By Jeff Blakley
In this post, my goal is to draw a better picture of the Reverend J. M. Cormack, whose name appears in other stories written about the early history of the Florida City and Homestead areas. In those accounts, his name is usually given as J.M. Cormack or Rev. J.M. Cormack but there are no sources given for the statements made in any of the essays.
The man’s full name was Joseph Meek Cormack and he had an older brother, William. His father, according to the 1870 U.S. census of Junction City, Geary County, Kansas was James S. Cormack, a wagoner of Scottish ancestry who was born about 1825 and who came from New Brunswick, Canada. His mother, Mary Meek, had probably died before 1870, as James’ wife was Jane in the 1870 census and she was 22 years his junior. With his new wife, James had two more children: John, about 2, and George, 1. Joseph’s brother William, who was two years older than he, was a teamster. The family had come from Pennsylvania, where Joseph and William had been born. James S. Cormack had 10 siblings and another 11 half-siblings. One of those siblings was George H. Cormack, of Rockford, Illinois, who established the predecessor company of Quaker Oats. George was the youngest of the siblings and was born in 1837.
According to the Alumni record of the College of liberal arts, Northwestern University (Evanston, Ill.), published in 1903, Joseph Meek Cormack was born on February 28, 1855 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He prepared at Northwestern University Academy in Evanston, Illinois and received his A.B. degree in 1881. He was a member of the Delta Upsilon fraternity in 1883 and received his Bachelor of Divinity degree from the Garrett Biblical Institute, which is a graduate school of theology associated with the United Methodist Church. It is located on the campus of Northwestern University. On November 27, 1884, he married Jane H. Marshall in Charter Grove, DeKalb County, Illinois. She was born on December 19, 1859 in Charter Grove. She graduated from Sycamore High School and went on to receive a Bachelor of Literature degree from Northwestern and was a member of the Ossoli Society, which was named after Sarah Margaret Fuller, an early feminist. She was also a charter member of the Beta Chapter of the Alpha Phi sorority. She taught school for several years in Charter Grove, near Sycamore and then was the superintendent of the infant department of the Sunday School at St. Paul’s Church in Chicago in 1884, where she met Joseph Cormack.
Joseph and Jane (or Jennie, as she was known) had two children, Joseph Marshall Cormack, born August 8, 1893 and Kimball James Marshall, born February 18, 1900. Jane died of septicemia on March 3, 1900 in the Presbyterian Hospital in Chicago, which was very likely the result of an infection due to poor care after the birth of Kimball.
On September 4, 1902, at the age of 47, Joseph married Maude Evangeline Miller in Rockford, Illinois. His new bride was born on February 14, 1875 and was 20 years younger than he. They most likely met through their mutual church activities. She was associated with the Court Street Church in Rockford, while he was preaching at New Milford and Kishwaukee. Joseph and his son, Joseph M. are enumerated in Rockford in the 1900 census, taken on June 5, 1900. By his second marriage, Rev. Cormack had another son, Elbert Miller, who was born on August 13, 1905. Maude Miller, like his first wife, was an accomplished woman. She had graduated from Winnebago High School and then attended both Northwestern University and Rockford College. She taught at Lanark High School in 1899 and in the Rockford public schools until her marriage to Rev. Cormack.
After his first wife died, Joseph left his newborn son, Kimball James Marshall, in the care of one of his deceased wife’s sisters, who, having a child of her own, decided to give the little boy to her parents, Thomas and Rachel Marshall, without consulting with the boy’s father. There must have been bad blood between the Rev. Cormack and his in-laws, as this event was the start of a long-running battle between Joseph and his in-laws over the custody of Kimball. In 1905, Joseph kidnapped his young son and published a 117 page pamphlet justifying his actions. He fled to Appleton, Wisconsin with his son, only returning to Sycamore and his church in McHenry after being awarded custody by the appellate court. By 1910, the situation may have been reduced to a simmer, as Kimball was enumerated in the census of that year, dated April 16, as living with his father in Chicago. That does not mean that he was actually living with his father, though – census data is not proof, in and of itself.
It is possible that Rev. Cormack came to South Florida at the insistence of the Methodist Church. The custody battle had been an ongoing scandal in the Rockford area and the situation very likely didn’t sit well with the elders of the Rock River District of the Methodist Church – North. The church hierarchy may have wanted to establish a church in this area and they may have used that goal as a way to try to cool off the confrontation between Rev. Cormack and his in-laws.
Rev. Cormack arrived here sometime between April 16, 1910, when he was enumerated in the 1900 census of Chicago, and January 28, 1911, when he filed the papers for his land in the Longview neighborhood, west of Detroit. He claimed 160 acres – the E 1/2 of the NE 1/4 of 34-57-38 and the S 1/2 of the NW 1/4 of 35-57-38. His neighbors were Roy O. Marsh, the surveyor, Hugh H. Ewing, a prominent businessman in Homestead later on and Henning F. Redin, who would own a barber shop in Homestead. His property was on both sides of Richard Road, south of Lucille (S.W. 360th St.) Drive.
Rev. Cormack’s son, Joseph Marshall, graduated from Northwestern University with a B.A. in 1913 and went on to attend Yale University in 1914. In The Yale Banner and Pot Pourri yearbook for 1914, Joseph’s home town is shown as Detroit, Florida. In a Miami Herald article dated July 24, 1916, he and his father went on a pleasure fishing trip in Biscayne Bay, with the Beckers and Garfunkels, among others. Perhaps his son was visiting him while on summer break. On May 24, 1917, he enlisted in the Aviation Section of the Army. He enlisted at Fort Slocum, which was not far from where he lived in Brooklyn, New York. After the war was over, he established his law practice while living with his uncle, John S. Cormack, in Eastland County, Texas in 1920. Judging by this chronology, it doesn’t seem that Joseph Marshall had been of much help to his father in establishing his homestead in Detroit, Florida.
If the church hierarchy thought that some distance between the warring parties would help the situation, it didn’t work, for there was a short note in the April 19, 1912 issue of The South Florida Banner which stated that “Rev. J.M. Carmack (sic) went to Sycamore, Illinois to try to gain custody of his 12 year old son, Kimball Carmack (sic).” That short notice, written by a fellow Methodist preacher, concealed a great deal, because a newspaper article that appeared on February 23, 1912 in the Morning Star in Rockford, Illinois described a foiled kidnap attempt by Rev. Cormack and two men whom he had hired to help him. It stated that Kimball’s grandparents were “wealthy people and are determined to try to gain possession of the boy.” That was true – by 1917, Thomas and Rachel Marshall owned more than 1,000 acres of farm land in DeKalb County.
Rev. J. A. Kahl, another early Methodist minister in this area, had not yet moved to Homestead in 1910. Kahl’s first assignment, in 1910, was in Fort Lauderdale and he lived in Miami until early 1912. Rev. Cormack was the first known preacher of the Methodist Church – North to arrive in this area. It may have been that because Rev. Cormack was so consumed with his custody battle that his ministry suffered and the church hierarchy sent Rev. Kahl to this area to assist Rev. Cormack.
He needed help, because his troubles were not over. In early 1913, his wife, who was then living in Long Beach, California, sued him for divorce, charging him with cruelty. He counter-sued, charging that she had deserted him. Cormack’s obsession with obtaining custody of his son very likely had a negative impact on his marriage to Maude.
After the separation or divorce (she is shown as “married” in the 1920 census of Rockford, Illinois), his ex-wife went to live with her parents in Rockford, where she became active in art and nature conservation circles. A notice that appeared in the Rockford, Illinois Morning Star on July 19, 1919 stated that Mrs. Maude M. Cormack, a member of the Nature Study society in Winnebago County, met with others to discuss ways of raising funds for the Illinois Audubon Society. She was a member of the Nature Study society for more than 40 years. Maude never re-married and died on June 28, 1967 in a nursing home in Pisgah, Butler County, Ohio. She had lived with her son, Elbert, in Hamilton County, Ohio, prior to her death.
Rev. Cormack must have enjoyed reasonably good health, for in addition to being a homesteader, which required a lot of physical labor, he owned the 7¢ Store as early as May 10, 1912 in Detroit, next to Brooker and Lehman’s store, preached on the Methodist circuit in the area and he had the time and energy to go to Illinois to try to kidnap his son in 1912 and to defend himself in a divorce suit in 1913. He did not, however, leave a lasting mark on the history of this area. He was granted a patent (633958) on his homestead on June 7, 1918 but only deed research would reveal the disposition of his property. On July 10, 1919, there was a note in The Homestead Enterprise that said that Mr. and Mrs. J. M. Leach had taken over the management of Cormack’s store in Florida City. On August 1, 1919, The Miami Herald noted that “J.M. Cormack left Friday for New York, where he plans to enter a sanitorium.” The nature of the disease is not stated, but it may have been tuberculosis. A short notice in the Miami Herald, dated February 6, 1920, noted that “Mrs. Miller, who came to Florida City a short time ago and who resides in the back part of the Garfunkel store building, owned by J. M. Carmack (sic), is very ill. Mrs. Miller is a stranger in a strange land and would appreciate callers and flowers.” This is an interesting puzzle, because Rev. Cormack’s second wife’s maiden name was Miller. This may have been his estranged wife or it could have been her mother. Another item in the Miami Herald, dated June 3, 1920, stated that J.H. Dietz had moved into “the Carmack tenement” and was “assisting Mr. Carmack (sic) in the store” in Florida City. Apparently, Rev. Cormack had returned from New York in better health. That was not to last long, though, as he sold his store to “Coconut Grove interests” in October of 1921 and resumed treatment for his ailment.
In a short notice that appeared in the Miami Herald on September 7, 1922, it was noted that J.M. Cormack of Florida City had sold his property, which included “308 acres of glade and pine land, 8 town lots and several store buildings” to George McKinnon of Miami. After selling his holdings, Mr. Cormack turned around and signed a 98 year lease on the Arcade Hotel in Miami for $50,000 from the buyer of his property, George A. McKinnon. The hotel was located at 135 N.E. 1st St. It was three stories high and had 31 rooms and was built in 1921. Shortly after Rev. Cormack died, according to an article in the Miami Herald dated February 3, 1924, G. A. McKinnon sold the hotel to W.F. Gross for $50,000. Only a study of legal records would reveal what happened to Rev. Cormack’s investment. According to the newspaper records that I read, George McKinnon was apparently a prominent real estate speculator as his name appears frequently during this time period.
Joseph died on December 31, 1923 in Miami and was buried in Woodlawn Park Cemetery in Miami on January 3, 1924.
In his obituary, which appeared in The Homestead Leader on January 3, 1924, it was noted that “[f]or the last year, Mr. Cormack made Miami his home, and had been living at 12 S.E. Second street.” It was further noted that “[h]e came south for his health, which he never did regain fully, although he seemed to improve considerably at times.”
A notice published in the Miami Herald on January 19, 1924 stated that “Lilburn R. Railey has been appointed resident agent of the estate of Joseph Meek Carmack (sic), deceased, by J. M. Carmack (sic), executor of the estate.” J. M. Cormack, the executor of the estate, was Joseph Marshall Cormack, Rev. Cormack’s son, who was an attorney in Texas.
Reverend Cormack’s story is an interesting one – one that demonstrates the need for us to not romanticize the past. He was a human being, like all of us, and he had his successes and his failures. An objective assessment of him is probably not possible at this late date, but I hope that this post has shown some dimensions of his life that were not previously known. Unlike so many other pioneers in this area, he did not seem to have had any kinship ties with anyone else in the community and because of his family troubles, it does not appear that any of his children lived in this area either. According to his obituary, he died in a sanitarium in Miami. No family members are mentioned as being present and only his congregation, if he had one (he was retired, according to his death record), mourned his passing.