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Famous People of the Finger Lakes
Ezra Cornell (1807-1874), Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918), and the Establishment of Cornell University
From a Cabin in the Woods
Ezra Cornell was born in New Britain (the Bronx), New York. His family moved to DeRuyter in Madison County when Cornell was young. The eldest of 11 children of Quaker parents, Cornell was basically self-taught.
In 1828 Cornell followed Fall Creek to the small town of Ithaca at the southern end of Cayuga Lake where he found work at a mill owned by Jeremiah Beebe. Unfortunately, Beebe sold the mill and Cornell lost his job. He left Ithaca and his wife and family to seek his fortune elsewhere. While in Philadelphia, he came upon the drawing of the proposed Girard College to be left to the city's orphans by Stephen Girard. The dream of being able to found a college was one he never gave up.
Cornell ended up in Maine where he met Samuel B. Morse who had recently invented the telegraph. Cornell ran the lines for Morse and worked hard at the telegraph business, but he seemed to lack the necessary business skills to make a success of it, having acquired many small, disconnected telegraph companies that produced little profit.
In 1855 some of his competitors were forming a new company. They forced Cornell and his small companies to become part of this venture, which they called Western Union Telegraph Company. The success of Western Union made Cornell a wealthy man--the wealthiest man in Tompkins County.
Believing in Academic Excellence
Andrew Dickson White was born in Homer (Cortland County) and, as a child, attended Cortland Academy. His father was the county's leading businessman.
Although White graduated from Yale University, he was discouraged by American colleges, which were, for the most part, small and academically disappointing. He dreamed of a large university with a huge library and distinguished professors in every field--a true institution of learning in the mode of the great universities of Europe.
To Create a Great University
By the time White was elected to the state senate in 1864, he owned one of the largest private libraries in the country. He served as chair of the Senate's education committee, the duty of which it was to oversee the founding of land-grant colleges in the state. Fellow senator Ezra Cornell approached White and asked what White thought Cornell should do with $500,000 he wished to use for a worthy cause. White didn't hesitate. He suggested that Cornell add his money to the $600,000 the State would receive in land grant funds to establish a new university. Cornell agreed and offered his farmland in Ithaca on a high hill overlooking Cayuga Lake as the site of this endeavor. The State legislature charted the new university, and in 1867 White was appointed the university’s first president, a position he held for 18 years. When Cornell University opened its doors the next year, its enrolment of more than 400 students was the largest of any institution of higher learning in the country.
White was considered a progressive, and, with Cornell's backing, quickly established Cornell University as a non-sectarian institution where one could pursue an education in a variety of non-traditional fields. During White's term, Cornell University was the first major institution in the eastern United States to admit women along with men. It also created Sage College for female students, graduated the first woman--Mary Preston--to be awarded a Ph.D., and was the first institution to provide scholarships to women. The bells in McGraw Tower were donated by Ithacan Jenny McGraw.
Upon his death, White willed his library to the University. Some of his subject collections are considered the most extensive in the world. The University's holdings now number over 6 million volumes.
While president of Cornell, White lived in a lovely house near the top of the rise, overlooking Cayuga Lake. This house, which is owned by the University, still stands and is now known as the A.D. White House. Special events are held in the house, and the gardens behind it are open to the public.
Cornell: Birth of the American University, Brian Frey's award-winning video on the creation of Cornell University