Deerings/McCormicks: Opulence V. Frugality




By Megan McKinney


Among the most lavish houses of late 19th century Chicago: the Cyrus McCormick mansion at 675 Rush Street. 


The Deering dynasty was founded by William Deering, who had no interest in farming equipment. He was the son of a prosperous Maine woolen mill owner and trained as a physician. Although he possessed a genius for finance and a brilliant instinct for negotiation, William didn’t turn to business until his father faced financial reversal. He then veered away from medicine to become a successful woolen wholesaler with offices in Maine and New York.

In the early 1870’s, like numerous contemporaries, William was lured to Chicago by its real estate opportunities. And he was quite possibly the only potential investor who benefited by diverting his money elsewhere.

William Deering was as keen a Methodist as Cyrus McCormick was a Presbyterian. Therefore, when an old friend and fellow Methodist, Elijah Gammon, convinced him that he had a machine that was better than any built by McCormick, Deering invested the $40,000 he had earmarked for real estate in Gammon’s existing reaper works.

William Deering.

When six years later Deering was the company’s sole owner, he was able to expand his line. He knew that one thing the McCormicks did not have was an efficient binder, and he recognized that farmers disliked wire binding, which cut into wheat and endangered cattle that might eat the metal.

In 1880, Deering purchased the best binding machine available and upgraded it by finding a Philadelphia rope manufacturer that would develop manila twine to replace the wire.

Although he was without mechanical skills, Deering was smart and a far more astute businessman than McCormick. His tactics had surprised the McCormicks and they were worried about what he might do next. By the late 1990’s, the two companies were in merger talks.

George W. Perkins.

But it wasn’t until 1902—when the McCormicks needed new capital for expansion—that Chicago native George W. Perkins, an executive at House of Morgan in New York, put the deal together. The merger, which also absorbed several smaller farming equipment companies, allocated 43% percent ownership to the McCormicks and 37% to Deering. For its part, the Morgan firm put up $10 million in exchange for stock.

William Deering was board chairman, later succeeded by his son, Charles. And Cyrus McCormick Jr., was president of the resulting company, International Harvester.

Charles Deering.

The McCormicks were entirely visible; they built stately homes in fashionable areas, people talked about them and newspapers followed their activities.

But William Deering stayed out of sight and under media radar. At the core of the canny businessman was a Puritan who distained publicity and pretension; he gravitated to simplicity, tranquility and frugality. He settled his family in Evanston where they could live surrounded by fellow Methodists.

A house typical of those in Evanston’s charming residential section.

Evanston’s vintage business district.

Northwestern’s Old College, typical of buildings on the campus of the William Deering era.

Another was University Hall.

Deering Library would be in the future. Funded largely by Charles Deering’s family in his memory, the building would be dedicated in 1933.

William Deering founded Wesley Memorial Hospital in Chicago, now part of Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and served as president of Garrett Biblical Institute. But, like P.D. Armour, who described himself as “just a butcher trying to get to Heaven,” William Deering’s austerity would not extend to the next generation.

Deering generosity, however, would continue with his descendants, notably to The Art Institute of Chicago, which, on March 18, will open Saints and Heroes: Art of Medieval and Renaissance Europe, a major reinstallation of its Deering Family Galleries.


Cyrus McCormick Jr.

As for the following generation of McCormicks, when the reaper king died in 1884, Nettie had insisted that Cyrus Jr. withdraw from Princeton to take over the company, which put him at the helm during the notorious Haymarket riots two years later.

Cyrus Jr. refused to tolerate an iron molders union his father had accepted and locked them out of his plant. The lockout coincided with a national general strike in May 1886 and a demonstration was held outside the McCormick Reaper Works on the city’s Southwest Side.

The infamous Haymarket Riot.

The protest rally was disrupted by gunfire when police shot into a crowd of workers, with several fatalities. The next night an angry mob assembled for a protest rally in the rain near Haymarket Square at Randolph and Des Plaines Streets. During the disturbance, an anarchist threw a handmade dynamite bomb into the crowd. Seven policemen were dead and another 60 injured, with a similar number of fatalities and injuries among the protesters. The culprit was never identified, but the incident resulted in the hanging of seven anarchists a year and a half later. 

The controversial hangings.

Cyrus Jr. moderated after his marriage to Harriet Hammond, the daughter of a Haverhill, Massachusetts sea captain. A thoughtful, forward-looking woman, she was able to temper his conservative ways, leading him to become less autocratic with his employees, and eventually he even joined her in promoting women’s rights. Their three children were Gordon, Cyrus E. and a daughter, Elizabeth, who died at an early age. After Harriet’s death in 1921, Cyrus married Alice Marie Hoit, his secretary of thirty years.

The offspring of Cyrus Jr. and Harriet McCormick. Cyrus III is in a sailor suit, with Gordon and Elizabeth in the white dresses worn by the era’s small children of both genders.

Chicago has long been known for its neighborhoods, and the McCormicks created one of their own: McCormickville, with family mansions clustering on and around Rush Street. Cyrus and Nettie’s 35-room Second Empire-style house, modeled after a pavilion of the Louvre, was completed in 1879. Located at 675 Rush, at the corner of Erie Street, it included a mansard roof, cupola, bull’s-eye windows and a large ballroom at the top.

675 Rush Street.

The 14-foot-high dining room featured hand-carved Santo Domino mahogany woodwork and precious French tapestries from the reign of Henri IV. It was thought to be the most elegant in Chicago, although it’s none too subtle ceiling painting depicted of sheaves of grain and reapers.

Leander James’ massive house at the corner of Rush and Ohio Streets was destroyed in the Fire, but those of his sons stand today. Robert Hall’s house, at 660 North Rush Street, and Hamilton’s, at 100 East Ontario Street, have housed popular restaurants through the years.

Robert Hall’s McCormickville house during the years it was Chez Paul.

The Hamilton McCormick house prevails today as Lawry’s The Prime Rib. 

Cyrus would live only five years after the completion of the Rush Street house, where—surrounded by servants—Nettie then lived alone, aside from, intermittently, her son Harold.

She was a very rich widow, a powerful social figure, and her philanthropy—particularly toward religious causes—was well known. In 1906, she was visited by Henry Winters Luce, an American missionary to China, who was touring the country to raise missionary funds. With him was his wife Elisabeth and the first three of their four children.

Nettie was captivated by the Luce family, particularly the eldest child, eight-year-old Henry Jr. She wanted him to stay with her, to be raised in her immense house, and she even asked to adopt him. Although the offer was declined, Nettie McCormick would continue to be a significant influence in the life of the founder and publisher of TIME, LIFE and other great 20th century American magazines.

Nettie established a trust fund to augment the family’s meager missionary income and paid for a comfortable house for them in China. She was also more than generous in the lavish gifts and money she sent to young Henry, who was a scholarship student at Hotchkiss. She helped fund his Yale education, where he was not on scholarship, as well as a year at Oxford, for which he had not been awarded a Rhodes Scholarship. In fact, Henry Luce’s relationship with Nettie McCormick elevated his formative years from a poor boy’s strictly nose-pressed-against-the-window experience to at least the appearance of being the financial counterpart of his peers.  

Throughout his boarding school days and later at Yale, Henry spent his holidays with Nettie, and was entertained by her friends, where he was increasingly caught up in the seasonal round of debutante parties, dinners, dances, celebrations and other festivities in their houses and at their clubs.

In short, Nettie McCormick and her fairy godmother attention to a missionary’s son intensified the attraction to wealth and the very rich that would be notably evident in of one of 20th century America’s most influential men.


Coming Next:

Megan McKinney’s Deerings and McCormicks will continue in Classic Chicago magazine next week with The Richest Couple in Chicago.

Author Photo:

Robert F. Carl