Henry W. Sage

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Henry Williams Sage (January 31, 1814 – September 18, 1897) was a wealthy New York State businessman, philanthropist, and early benefactor and trustee of Cornell University.[1][2]

Sage was born in Middletown, Connecticut, and spent part of his early childhood in Bristol, Connecticut before moving to Ithaca, New York in 1827. Two uncles, Timothy S. Williams and Josiah B. Williams, were New York State Senators from the Ithaca area. After briefly studying medicine, he began work for his uncles' forwarding firm, with a line of barges on the Erie Canal, which he took over by 1837. In 1847, he was elected to the New York State Assembly as a Whig.[2][3]

In 1854, he purchased a tract of land at Bell Ewart on Lake Simcoe, 51 miles north of Toronto, Ontario, Canada and was soon processing timber on a large scale. From that point, the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Union Railroad (see Northern Railway of Canada) carried the lumber to its wharves in Toronto, offering Sage a reduced rate for a specified number of carloads per month. The lumber was shipped across Lake Ontario to Sage's wholesale lumber yards at Albany, N.Y. He did not own the timber lands on Lake Simcoe, but rather purchased logs from farmers eager to clear their lands.[3]

Dedication cornerstone on Sage Chapel at Cornell

Moving to Brooklyn in 1857, he became active in the Plymouth Congregational Church, where the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher (son of Lyman Beecher and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe) was pastor. He would later endow the Lyman Beecher Lectureship on Preaching at Yale Divinity School.

About this time he was also purchasing lumber in Michigan, as the Ontario supply began to wane. In 1863, he became a business partner with John McGraw. The two founded the town of Wenona, Michigan (named for the mother of Hiawatha and now part of Bay City) in 1864. The two earned a fortune in lumber and land in Wisconsin, Michigan, and New York.

In 1865 Sage purchased timber berths in Oakley township, Muskoka, necessary to keep the Bell Ewart mill running. The construction of a canal was required to run the logs from the Black River to Lake Couchiching. With previous experience on the New York State Assembly and legislation involving improvements to the Eire Canal, he attracted the interest of other Lake Simcoe lumbermen to form the Rama Timber Transport Company in 1868. The canal to divert the logs into Lake Couchiching opened in 1869, later that year Sage sold the Bell Ewart mill and associated timber berths to Messrs. Silliman and Beecher. Young Harry Beecher was a nephew of Sage's pastor, Rev. Henry Ward Beecher.[3]

He funded construction of what is now the Sage Branch of the Bay County Library in 1884. It was designed by Cornell architecture professor Charles Babcock in the French Château-style, and is today a historical landmark.[3]

Involvement with Cornell[edit]

Sage Chapel.
Dedication plaque on Uris Library

In 1870 Sage was elected to the Board of Trustees of Cornell University, and elected president of the Board in 1875. At his direction, the University resisted selling its Wisconsin land grants in the aftermath of the Panic of 1873, earning millions of dollars for the university's endowment.

An avowed supporter of equal access to higher education, he established Sage College for Women, Cornell's first residence for female students (today known as Sage Hall and home to the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management). He also built Sage Chapel, the first non-denominational house of worship at a US university (and later endowed by his son Dean Sage); Sage House, now home to the Cornell University Press; the Sage Infirmary, now known as Schuyler House; and Stimson Hall, original home of the Cornell Medical College in Ithaca. He endowed the Susan Linn Sage School of Philosophy in the College of Arts and Sciences, named after his wife.

Sage's most notable contribution was the construction of the University Library (since 1962, Uris Library). Jennie McGraw, who had inherited his partner John's fortune in 1877, and died of tuberculosis shortly after marrying University Librarian Daniel Willard Fiske. She bequeathed $1 million to build a library, but Fiske sued to break the will, sparking what became known as The Great Will Case. The United States Supreme Court ruled in Fiske's favor in 1890.

Infuriated by the decision, Sage donated funds for the construction of the Library himself, including a large plaque memorializing his indignation:

The good she tried to do shall stand as if 'twere done
GOD finishes the work by noble souls begun.
In loving memory of JENNIE MCGRAW FISKE whose purpose to
found a great library for Cornell University has been defeated
this house is built and endowed by her friend

Sage Fellowship[edit]

Cornell's graduate student fellowship, known as the SAGE fellowship, is being named in honor of Sage. The Sage Fellowship covers tuition and provide a stipend for living expenses.[4]


The Sage Library in Bay City


  1. ^ Kermit C Parsons (1963). "The Quad on the Hill: An Account of the First Buildings at Cornell". Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. 22 (4): 214. JSTOR 988191. 
  2. ^ a b Murray Edward Poole A story historical of Cornell University with biographies of distinguished Cornellians. (1916) The Cayuga Press, Ithaca, N.Y.
  3. ^ a b c d The Honorable Henry W. Sage, Cornell University, pp. 681–686
  4. ^ Funding for Graduate Studies – Graduate Program – Cornell University Sociology. Soc.cornell.edu (2010-06-23). Retrieved on 2011-09-17.
Academic offices
Preceded by
Ezra Cornell
Chairman of Cornell Board of Trustees
Succeeded by
Roswell P. Flower