Nancy (“Nettie”) Fowler McCormick never expected to lead a life of ease. Orphaned at age 7, she learned early in life to make the most of her days. Such firm moral purpose would steer her throughout life, especially after her marriage to Cyrus McCormick, inventor of the mechanical reaper and one of the wealthiest men in American history.
Nettie Fowler was born in 1835, the youngest of three children. Her father was a dry-goods merchant in northwestern New York. After he died, her mother ran the business until her own death a few years later. Seven-year-old Nettie was sent to live with her uncle and grandmother—both devout Methodists and philanthropists in their community.
These early tragedies, combined with her subsequent upbringing, did much to shape her future philanthropy. Raised to be an active member of the local Methodist church, she felt her responsibility before God to be a good steward of her resources and time on earth. The young Nettie once wrote in her diary, “Usefulness is the great thing in life—to do something for others leaves a sweeter odor than a life of pleasure.”
Her uncle Eldridge Merick’s prosperity afforded new opportunities for young Nettie. Merick’s involvement in the church and community and his keen business sense had a prevailing influence on his niece, and his wealth provided her the opportunity for further education and training. Nettie attended Falley Seminary in Fulton, Emma Willard’s Troy Female Seminary, and the Genesee Wesleyan Seminary in Lima, New York. As a student at Genesee Wesleyan, Nettie took on a leading role in the school’s missionary society and was honored by the school as a lifetime member.
At the age of 21, while on a trip to visit friends in Chicago, Nettie met Cyrus Hall McCormick, an inventor, businessman, and faithful Presbyterian. McCormick was over twice her age when the two began courting, and the couple married a year after they met in January 1858. Both were strong-willed individuals, and their marriage was by many accounts a challenging one. Nevertheless, it proved to be a formidable business partnership. Nettie was her husband’s closest business associate.
She was also actively involved in her husband’s philanthropic activities. They directed most of their charitable giving to religious organizations, usually churches and schools. McCormick gave away $550,000 in his lifetime to the Presbyterian Church, McCormick Theological Seminary, and other church colleges.
In October 1871, the Great Chicago Fire destroyed the McCormick Harvesting Machine plant. Then aged 62, Cyrus was ready to retire. Nettie, however, devoted her considerable energy to rebuilding the business, forming a new company which would consolidate the farm machinery industry. Nettie managed her husband’s investment, oversaw the construction of the new plant, and formed the International Harvester Company. She was the untitled director and president of the company until her husband’s death in 1884.
Nettie McCormick faithfully followed the directions of her husband’s will, which stated that she and Cyrus Jr. were to keep the estate intact for five years and make donations to charitable purposes that they believed Cyrus Sr. would have made if he was still living. Once freed from these restrictions, she turned her attention to her own philanthropy.
Nettie McCormick was an involved and detailed philanthropist who believed she would have to give an account to God for how she used the money with which she was entrusted. She felt strongly that any gift she made should have a moral purpose, provide a spiritual or educational benefit, and enable the recipients to better themselves. Over time, her philanthropic focus broadened to a greater variety of institutions but her pattern of giving to education, youth, and religious institutions remained. Orphanages, schools, colleges, hospitals, and relief agencies were all beneficiaries of her generosity, and she supported causes at home and abroad. She gave gifts to institutions such as Moody Bible Institute and Princeton University. She helped establish hospitals in Persia and Siam, and gave large gifts to religious colleges overseas, including Alborz College in Tehran and a theological seminary in Korea.
Nettie carefully managed her giving and maintained active involvement in many of her investments. At Tusculum College in Tennessee, she helped select faculty, devise curricular offerings, and decide on the appointment of college president Charles Gray. Among her many charitable projects at the school, Nettie spearheaded the construction of a new women’s dormitory, named for her daughter Virginia McCormick. Nettie gave specific stipulations as to how her money was to be spent on this project, and she oversaw the building process, even choosing the architect, to ensure that Tusculum had a fully modern facility for women. As a result, the school’s enrollment of female students jumped from 9 to 102. To this day, Tusculum holds a Nettie Fowler McCormick Service Day, focused on charitable works and improvement of the school grounds.
Upon her death in 1923, Nettie left a final gift of $1 million to various charities; the remainder of her estate was divided among her children. As evidence of her private nature, the obituary in the Chicago Daily Tribune grossly underestimated the scope of her philanthropy, crediting her with supporting six schools. (In reality, she is known to have been a lead funder of at least 46 schools, and possibly more.) Over the course of her life, Nettie Fowler McCormick gave away millions of dollars, neither expecting nor wanting any recognition—in this life, at least.
~ Kari Barbic