BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
“The McCormick brothers were the Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniac of their day.”
Sargent M. McCormick made the above comment recently, speaking about his book on the McCormick brothers, Cyrus, Leander, and William, and the invention of the McCormick reaper, the machine that launched the industrial age. The Golden Harvest: The McCormicks of Chicago and the Rise of Modern Agriculture is the working title of this biography, which will be out in time for the 2018 Bicentennial of Illinois.
Sargent’s artistic abilities come as no surprise when one takes a glimpse at his family tree. His aunt, Eleanor Dwight, was an Edith Wharton scholar and author, who so beautifully chronicled the Gilded Age (and wrote about Pauline Palmer, the second Mrs. Potter Palmer, as well). Among his other ancestors? The famous portrait artist John Singer Sargent.
While a student at the University of Virginia, Sargent explored many curiosities, including a special study on the Golden Age of space exploration for the McCormick Observatory given by Leander McCormick. Through this study, he developed his interest in the McCormick family—and the seeds to his upcoming book were planted.
“During my research I discovered the interesting saga of the McCormick family conflict over the first commercially successful invention of the reaper, the machine that ended years of back-breaking labor and freed up farmers to go to work in cities. I thought it was interesting how the story of the invention of the reaper tied so closely to the change from Jefferson’s agrarian republic to the industrial Gilded Age. This mirrored the ways in which the brothers, as Southerners, were caught in the moral conflict of the Civil War while making a fortune. It was all so fascinating.”
Stating that the brothers were part of the Presbyterian religious revival of the time, Sargent describes them simply as “smart, pious, and humble.” But discord grew between them.
“My book is told through the dramatic tensions that play out between the two dueling brothers, Leander and Cyrus. Luckily they were great record keepers and preservationists. My goal is to eliminate the distance between the audience and the story, especially since agriculture and Chicago is such a hot topic today.
“The story surrounds Robert McCormick and his sons Cyrus, William, and Leander. Robert, a stereotypical Virginia Jeffersonian, was a prominent farmer and blacksmith. He was a shrewd and rational man with a strong moral background and was a great source of strength for his sons. His wife, Mary Ann, was more ambitious and her energy is most evident in Cyrus, who was the marketer and the business genius who would take the family into fame and fortune in Chicago.
“William was the quieter, more behind-the-scenes brother; the peacekeeper between Cyrus and Leander. All he wanted to do was to return to his native Virginia and died in 1865. It was then that the trouble between the brothers exacerbated. Leander was more like his father, a smart, humble blacksmith with a keen gift for invention. Leander married earlier, but Cyrus didn’t marry and have children until much later. It is only when the South falls and William dies that the two brothers start having major issues.
“Cyrus’s wife can be thought of as one of America’s early female CEOs. After her husband’s death, she took over leadership of the International Harvester Company.”
The backdrop of Sargent’s fascinating story is pre-fire Chicago, a period not frequently chronicled.
“There are really two Chicagos in my story, the first being the early 1848 Chicago of Mayor William Ogden. Though the city was well on its way to becoming a protestant stronghold, there are still elements of John Jacob Astor’s trading post: the Native Americans and the French fur traders at Wolf Point, many of whom had fought in the Napoleonic Wars. The McCormicks probably arrived on the first steam locomotive that came to Chicago. The city had a kind of Southern sophistication reminiscent of Mark Twain’s Mississippi River communities.
“I love the descriptions of the symphonic relationship between the lake boats bringing the freshly cut wheat, the grain elevators, and the trains; how the reaper set into place this lucrative cycle. In the few years before the Civil War, the city starts to adopt abolitionism and the McCormicks, being prominent Southerners and pacifists, became a popular target. They start their own Southern Democratic pacifist newspaper and decamp from the church they constructed. After the Civil War, Chicago loses its quaintness, becoming so overcrowded and unable to control its growth. Although the brothers were very good to their workers, this is a dark period in labor relations.”
Sargent hopes that his audience will be people interested in history as well as agriculture.
“I think the story is relevant now more than ever. The world is facing mounting challenges to long-established agricultural methods and food systems. As the world population reaches an estimated 10 billion in 2050, it is thought that forty percent of all pollinators, including bees, butterflies, birds, and bats are facing extinction. Humans have the resources and technology to eradicate hunger and ensure long-term quality food security for all, but it will take time to fully overhaul the corporate food chain and rebuild the agrarian system. Through this book I want to show the beginnings of our modern farming system.”
Dividing his time between New York, Maine, and Chicago, Sargent will next write a political satire about Morrisania, the historic Bronx neighborhood, once the estate of Gouverneur Morris, an American statesman and a founder of this country.