Jan 112019

Today is the birthday (1807) of Ezra Cornell, a telegraph magnate involved in the founding of Western Union and a co-founder of Cornell University. Cornell was born in Westchester Landing, in what became the Bronx, New York, and was raised near DeRuyter, New York. He was a cousin of Paul Cornell, the founder of Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. Having traveled extensively as a carpenter in New York State, Ezra, upon first setting eyes on Cayuga Lake and Ithaca, decided in 1828 that Ithaca would be his home.

Upon arriving in Ithaca, Cornell first found work as a carpenter before being hired as a mechanic by Otis Eddy to work at his cotton mill on Cascadilla Creek. On Eddy’s recommendation, Jeremiah S. Beebe then hired Cornell to repair and overhaul his plaster and flour mills on Fall Creek. During Cornell’s long association with Beebe, he designed and built a tunnel for a new mill race on Fall Creek; a stone dam on Fall Creek, which formed Beebe Lake; and a new flour mill. By 1832, he was in charge of all Beebe’s concerns at Fall Creek.

Ezra Cornell was a birthright Quaker from a long lineage of Quakers, but he was later disowned by the Society of Friends for marrying outside of the faith to a “world’s woman,” Mary Ann Wood, a Methodist. They were married March 19th, 1831, in Dryden, New York. Cornell’s young and growing family needed more income than he could earn as manager of Beebe’s Mills. So, having purchased rights in a patent for a new type of plough, Cornell began what would be decades of traveling away from Ithaca. His territories for sales of the plough were the states of Maine and Georgia. His plan was to sell in Maine in the summer and the milder Georgia in the winter. With limited means, he is reported to have walked between the two states.

Happening into the offices of the Maine Farmer in 1842, Cornell saw an acquaintance of his, F.O.J. Smith, bent over some plans for a “scraper” as Smith called it. For services rendered, Smith had been granted a one-quarter share of the telegraph patent held by Samuel F.B. Morse, and was attempting to devise a way of burying the telegraph lines in the ground in lead pipe. Ezra’s knowledge of ploughs was put to the test and Ezra devised a special kind of plough that would dig a 2 feet 6 inches ditch, lay the pipe and telegraph wire in the ditch and cover it back up as it went. Later it was found that condensation in the pipes and poor insulation of the wires impeded the electrical current on the wires and so hanging the wire from telegraph poles became the accepted method.

Cornell made his fortune in the telegraph business as an associate of Samuel Morse, having gained his trust by constructing and stringing the telegraph poles between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, Maryland, as the first ever telegraph line of substance in the U.S. To address the problem of telegraph lines shorting out to the ground, Cornell invented the idea of using glass insulators at the point where telegraph lines are connected to supporting poles. After joining with Morse, Cornell supervised the erection of many telegraph lines, including a portion of the New York, Albany & Buffalo line in 1846 and the Erie and Michigan Telegraph Company connecting Buffalo to Milwaukee with partners John James Speed and Francis Ormand Jonathan Smith. Cornell, Speed and Smith also built the New York and Erie line competing with and paralleling to the south the New York, Albany and Buffalo line in which Morse had a major share. The line was completed in 1849 and Cornell was made president of the company.

Cornell’s sister Phoebe married Martin B. Wood and moved to Albion, Michigan, in 1848. Cornell gave Wood a job constructing new lines and made Phoebe his telegraph operator, the first woman operator in the United States. Cornell earned a substantial fortune when the Erie and Michigan was consolidated with Hiram Sibley and his New York and Mississippi Company to form the Western Union company. Cornell received two million in Western Union stock.

Cornell was a Republican member of the New York State Assembly (Tompkins Co.) in 1862 and 1863; and of the New York State Senate from 1864 to 1867.

Cornell retired from Western Union and turned his attention to philanthropy. He endowed the Cornell Library, a public library for the citizens of Ithaca. As a lifelong enthusiast of science and agriculture, he saw great opportunity in the 1862 Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act to found a university that would teach practical subjects on an equal basis with the classics favored by more traditional institutions. Andrew Dickson White helped secure the new institution’s status as New York’s land grant university, and Cornell University was granted a charter through their efforts in 1865.

Lands granted by the Morrill Act to universities in states without substantial federal land could be claimed in those states which had a large surplus of unclaimed land. Cornell University’s endowment was a stand-out success based on Ezra Cornell’s judicious investment in federal land, especially timber land in Wisconsin. Unlike most land grant universities, who sold their land immediately, under Ezra’s leadership Cornell managed and maintained its land for an extended period, only selling it at the most opportune time. The university was able to reap an unprecedented $5 million endowment as a result.

Ezra Cornell entered the railroad business, but fared poorly due to the Panic of 1873. He began construction of a palatial Ithaca mansion, Llenroc (Cornell spelled in reverse) to replace his farmhouse, Forest Home, but died before it was completed. Llenroc was maintained by Cornell’s heirs for several decades until being sold to the local chapter of the Delta Phi fraternity, which occupies it to this day; Forest Home was sold to the Delta Tau Delta chapter and later demolished. Cornell is interred in Sage Chapel on Cornell’s campus, along with Daniel Willard Fiske and Jennie McGraw. Cornell was originally interred in Lake View Cemetery, Ithaca N.Y., then moved to Sage Chapel.

I have some quirky associations with Cornell University. One is that Cornell University press published my doctoral dissertation, and because the acquisitions editor for anthropology was a close friend of mine, and former colleague, I visited Cornell on a number of occasions. Also, a former student of mine studied there as a graduate student, so I went to her various graduations.

More in the food line, I pointed out here https://www.bookofdaystales.com/cornell-university/ that Cornell’s school colors of carnelian and white were adopted by the Campbell’s soup company as their, now iconic, colors. That might give you some ideas.

Ithaca is also in serious apple growing territory. At one point when Ezra Cornell was planning the grounds of his estate, he wrote: “Yesterday I staked off the ground on the hill for an orchard. I want to get 1000 apple trees agrowing.” I’m not sure why he needed 1,000 apple trees; one or two are enough for family consumption. That gives you scope to think in terms of apple pie, baked apples, or, my personal favorite, apple crumble. I probably make 30 or more apple crumbles per year. How about apple crumb cake? This was very popular in apple country in New York where I used to live.

Apple Crumb Cake


¾ cup vegetable oil
1 ½ cup milk
2 large eggs
3 ½ cups flour
2 cups granulated sugar
1 tsp salt
5 tsp baking powder
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
5 large apples, cored and sliced thin

Crumb Topping:
¾ cup brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
¾ cup all-purpose flour
2 tsp ground cinnamon
4 oz cold butter, cut into pieces
2 cups walnuts, chopped

Syrup Topping:

1 cup Cinnamon Apple Syrup or Apple Cider Syrup
½ cup heavy cream


Preheat oven to 350°F.

Grease a 9 x 13-inch pan.

For the cake- beat together the oil, milk, and eggs in a medium bowl. Mix in the dry ingredients. Gently stir in the vanilla.

Pour half of the batter into the prepared pan. Lay half of the apple slices over the batter to create a colorful pattern.

For the Crumb Topping- place the brown sugar, granulated sugar, flour, cinnamon and butter in a medium bowl. Cut the butter in with a pastry blender or work with your hands until crumbs the size of peas form. Mix in the nuts.

Cover the apples with a thin layer of crumb topping. Layer in the remaining apples. Spread the remaining batter over the apples and top with remaining crumb topping.

Bake for 60-70 minutes, or until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.

For the Syrup topping- combine the syrup and the cream in a heavy saucepan and heat, stirring frequently.

Serve the cake warm or at room temperature with warm syrup topping.