Mary McCormick is the name of our local park and community centre. But who is she? The Blok digs deep to bring you the fascinating story of this mysterious woman.
At the pumpkin walk this year I ran into Joe who lives across from McCormick Park (and is part of the group Friends of McCormick Park) and I told him about this magazine and how I was searching around for some history of the neighbourhood.
During our conversation Joe brought up a question; “Who was Mary McCormick?” And that idea led to this article. The first problem I encountered searching online was how common a name Mary McCormick was in early Toronto. After a trip to the Toronto Reference Library and wading through old articles from the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail I began to unravel the mystery of this unusual woman.
In the archives there are old photos of McCormick Playground with the date 1911 scribed on the bottom. I searched the Toronto Star database for “Mary McCormick Playground” looking for the earliest entries. Bingo! Here is the headline that I found:
“A CHECK FOR $10,000 FOR BIG PLAYGROUND”
The Gift of Miss McCormick, Promised Recently, Received by Chairman Brown To-day.”
The genial face of Trustee C. A. B. Brown was one broad, beaming smile to-day. The reason was that lying before him on his desk when he came to his office this morning was a letter which contained a check for $10,000.
It was a gift of Miss Mary B. McCormick to the Toronto Playground Association. The check was made payable to Mr. Brown as president of the association, and the $10,000 is to be used to equip the new Cottingham Square playground.
Miss McCormick is the daughter of the founder and head of the famous McCormick harvester manufacturing firm, and is reputed to be a millionairess. She came to reside in Toronto recently, and bought the residence of Senator MacDonald on Avenue Road hill. She has interested herself in the playground movement, and her interest is practical as well as sympathetic.
The plans for the equipment of Cottingham Square playground have been examined and revised by Chicago’s park superintendent, and it is designed to have this Toronto playground go the Chicago south side playgrounds one better.
“It will be the finest in the country,” said Mr.Brown. “We cannot say too much for this fine gift of Miss McCormick’s”.
It seems that after this, Mary became well known in the Toronto scene as “Miss McCormick.” At that time women were usually known through their husband’s first and last name and “spinsters” such as she were known as just “Miss”. Armed with this piece of Victorian etiquette I had more luck. “Miss McCormick” turned up more than “Mary McCormick” and soon enough I found what I was looking for from the Daily Star, March 1, 1912.
A visual of the structure that existed at the McCormick playground with Miss McCormick’s name attached. Next I found the following article from the Toronto Daily Star, December 31, 1917:
By searching Oaklands and McCormick I was able to come up with even more information about the enigmatic Mary McCormick. I learned her middle name, Virginia, and some interesting facts about her home and her personal bathing preferences…
“Oaklands” was the name of Mary McCormick’s house on Avenue Road. It was purchased by her in 1905 from John McDonald (not John A., but the first prime minister did make him a Senator). Miss McCormick installed “…a needle shower, her own private bowling alley, and a dentist’s chair.” A needle shower is basically a stand-up shower, which was very uncommon in those days, as I am guessing a dentist’s chair might have been too! I also learned that McCormick had “…her own private black band. She was wont to call upon them at any hour of the day or night to perform in the ballroom.” Additionally, it turned out that Mary would hop aboard any horse-drawn carriage, even a grocer’s cart or an ice cream wagon and drive off. Each fall, she would leave for California, using 14 limousines to get her there. A particular portrait of Mary McCormick was beginning to take shape in my mind: an independant woman of means who could afford to indulge her eccentric tastes. I thought about the splash this would have made in the conservative Toronto neighbourhood where she lived.
This was getting interesting. This Mary McCormick would have been a shoe-in for a reality TV series.
The Full Picture
Armed with Mary’s correct title and name, I had the key to a wealth of information about her and her family. Her story is a sad, unusual one that criss-crosses the continent. Never would I have imagined that my local park’s benefactor had such a history.
Mary Virginia McCormick was the first-born daughter of Cyrus H. McCormick and Nettie Fowler. Cyrus was the inventor of the first commercially successful reaper, a horse-drawn machine to harvest wheat. He was born in Rockbridge County, Virginia. By 1858 the McCormick Co. of Chicago was the largest farm equipment supplier in the United States with assets totalling more than 1 million dollars (approximately 28 million today). In 1859, Cyrus married and two years later Mary Virginia was born. In 1880 at age 19, Mary was diagnosed with “…dementia praecox of the catatonic type” or schizophrenia. Cyrus died in 1884 but his fortune bought land in Santa Barbara, California, and Mary’s brother Stanley supervised the building of “Riven Rock” for her. Mary lived here from 1898 – 1904.
Wisconsin Historical Society, Gray, W. C., 1901, Mary Virginia McCormick, 42526. Viewed online here
At this time in Mary’s adult life and there seemed to be attempts by her family to protect and support her in light of her mental illness. No doubt it would have been difficult for a wealthy family during such conservative times to deal with this disease in social circles and perhaps this is why Mary moved among different residences all over the continent. It’s hard to know how much control Mary had over her own life and which choices, if any, were made by her. In any case, there seems to be no shortage of funds, and no expenses spared for Mary’s lifestyle.
At the turn of the century, Mary was moved to Alabama. No doubt, the McCormick family was attracted to the sanitorium and resort hotel there in the town of Viduta (derivative of the Spanish word “Vida” meaning life). People had been coming to this area near Monte Sano, (the spanish words for “Mountain of Health”) since the 1820s. The sanitorium opened on June 1, 1897 and closed early in the 1900’s.
The closing of the sanitorium coincides with the purchase of the estate called “Kildare” in Huntsville, Alabama. Mary was supported by a large staff the under the guidance of Grace Walker (the one mentioned in the newspaper snippet above). Mary McCormick’s philanthropy seems to have begun during her stay in Huntsville, Alabama. She funded “…several YMCAs in the mill villages surrounding town, an African-American wing for the then-segregated Huntsville Hospital, and a hospital at Alabama A&M University.” It’s been suggested that it was Grace Walker who influenced Mary’s philanthropy. Grace Walker remained an assistant to Mary for over 30 years. Grace grew up in Canada and was the daughter of a minister. She served on the national board of the YWCA of Canada for 25 years and was a long-time member of the Housing Board of the City of Toronto. It’s unknown when Mary met Grace, and perhaps Grace is the reason she ended up coming to Toronto. It is also unknown how much time Mary and Grace spent in Alabama during each year (it was possibly a stopover on the way to and back from California?) but the house there was used for many social events, including Christmas parties for children, Easter egg hunts, and a celebration for Virginia’s birthday in May. Eventually, Kildare was sold by the McCormicks in 1932.
The Kildare estate is now known for its ghost stories. Mary’s ghost supposedly haunts the basement where it is believed that Mary was locked up because of her mental illness. The last owners had such a problem with ghost chasers that they built a huge fence around the property and fought with city council about it. The estate is now slated for demolition, but there is a Facebook page out there trying to raise funds to save it.
Time in Toronto
By the time Mary McCormick came to Toronto in 1905 she would have been 44 years old and back then a true “spinster.” Mary did not live in the neighbourhood of Brockton; her house “Oaklands” was near Avenue Road. Her donation to Cottingham Square was transferred to Brock Avenue because the rail tracks were too close to that park. It was actually McCormick’s mother who came up from Chicago to the opening of the Toronto playground in 1911. Perhaps Mary was in a poor state of health or in Alabama or California at the time. During Mary’s time in Toronto, she was mentioned in the newspaper as attending many events and hosting talks or parties at her home “Oaklands.” Oaklands is now known as De La Salle College; a co-ed private school. There are ghost stories about this place too; many people have heard her private black band playing late at night, decades after she had moved away. You can rent Oaklands on AirBnB!
Around 1926 Mary McCormick contracted a throat ailment and gave up on Toronto and Alabama and moved to California permanently. An estate called “Quelindo” was built for her in 1929 in Santa Monica and she lived here as a recluse for 17 years. She died in 1941.
This property is now for sale for $23 million.
The story of Mary McCormick leaves many unanswered questions; the most puzzling for me was why did Mary McCormick come to Toronto in the first place. Was there treatment for her affliction available here in Toronto that didn’t exist anywhere else? Was the family trying to hide Mary’s illness from their family and friends in the States? Did Mary herself choose to come here for a new start in her middle age? How does Grace Walker fit into Mary’s life? Was it her upbringing in Toronto that brought Mary back here? We don’t know the answer to these questions. We can only speculate about the events and motivations for these moves. In any case, we have the mechanical reaper and Mary and her family’s generosity to thank for our local playground, which at one time was built to be one of the best in North America. Unfortunately, while I’ve spent many hours at the park and the community centre, I’ve yet to witness the ghost of Mary McCormick.