O. J. Smith, publisher of the Maine Farmer. In July 1843, he walked into Smith's office to find him on the floor, working with a plowmaker to design a machine to dig a trench for burying telegraph wire; Smith had been contracted by Samuel Morse to lay forty miles of test pipe from Baltimore to Washington. Ezra took up the challenge, designing a gizmo that not only dug the requisite trench but refilled it afterward. He had stumbled into the ground floor of a communications revolution. "The telegraph," Engst observes, "was the Internet of the nineteenth century."
the telegraph hardly made Ezra's fortune overnight. There were technological snafus (the shoddy insulation degraded underground, prompting Ezra to design insulators for use on poles); political problems (many of his better-educated colleagues dismissed him outright); and umpteen economic reversals. Hardworking, tenacious, and clever though he was, Ezra was no business genius.While some of his investments proved to be brilliant, others were questionable or outright bad; his photolithography and steelworks firms foundered and his railroad interests didn't pay off. He gambled on the longawaited Sodus Canal, which never materialized. He was often buried under a mountain of debt. On the road, he was sometimes so cash-poor that he had to ask his wife to pay the postage on his letters. Back home, she often relied on her farmer father to keep the family provisioned."He was a terrible businessman," says Gould Colman '51, PhD '62, Cornell's archivist emeritus. "But he compensated for this by a great capacity for friendship."
Eventually, of course, his belief in the telegraph industry paid off spectacularly. Ezra had formed his own companies and invested in others, joining the Babel of disparate firms competing to bring the new technology to an expanding nation. "At one point, his telegraph businesses were going downstream fast," Colman says."Hiram Sibley was forming Western Union, putting companies together. And in an apparently friendly takeover, Ezra became the largest stockholder in Western Union and a very wealthy man. He went from bankruptcy to great wealth within a few days."As a child, he'd sewn together sheets of paper to make a "cyphering book," practicing his sums and calculating compound interest. On August 29, 1864, he opened it again and wrote, "The yearly income which I realize this year will exceed one hundred thousand dollars." That translates into something like $1.4 million in 2006. But even more striking is what he wrote next:"My greatest care now is how to spend this large income, to do the most good."
Ezra's great-great-great-grandson, Ezra Cornell '70, ascribes his ancestor's beneficence, in part, to the humble background that made him a proponent of the Golden Rule. "He looked for fairness in a world which was obviously difficult," says Cornell, who represents the family as a University trustee for life. "So when he discovered he had wealth, I don't think there was any greed in the man. It was all about, 'How can I make this a better country, how can I give back to society?'"
Ezra had always been a strong proponent of education; he'd helped found the State Agricultural College at Ovid, which opened in 1860 but closed the following year due to student enlistment in the Civil War. Then, while serving in the State Senate, he met a young colleague who was burning to reform the American university system: Andrew Dickson White, a Yale-educated son of privilege. Ezra had the money;White had the academic bona fides; both had the visionary ideas and drive to pull it off.
On the University's founding day in 1868, Ezra told the crowd that although they'd come expecting to see a finished university, what was in front of them was just the beginning.He imagined that someday Cornell would educate as many as 5,000 students at a time; today the number is close to 20,000. "Ezra would love it,"Kammen says of today's Cornell."He'd love the industry, because these kids work hard.He'd love the diversity of subjects, the practicality, the sense of purpose. Cornell University has always been in a process of becoming--and Ezra would understand that."