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14 Doing the Math: Cornell vs The Rest

How unusual was Cornell's land grant success? Because of the choice of the investment (valuable land with a marketable resource on the land) and the ability to hold on to the land long enough to realize significant appreciation, Cornell netted 1/3 of the nation's land grant proceeds while receiving 1/10 of the original land grant acreage.While some of the math is tough to confirm, before expenses it appears Cornell received $7.07 per granted (about half was invested in Wisconsin timberlands) acre while the rest of the (50+) institutions earned only $1.57 per acre. Cornell's top price is a documented $82 an acre).

Most of the other schools sold early or made less than ideal land acquisitions.
As Julia Roberts' character said in Pretty Woman: "Big mistake. Big. Huge. I have to go shopping now."

University of Kentucky ($0.50/acre)
In January 1863, over significant local opposition from Confederate partisans and religious and other private educational interests, the Kentucky Legislature accepted the terms of the Morrill Land Grant Act for the State. The General Assembly promptly entrusted the management and sale of the 330,000-acre land "scrip" which it received, to a private financial firm-the Sinking Fund agency-with the intention of assuring the best possible price for the land. Madison Johnson, agent for the commissioners of the Sinking Fund, by inopportunely marketing the land scrip in 1866, realized only about $164,000-less than half the return which might have been anticipated a few years earlier, when federal land in Kentucky was selling at $1.25 per acre. The $9,900 return on the investment of the principal proved insufficient to allow for the growth of the new Agricultural and Mechanical College and its fulfilling the stipulations of the Morrill Act.

Brown University ($0.42/acre)
In January 1863 the Rhode Island legislature accepted the grant of 120,000 acres and transferred the land scrip to Brown University. In the summer of 1863 President Sears and Horace T. Love 1836 inspected the land, which was located in Kansas. The Corporation allowed only a small amount of money for the expenses involved in locating the land, paying taxes on it, and selling it, and the committee in charge of the matter of the agricultural lands found it easier to sell the land to Mr. Love for $50,000, payable without interest over five years. This expedient turned out to be a bad bargain when the value of the land increased.

University of Wisconsin ($0.58/acre)
This state's share was 240,000 acres. Several of the states used this fund to endow separate agricultural colleges, and there was some attempt made in Wisconsin to adopt this policy; but fortunately better counsels prevailed, and the College of Agriculture was by the reorganization act of 1866 made an integral part of the University, both being strengthened by the union.
By an act approved April 2, 1863, the legislature accepted from the federal government the Agricultural College grant of 240,000 acres, "upon the terms, conditions and restrictions" of the law, and the governor was directed to appoint two commissioners to select the lands. The entire amount was, in 1863-64, located in Chippewa, Clark, Dunn, Marathon, Oconto, Polk, and Shawano counties. We have seen that the first federal land-grant made to Wisconsin (in 1838) was for the benefit of the University, and consisted of two townships (46,080 acres). From their sale the State realized but $150,000; on the other hand Michigan obtained from a like grant over $500,000. We of this generation, who are being taxed to support our University, should clearly understand that it is a case where the penalty for the sins of the fathers is laid upon the sons.

Penn State University ($0.56/acre)
Penn State was founded in 1855 as a publicly supported agricultural college. It brought science to bear on age-old problems of food and fiber production.

In 1863, the Pennsylvania legislature designated Penn State the Commonwealth’s sole land-grant institution -- a distinction it still holds. Pennsylvania received 780,000 acres of land, which were sold for a total of $439,000. The state legislature then converted this amount to a $500,000 bond yielding 6 percent ($30,000) annually to Penn State. The bond functioned in effect as Penn State's "endowment" during those early years.

(These entries were often pulled verbatum from various Internet sources)


13 We’d Send Our Son to Cornell*

Proud parents.
Loyal Cornellians to the power of two.
Meet Michelle and Jerry Phelps.

Owners of Lot 11, Block, 6, Plat 6149 Cornell (Blocks 1-9, Commonly Called Original Plat of Cornell) in Chippewa County. Among other "Cornell" plats.

A few Thursdays ago I spoke with them long distance to get a few more details about their personal histories in Northern Wisconsin, the story of their “Ezra” pine land, and their reflections on a son of Cornell becoming a Cornell son: Aaron – the sole identified graduate of both Cornell High School (1995) and Cornell University (1999).

Jerry’s great grandfather (Aaron’s great-great g.f.) settled near Cornell after the turn of the previous century. The rest of the family connections to the Wisconsin woodlands go back almost as far. Michelle's ancestors are from Norway – then California.

Jerry and Michelle met at Cornell High School and were married soon after. Michelle is a mental health professional for Chippewa County and Jerry works with delinquent males.

In their youth their knowledge of Cornell University and Ezra Cornell was minimal. “It wasn’t until we bought the land that we became aware of the region’s connection to the other Cornell.”

The land.

The first acres were purchased in 1984 a few miles south. The title on their “Cornell Plat” is the physical record of the land grant. The first owner – United States Government. Then come Ezra and Mary Cornell’s signatures.

The Phelps ownership of this land brings the Wisconsin story full circle. For while the trees and land were sold first to build a nascent university, 100 years later the Phelps confirmed that trees on this same land were felled and sold to pay a portion of Aaron’s tuition, rent, food and books. A poetic if not romantic notion.

“It’s hard to describe what it felt like to visit Cornell the first time,” offered Jerry. "Walking on campus, seeing the statue of Ezra Cornell on the Arts Quad – I was grinning from ear to ear. Most of the people I met in Ithaca had no idea about the Wisconsin connection. I had to convince them that we owned land 1,000 miles away with Ezra’s signature on the title.”

Michelle shared that, “it was exciting to go to Cornell, knowing the connection and knowing we were linked so personally by so much history.”

We discussed a Cornell-Cornell connection. “The local schools and students would benefit greatly from a relationship with the university. The university might inspire our students to raise their expectations and shift their aspirations,” reflected Jerry.

"And there is some pressure to retire the high school's current "Chiefs" mascot." Cornell Bears anyone?

In late May this year, President David Skorton stood before the throngs at Schoelkopf and acknowledged the support and sacrifices of the parents that allowed Cornell students to become Cornell alumni. After my brief virtual kitchen klatch with the Phelps, I know that the archetype Cornell parents is this couple from Chippewa County.

I’m looking forward to meeting them up north soon and maybe bringing a bit more of Cornell to Cornell – and vice versa.

(* with admiration of E B White)


12 A Cornellian Like No Other

He may be the only one.
In the world.

Aaron Phelps has a bachelor's and a master's degree from Cornell University, though this is not what makes him special. Aaron has another degree from Cornell for which he paid no tuition, received no scholarships, and for which he logged no all-nighters.

Aaron’s third degree from Cornell is actually his first: a diploma from Cornell High School, home of the Chiefs.

Aaron Phelps BS ’99 and M Engr ’99 is the only graduate of Cornell High and Cornell U whom I've been able to identify.

In June, on my way out of Cornell, Wisconsin, I stopped by the corner of North 7th Street and Squire Drive. The guys at Turk’s Bar and the White Pages shared the address. In the driveway was a young man washing his black 1970 Chevy Nova. “No, Aaron’s my big brother,” offered Eric (17). He gave me Aaron’s cell (in Iowa) and I called him on my way back to Madison.

Aaron graduated in 1995 from Cornell High.
He was 4th in his class –– of 32.
Good in math and science – hence agricultural engineering.
He's with John Deere living in Denver, IA.

But the Ivy League was not the usual path for these graduating seniors. UW-River Falls, UW-Eau Claire, UW-Madison, technical colleges and work were more popular choices. Aaron’s parents encouraged him to aim high and a four-year degree was a goal. So was Division I athletics.

Aaron Phelps '99 circa 1995
Three times Aaron placed in the Wisconsin State Wrestling Tournament. His senior year (34-1) he won the state title in the 171 pound class.  It was his wrestling prowess that got the attention of Cornell Coach Robert Koll who invited Aaron to the two-week summer camp in Ithaca before his high school senior year. Aaron was hooked.

But Aaron's Cornell story starts a long time ago – almost a 100 years ago with his paternal grandparents who lived in the pineries in the early 1900s about the time Brunet Falls, Wisconsin became Cornell, Wisconsin.

Aaron’s parents, Jerry and Michelle Phelps, grew up in Cornell, Wisconsin and together attended Cornell High. Aaron (33) is the oldest of four boys (Brandon, 28, Catlon, 24, Eric).

Nearby acreage on which the Phelps hunt has been in the family for over a quarter century. A title search of this property begins with the United States Government. Then Ezra Cornell. Eventually Phelps.

And, yes, it is true. A few second growth trees from this land (Cornell's original land grant) were felled to pay for a portion Aaron's tuition (or books, rent, food...). First sold to build a university; a century later, sold again to send a student there.

So it’s time to talk with the parents.


11 Eleemosynary Ezra

"We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give." Sir Winston Churchill

My unscientific study concludes that the most common word in The New York Times obituaries is "philanthropist" as in "Brooke Astor, 105, First Lady of Philanthropy, Dies", "Evelyn Haas, Philanthropist, Dies at 92", "Fenmore Seton – Philanthropist, 85." More often than not the "P-word" follows another career as in "Computer Magnate and Philanthropist Max Palevsky", "Banker and Philanthropist", "Publisher and Philanthropist." Rarely (sadly), "Pro Athlete and Philanthropist."

For Ezra Cornell's obituary, the word "philanthropist" should come first. I believe it did in his mind. Yeah, he started a university for $500,000 – actually a total of $669,555 when you include two farms, $25,000 to NY State, the barn, library collections and equipment (see M Whalen Gifts and Giving 2003) – equivalent of about $40 million today). But he also gave Ithaca its first library in 1864. Andy Carnegie got the bug eighteen years later in 1883.

While Ezra's success in making money (often despite himself) is a huge chunk of his reputation, altruism is his greatest legacy. He woke up on October 10, 1871 unable to telegraph Chicago. The city had burned to the ground (a week after his overnight stay in the city during a return from inspecting the Wisconsin forests). Two hundred miles east of Cornell's pines, the same fire ravaged about 2,400 square miles or 1.5 million acres in Wisconsin and Upper Michigan.

His immediate response was a gift of $1,000 (about $60,000 today) to help Chicago.

And Ezra inspired others to give to the university: lumberman Henry Sage; lumberman John McGraw and daughter Jennie; Hiram Sibley and Junior; President AD White; Daniel B. Fayerweather; Frederick W. Guiteau; faculty members Goldwin Smith and Daniel Fiske; and of course, Rockefeller and Carnegie.

And in 1874 the first endowed chair at Cornell was the professorship of Hebrew and Oriental Literature and History (thinking of you, Dad), proposed and funded by the NYC financier Joseph Seligman – six years after Cornell opened its campus to students!

Menahem Mansoor 1911-2001
Happy Birthday Dad! Retiring as emeritus professor and chairman of the department of Hebrew and Semitic Studies at the University of Wisconsin, he died at 90 a month after 9/11 and a month after meeting his youngest granddaughter for the first time. He would have liked this blog and in particular this posting. He would have liked that Mr. Seligman gave Cornell's first professorship in his field,... and Dad liked quotations.

"You give but little when you give of your possessions.  It is when you give of yourself that you truly give." Gibran, Kahlil (1883-1931) Syrian-American poet.

Ezra did both.