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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.

1 comment:

Nathan Fawcett said...

This is a terrific blog that I have been following with great interest. The sale of second growth timber to finance tuition to the institution funded by sale of the original land-grant timber should become a classic piece of Cornell lore. As I have looked at the maps. it appears the land Ezra Cornell purchased with the New York State grant at points overlaps (materially) the Wisconsin Central Railroad land grant. If so, do you know how that worked? There might be some interesting history involved in those interactions.

Regards, Nathan Fawcett
Cornell Office of Land Grant Affairs