It’s hard to imagine East Hill without Cornell University, the Ithaca skyline without the McGraw Clock Tower standing tall as an icon of academia in Tompkins County. But before the university came into being, East Hill was home to Ezra Cornell’s farmland.
Though he built much of his fortune in carpentry and mechanics, Cornell took a strong interest in farming, having grown up on his family’s farm in DeRuyter, New York. In the 1820s and 1830s, he worked for Otis Eddy’s cotton mill on Cascadilla Creek and at Jeremiah S. Beebe’s plaster and flour mills on Fall Creek. After aiding Samuel Morse with the telegraph in 1843 and 1844, Cornell eventually became the largest stockholder of Western Union for 15 years, pulling in an annual income of $140,000. In 1857, he purchased a 300-acre farm on East Hill, which he’d later offer up as land for his university. In an old cyphering book, Cornell wrote, “My greatest care now is how to spend this large income to do the greatest good to those who are properly dependent on me, to the poor and to posterity.”
His opportunity to do good came in 1863, when Cornell was elected to the Senate, representing Broome, Tompkins, and Tioga counties for the four years to come. That same year, Cornell built and endowed a public library for Ithaca and Tompkins County with 30,000 volumes and spaces for a Farmers’ Club and Museum and the new Tompkins County Historical Society he’d helped found. While in the Senate, Cornell met Andrew Dickson White from Syracuse, representing Onondaga County. With Cornell’s wealth and their shared value of education, the two started brainstorming. White and Cornell envisioned a university that would fuse technical and scientific education with history and literature, unlike most schools at the time, which were mostly sectarian colleges focused on the humanities.
The United States Congress had passed the Morrill Act in 1862, giving states “land grants,” or grants in the form of federal land rather than cash. They were meant to provide “at least one college in each state where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific or classical studies, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts…in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes.” Every state received 30,000 acres of federal land for each member of Congress it had as of 1860. The land could be used for campus space or sold to raise money for the school.
After working on plans for other land-grant institutions, Cornell and White created a bill to establish Cornell University with the funds from selling the state’s land grant. White presented the bill to the Legislature in February 1865, and on April 27 of the same year, Governor Reuben E. Fenton signed the bill, making Cornell University New York State’s first land-grant institution.
There was a slight problem, though. At the time, New York had the largest population of any state, with 33 members of Congress making it eligible for a 990,000-acre land grant. That’s larger than all of Rhode Island. New York State didn’t have enough federal land to meet this allocation, so it was offered a scrip – an official document of permission to use another state’s land for the grant. Cornell bought 500,000 acres of timberland in northern Wisconsin for its market value, a mere 60 cents per acre back in 1865. Most schools sold their land grants almost immediately, for around 42 cents per acre. But with Cornell’s donation of his farmland on East Hill and $500,000 of his personal fortune, the Cornell University board of trustees could afford to wait. They didn’t sell the timberland in Wisconsin until the early 1900s, and it paid off; the land sold for up to $82 per acre, adding $5 million to Cornell’s endowment fund.
Cornell and White opened their institution to all, including African Americans, students outside the United States, and women. (Initially, though, women could only take individual classes. They weren’t granted official enrollment until 1875, thanks to activists including Susan B. Anthony and Emily Howland, who wrote to Cornell arguing for women’s rights to education.) Cornell and White began with a diverse curriculum, the way they had always planned – Latin and philosophy classes alongside instruction in modern history, agricultural studies, engineering, and so on. The variety in course options and diversity of students set Cornell University apart right from its beginnings. To ensure all worthy students could afford their education, Cornell also instated a system of manual labor. People could earn 10 to 15 cents per week while learning practical skills like printing or farming.
Cornell himself superintended the university’s construction and helped purchase books and equipment. Morrill Hall was the first building on the East Hill campus, which now has 608 buildings and over 2,000 acres. With White as its president, Cornell University officially opened on October 7, 1868. 26 professors and 412 freshmen, the largest class admitted to any American college at the time, arrived on campus. The famous Cornell chimes rang out for the first time on that fall day, and Cornell gave an address, saying what is now the university’s motto: “I trust we have laid the foundation for an university – an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.”
And the rest, as they say, is history. •