McCormick, Nettie Fowler (1835–1923)

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McCormick, Nettie Fowler (1835–1923)

Chicago business leader and philanthropist who was a major donor to the Presbyterian Church . Born Nancy Maria Fowler on February 8, 1835, in Brownville, New York; died on July 5, 1923, in Lake Forest, Illinois; daughter of Melzar Fowler (a merchant) and Clarissa (Spicer) Fowler; married Cyrus McCormick (an inventor and industrialist), on January 26, 1858 (died 1884); children: Cyrus Hall McCormick II; Mary Virginia McCormick ; Anita Eugenie Blaine McCormick ; Harold Fowler McCormick (who married Edith Rockefeller McCormick ); Stanley Robert McCormick (who married Katharine McCormick ).

When Nettie Fowler McCormick died at the age of 88 in 1923, she left behind letters and journals that lent great insight into what drove a lifelong philanthropy. Orphaned at an early age and an unexpected heir to one of the Midwest's greatest

manufacturing fortunes through her marriage, McCormick had always felt somewhat alienated from those close to her, and came to believe that immense wealth made her especially accountable in the eyes of her God. Her papers reveal a woman dedicated to leading a diligent and sober life and to putting her fortune to altruistic use.

McCormick was born Nancy Maria Fowler in 1835, the daughter of devout New York State Methodists Melzar and Clarissa Fowler . Her father was a merchant who died unexpectedly when she was an infant; Clarissa Fowler then took over the family's dry-goods business, but died in 1842 and orphaned seven-year-old Nettie and her two brothers. With her brother Eldrige Merick Fowler, a future lumber baron of the Midwest, she was taken in by the family of their shipbuilder uncle and grew up in Clayton, New York.

As a young woman, McCormick was schooled at three seminaries, including Genesee Wesleyan Seminary in Lima, New York, and for a time taught school in Clayton. Her life changed with a visit to a cousin in Chicago, where she met Cyrus McCormick. Twenty-five years her senior, McCormick was a wealthy industrialist who had invented the reaper machine. It revolutionized agriculture, and the company Cyrus McCormick founded eventually became the farm-machinery giant International Harvester. Of similarly devout and sober personalities, the two were wed in 1858; they would have seven children, two of whom died in infancy and two of whom would suffer from severe mental illness as adults. For many years McCormick served as her husband's personal secretary, and was an integral part of many important business decisions. After the Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed the famed McCormick Reaper plant, for instance, Cyrus McCormick considered abandoning the business altogether, but she convinced him to rebuild and even expand.

When she became a widow in 1884, McCormick inherited a vast fortune. By that point a long-time Presbyterian, she became one of the top American donors to the Presbyterian Church in the 19th century. She was a firm believer in education, and came to see her mission as one of providing educational opportunity around the globe. Although the McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago was the recipient of much of her largesse, she contributed to over 40 different educational institutions. McCormick was also active in funding the World's Student Christian Federation (housed in the same castle where Bridget of Sweden had founded her religious order) and gave generously to religious conversion efforts by Protestant clerics around the globe. For over three decades, she served in various capacities on the Woman's Board of the Presbyterian Mission of the Northwest, including treasurer, vice-president, and honorary vice-president. Her Rush Street home was a center of Christian missionary movement meetings for many years; she even traveled to Egypt in 1896 to check on one of her schools. A Democrat, she also donated sums to political campaigns, including the presidential candidacies of Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and 1916.

Though she grew deaf in her 60s, McCormick was still active in company matters as late as a 1913 labor dispute. She moved out of her home at 135 Rush to her "House-in-the-Woods," as she named it, a retreat on Sheridan Road in suburban Lake Forest. There she died of pneumonia in 1923, and was buried in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.


Deen, Edith. Great Women of the Christian Faith. NY: Harper & Row, 1959.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan

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McCormick, Nettie Fowler (1835–1923)

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