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18 The Woods Burn

If you've been following these postings you are aware of the serendipitous nature of Cornell's land grant success: the choice of investments, the ability to retain the land realizing significant appreciation, the financial structure of the scrip sale to Ezra and its eventual designation to a new flexible endowment for the university.

But the risks were great. The pine woods of northern Wisconsin were susceptible to theft, financial swindles, and poor surveying. And fire.

Fires in most northern Midwest forests were common – a combination of weather conditions, poor logging practices and carelessness. I didn't realize how close Cornell was to losing its woodland investment (initiated in 1866) until I thought about the Peshtigo Fire of 1871.

In early October, after Ezra returned from a visit to the Wisconsin pines and Chicago a week earlier, he was unable to contact the Midwest. His telegraph lines were down throughout the region.

As every school student knows the Great Chicago Fire of October 8-10 destroyed this Midwest metropolis. Mrs. O'Leary's cow aside, the fire consumed the wooden city and provided a blank canvas upon which the leading architects and inspired planners designed the modern city. Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Daniel Burnham introduced the world to a new view of urban life and landscape.

5:35 PM CST, October 8, 1871
But as destructive as the Chicago fire was, the same day, hundreds of miles north, a five-mile wide conflagration, with sustained winds over 100 miles per hour consumed 1,500 square miles, one billion feet of lumber, and as many as 2,400 lives – the most devastating fire in US history.

The description documented in "Firestorm in Peshtigo," by Gess and Lutz is powerful and terrifying. The description of the tragic loss of human life is horrific.

Peshtigo Fire Destruction
The isotope weather map shows that storms essentially encircled the Cornell pine lands in western Wisconsin. Though the destruction reached across Lake Michigan to the east and Minnesota to the west, the Chippewa Rivier Valley miraculously was spared.

Initially Ezra considered purchasing acreage near Green Bay. Correspondence with a former Ithaca resident and friend, Ira Millard of New London, WI, discussed the possibility of locating some of the scrip on the Green Bay watershed. If he had, Cornell might be a much different institution.


17 Channeling Ezra

The drive to Ithaca is always therapeutic. Interstate 86 (I still call it Route 17) meanders through New York's Southern Tier pleasantly devoid of traffic for all the years I have traversed this highway. The first crossing was in 1976, a winter break return trip from Madison, with a new acquaintance, Jim Rutherford '76, a fellow Madisonian (though from the east side of town) who was returning to Cornell in time for fraternity formal rush week.

Jim (and, briefly, I) drove the world's oldest "working" Saab for about 20 hours through blizzards and darkness at a rate that might seem as frustratingly slow as Ezra Cornell's round trips to Wisconsin 110 years earlier.

The best part of the trip was – and remains – coming over the hill on Route 13 leading into Ithaca when, for the first time and for only a brief moment, you're tempted with a distant view of the city and the Cornell campus still several miles away. If Cornell is alma mater then it is also alma domus.

I am returning to campus for some more research on the land grant, a meeting or two, and the alumni board meeting of Sigma Phi (Jim's and now my fraternity), a society I was introduced to for the first time at the end of that January drive in '76.

The Kroch Library elevator descends a few floors (somewhat less colorfully than the phone booth in Get Smart) where I meet Elaine Engst, the University's affable archivist, to discuss the land grant and the Ezra Cornell collections. My goal: bring highlights of the bicentennial (of Ezra's birth) exhibit to Cornell, Wisconsin's public schools and to the city's visitors center.

Also Ezra Magazine wants a photo for a print and web article it's publishing in a few weeks about my Wisconsin explorations: a shot in front of Ezra Cornell's statue on the Arts Quad. I arrive early for the Monday 9 AM shoot (jealous of the coffee-ed, iPod-ed and backpack-ed future alumni crossing the Quad on their way to enlightenment) and spend a few private moments with Ezra, in silent communication with the tall green sculpture; he listens politely.

"In case you were wondering," I offer, "your great great great grandson says hello."

Ezra Cornell '70
The day before I stopped by the home of the living Ezra Cornell '70 to discuss my research and exchange ideas. This Ezra is a lineal descendant of our founding Ezra (and then Alonzo) and he provides an enthusiastic and informative link for my history lesson.

He has a handful of humorous stories that come with being named after a famous man. As an undergraduate, the university was easier to navigate using his "EC" moniker. His hilarious tale about his admission's application to the university is a classic (it involves a grandmother, a long drive from New Jersey, the dean of admissions, a Saturday phone call to the university's president, and retrieving an application from the wastebasket).

Most importantly, Ezra expressed his interest in joining me for a trip next spring to Cornell, WI for a rendezvous with teachers, students, and history.


16 Intermission: Trivia

As the college football season gets into full swing, I want remind rabid fans that Cornell maintains an undefeated record against Ohio State University. As recently as the 1940 season, the Big Red demolished the Other Red. I believe the bear mascot had a role in these victories. And the only connection to the Wisconsin land grant is a brief reference of Ezra Cornell coming across a bear cub on his first excursion to Wisconsin in 1866. No reason to believe that this encounter inspired the selection of the CU mascot.

Lifetime Football Record
Cornell 2 – Ohio State 0
10/28/1939 AWAY in Columbus W 23-14
10/26/1940 HOME in Ithaca W 21-7

Oh, and by the way: Cornell – Michigan Record: 13-6!

Go BIg Red!

Surrounded by Buckeye fanatics and living under the radar in Ohio, D


15 The Map

1877 Cornell Ownership of Wisconsin Lands (courtesy of WI Historical Society)
Harry Miller, reference archivist at the Wisconsin Historical Society, sent me this digitized map of the Cornell lands in Wisconsin (1877).
It's an enlightening perspective on the land grant. The shaded portions (maybe 160 acre plats) reveal the dispersion of the land investments in the northwest quadrant of the state. I'm reminded that travel in the late 1800s was cumbersome and every acre had to be surveyed to determine timber quality and quantity, and thus market value. 

The ledgers, which I viewed in the Cornell University Archives last April, list each plat (I'm going back to Cornell to determine the acres/plat), the type of tree and quantity. Overlays in colored pencil denoted each sale over the course of forty-plus years.

While Eau Claire, Wisconsin's Henry Putnam, the respected head of the region's land office where all filings were processed, was a valued mentor to Ezra Cornell in his land dealings, Cornell made an ill-fated decision in hiring William A Woodward, a land broker, to manage the purchase, assessment, management and sales of the land for what amounted to an unreasonably high fee (the law suit came later).

In a letter to his wife, Mary on August 4, 1866, Ezra Cornell confidently proclaimed [spelling errors and all], "The struggle is over at last and I have just mailed 200 pieces of land scrip to Mr. Woodward and have written him that we will start for the west by Tuesday the 14th.... I now feel for the first time that the destiny of the Cornell University was fixed, and that its ultimate endowment would be ample.... and if properly organised for the developement of truth, industry and frugality, it will become a power in the land which will controll and mold the future of this great state, and carry it onward and upward in its industrial developement, and support of civil and religious liberty, and its guarenty of equal rights and equal laws to all men.

[Glad this wasn't chosen as the university's motto!]

Once again, I wondered what type of institution Cornell would be today if not for the success of these speculative land deals in this remote Midwest state. Could Cornell have lost its land grant status to another state university if it was unable to fulfill the land grant mission due to insufficient funds as was the case in other states (see Brown University)?

Cornell Provost Kent Fuchs emailed me, "I continue to be grateful that we have had leaders throughout Cornell’s history who made strategic decisions from which to benefit. The land grant funds and mission are a major part of our present success as well as our future.  I would not want to consider a Cornell that was not a land-grant university or had not wisely used the original land-grant resources. The historical perspective makes me truly appreciative of those that have come before us."

Me too.