Walnut Grove, Robert and Polly McCormick’s 450-acre Shenandoah Valley farm.
When we think of the Deerings, it’s often in conjunction with the McCormicks, because the families merged twice; however, their itineraries were entirely different. One dynasty founder was tenacious in dogged pursuit of a manufacturing goal; the other achieved it almost by chance. One family reproduced abundantly—delivering exciting, industrious offspring; the other retired to Florida and died out. The first repeatedly forged alliances with members of other powerful dynasties. Its rival did so only once.
Yet both were propelled by the same ancient need. Farmers had been hand-harvesting grain using the sickle—and later the scythe—for several millennia, and for centuries, the development of an effective mechanical device to replace these rudimentary tools had been the dream of farmers, tinkerers and would-be inventors. The quest had been intensifying both in the United States and England during the 19th century and the McCormicks of Virginia were closing in.
The first American member of the McCormick clan was Thomas, a weaver who arrived in Pennsylvania in 1735 from Northern Ireland, where the intensely Presbyterian family had emigrated from Scotland to protect its rights of worship.
Robert McCormick Jr., a grandson of Thomas, inherited Walnut Grove, a 450-acre Shenandoah Valley farm. His 1808 marriage to the luxury-loving Mary Ann Hall, known as Polly, added to Robert’s holdings. And so, in this lovely portion of the idyllic Virginia countryside, they raised eight children in relative affluence.
Polly McCormick, matriarch of a great and enduring line.
Robert and Polly’s children, included Cyrus Hall, born in 1809; William Sanderson, in 1815; Leander James, in 1819; and Amanda, in 1822. Robert, a tinkerer and amateur inventor, spent free time in the Walnut Grove blacksmith shop devising various items, including a series of reapers—none completely successful.
Cyrus, who inherited his father’s mechanical knack, was also working in the shop attempting to create a workable reaper. And, in 1831, he did. Workable, but not perfect; therefore—during a period of financial setbacks and logistic detours—he kept striving to improve it.
Cyrus Hall McCormick before growing his signature beard.
It was another 16 years before obstacles cleared and Cyrus moved to Chicago. There he enlisted a partner, C.M. Gray, and built a factory on three lots purchased from William Butler Ogden on the north bank of the Chicago River.
The reaper Cyrus took to Chicago to manufacture for wheat belt farmers.
The product, McCormick’s Patent Virginia Reaper, had greatly evolved from the original and was heavy enough to support a seat for a second man who would rake the wheat back and away from the reaper as it was cut. The partnership was short-lived and soon McCormick was alone again, but increasingly successful.
Skipping ahead to this image of the Chicago River in 1867. The McCormick reaper factory, center left on the north bank, is not far from where Cyrus’ grandnephew, Colonel Robert R. McCormick, would build the Tribune Tower little more than a half century later.
Cyrus McCormick was a broad-shouldered, robustly handsome man with a full head of dark brown hair, fiery eyes and, soon, a bushy beard. He was temperamental, self-righteous, competitive and slightly paranoiac. Throughout his life, he was highly litigious. He was also a skilled horseman and strong Presbyterian who liked to sing hymns and enjoyed playing the fiddle.
Cyrus in his early Chicago days.
Within a few years, the prospering Cyrus was becoming a sought-after bachelor, but he was too focused on business to consider romance. Then, in 1857, he saw Nancy “Nettie” Fowler crossing the new Rush Street Bridge and was instantly smitten.
Twenty-two-year old Nettie was visiting cousins at their house on Pine Street, now North Michigan Avenue, that summer. After his initial glimpse, Cyrus made a point of learning who she was and arranged to meet her at a tea party he orchestrated through his brother Leander. The courtship he launched over tea that afternoon was as intense of his pursuit of a workable reaper—and as successful.
He was attracted to Nettie’s comely appearance and considerable charm, but, as it developed, she also had the stuff of a first-rate helpmate and corporate wife. They married the following January, and she quickly became his confidential secretary and “right hand.” In fact, for the rest of Nettie’s long life, very little happened in the company without her active participation. As a bonus, after their marriage, the aloof Cyrus began to visibly mellow.
An 1862 image of Nettie, who continued to fascinate her husband long after she became Mrs. Cyrus Hall McCormick.
Nettie, also a fine Presbyterian, bore Cyrus four sons, Cyrus Jr., Robert Fowler—who died when he was three—Harold Fowler, Stanley, and three daughters, Anita, Mary Virginia and Alice.
Many of Cyrus’ relationships were troubled, but none more so than those with his siblings, particularly Leander, who moved out to Chicago with his wife, the former Henrietta Hamilton, in 1849 at the urgent insistence of Cyrus.
This Leander—Leander James McCormick—was the first in a confusing succession of three bearing the name. His son, Leander Hamilton McCormick, was known as Hamilton, and a son of Hamilton’s was Leander J. McCormick. All three were bright, stylish men, with many and varied interests, and each was prominent in the Chicago of his time.
The Virginia Hotel.
Leander James built the Virginia Hotel at the corner of Rush and Ohio Streets as a real estate investment in 1893, in time for the World’s Columbian Exposition; however, the hotel continued to be the favored choice of Chicago’s highest level clientele—both local and visiting—for many years after.
The Leander McCormick Observatory at the University of Virginia.
As the family prospered, Leander James would become an art collector of note and donate the observatory at the University of Virginia, built in 1884.
His and Henrietta’s sons included Robert Hall McCormick, an art connoisseur and collector with a taste for British portraits; his collection included works by Raeburn, Lawrence and Gainsborough.
Another son, the highly visible Leander Hamilton, was a writer, inventor and art collector; however, he was best known as a serious student of “characterology.” He became an authority and wrote several books on this system for assessing an individual’s character through a “scientific, objective” examination of the physical appearance.
Hamilton’s visible legacy today is the four-story Italian Renaissance mansion he built on Ontario Street, now the restaurant Lawry’s. However, after marrying Constance Plummer of Canterbury, England, he moved to her country, where the couple lived until World War I. During their absence, the house was occupied by a succession of prominent families, including the Levi Leiters, W.P. Rends, Chatfield-Taylors and William A. Gages.
When the McCormicks returned, bringing with them a celebrated collection of art and artifacts, the Ontario Street house increased its status as a showplace, and Constance earned a reputation as one of the city’s great hostesses.
Leander James was preceded in his move west by William Sanderson McCormick a year earlier and followed by Amanda, who would relocate there in 1857. Amanda’s husband, Hugh Adams, a wholesale grocer, plunged into the dynamic Chicago real estate market, where—along with so many of his contemporaries—he did extremely well.
The reaper king’s gentle brother, William Sanderson, should have remained in Virginia, but he too was beseeched by Cyrus to come out to work with him in Chicago. There was great monetary compensation, however, in being pressed by Cyrus to leave their beloved Virginia; the brothers, like Hugh Adams, benefited immensely through real estate investment.
The gentle William Sanderson McCormick.
Of Cyrus and Nettie’s children, Cyrus Jr., Harold and Anita would be the most visible as adults. Anita married Emmons Blaine, member of a socially esteemed Chicago family, and became well known as a philanthropist.
Anita McCormick in the gown she wore to marry Emmons Blaine.
She was instrumental in the founding of the School of Education at the University of Chicago and funded the Francis W. Parker School. She was an admirer of Mr. Parker, but Anita was further motivated by the need for a school for her son, Emmons Blaine Jr. She also made a substantial gift to build Emmons Blaine Hall to house the University Elementary and High Schools on the University of Chicago campus. Chicago children, and their parents, who have benefited from the Francis Parker and Lab schools for many decades, owe much to Anita Blaine and her share of the McCormick fortune.
Emmons Blaine Hall, named for Anita McCormick Blaine’s husband.
Meanwhile, the Deerings have not been forgotten:
Megan McKinney’s series, Deerings and McCormicks, will continue in Classic Chicago magazine next week with the segment Opulence Versus Frugality.
Robert F. Carl