Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Researching My Eight Women: Nettie McCormick and Her Fortunate Life

This week, I traveled to Madison, Wisconsin, to visit the Wisconsin Historical Archives collection on the McCormick family. Nettie McCormick, wife of the inventor of the reaper - Cyrus McCormick, is one of the eight women in my book.

The building is being restored, but the interior is gorgeous. Filigreed windows, marble floors and a winding staircase. Fueled by Starbucks, I started up the grand steps.

The Wisconsin Historical Society Archives were granted the McCormick collection in the 1950s. There is a massive amount of information, 12 million pages, kept in files about the family and their businesses. 

Cyrus McCormick changed the landscape of farming worldwide with his invention of the reaper.

The couple changed Chicago and the world by giving millions of dollars
to religion and educational institutions.

What struck me as I requested box after box, was how odd it would be to have your life documented in this way. There are files of interviews about Nettie - collected by a woman who was specifically hired by the family to document her life. This woman, and her staff of helpers, interviewed dozens of people about Nettie. They typed the interviews, outlined information, contacted every institution to which the McCormicks donated. Their records are meticulous.

Some files contained lists of items Nettie would pack for her trips to New York, Paris, or Egypt. She would mention that they needed to bring a white lawn blouse or a grey silk evening skirt. There were scribbled notes that seemed to be household reminders. There were lists of her jewelry and calling cards with doodles on them. There were letters to "My dear husband" from "Your devoted wife." She worried about him as he traveled and about her children when they fell ill. Telegrams and checks were piled into folders - each one kept - although most were probably nothing of significance.
Some of the items were so old and fragile they were falling apart.
I felt as if I was peeking into the private life of someone I did not know . . . a very wealthy and very powerful woman. People mentioned her gracious manner, her amazing memory, and her meticulous care for her details. She had enormous wealth, but also a kind and gentle heart. She was well loved.

One story was told by a woman whose husband was the president of a small Southern college. Nettie had given a great deal of money to the college and had come down for the dedication of a new building.
Before the event, she met with the wife for tea. Nettie told her that she had just been shopping for a dress for the event and thought that, perhaps, the wife had not had time to purchase a new garment for the special occasion.
"I hope you don't mind," said Nettie. "But I purchased one for you as well. It will be sent by this afternoon."
The woman smiled. She had no money to buy a new dress and was going to iron an her best calico to wear to the special occasion. Nettie knew that, of course, and wanted to give the gift in the kindest way possible.

Nettie wrote: "Yes, money is power.
But I have always tried not to trust in it,
but rather use it for the glory of my Master."
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