By Jeff Blakley
In this article, my goal is to provide more information about the Reverend J. M. Cormack, whose name appears in other accounts 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 any of the statements made in those essays.
J. M. Cormack’s full name was Joseph Meek Cormack. His father was James S. Cormack, a teamster, born about 1825 in New Brunswick, Canada.1 His mother was Mary Jane Meek.2 There were at least two children born of this union: William R. and Joseph. James married, second, Elizabeth H. “Jane” Claiborne before 1868. She was 22 years his junior and together, they had five children: John, George, Lillie, Irving and Maude.3 4 Joseph’s father established a successful teamster business in Junction City, Kansas in March of 18685 and his brother William, who was two years older than he, worked with him. James was apparently a successful businessman, for he was able to send Joseph to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois in 1875.6 The family had come from Pennsylvania, where Joseph and William had been born.7 James and Jane separated in early 1884, when Jane asked for temporary alimony from the court in Junction City, Kansas,8 and she sued for divorce in September of that same year.9
Joseph Meek Cormack was born on February 28, 1855 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois receiving his A.B. degree in 1881 and was a member of the Delta Upsilon fraternity. He received his Bachelor of Divinity degree from the Garrett Biblical Institute in 1883.10 11 Garrett was a graduate school of theology associated with the United Methodist Church, located on the campus of Northwestern University. On November 27, 1884, he married Jane H. Marshall in Charter Grove, DeKalb County, Illinois.12 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 1884.13
Joseph was admitted to the Rock River Conference in Illinois on trial in October of 1882 and then preached for two years at Leland, IL. He then was sent to East Paw Paw, Il and finally to St. Paul’s M. E. Church in Chicago in 1884,14 where he met Jennie Marshall.
Joseph and Jane (or Jennie, as she was known) had two children, Joseph Marshall Cormack, born August 8, 1893 and Kimball James Cormack, born February 18, 1900. Jane died of septicemia on March 3, 1900 in the Presbyterian Hospital in Chicago, which was due to “blood poisoning” after the birth of Kendall.15 Joseph and his son, Joseph M. are enumerated in Rockford in the 1900 census, taken on June 5, 1900.
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,16 while he was preaching at New Milford and Kishwaukee. Maude, 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.17 By his second marriage, Rev. Cormack had another son, Elbert Miller Cormack, who was born on August 13, 1905.18
After his first wife died, Joseph left his newborn son, Kimball James Marshall, in the care of his deceased wife’s sister Mary, who, having a child of her own, decided to give the little boy to her parents, Thomas Marshall and her mother Rachel, apparently without consulting with the boy’s father. There had been bad blood between the Rev. Cormack, a poor man who had married into wealth, and his in-laws since the birth of Kimball. This ultimately resulted in a long-running battle between Joseph and his in-laws over the custody of Kimball. In 1905, Joseph kidnapped his young son19 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.20 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.21
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.22 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.
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 reprinted, without attribution, from the Rockford Daily Register-Gazette in Illinois,23 a story which reported that Rev. J.M. Cormack had come from his home in Detroit, Florida to try to gain custody of his 12 year old son, Kimball Carmack. That short notice, printed in the Homestead newspaper by a fellow Methodist preacher, concealed a great deal, because an account in the Rockford, Illinois Morning Star described a foiled kidnap attempt by Rev. Cormack and two men whom he had hired to help him. They failed in their attempt and it was stated that Kimball’s grandparents were “wealthy people and are determined to try to gain possession of the boy.”24 That was true because Thomas and Rachel Marshall were among the wealthiest people in DeKalb County. They owned 1,000 acres of farmland in 1917.
Rev. Cormack left Chicago shortly after April 16, 1910, when he was enumerated in the 1900 census and purchased two lots in early November in Detroit, where he planned to erect a general store.25 He named it the 7¢ Store.26 On January 28, 1911, he filed for his homestead 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 owned a barber shop in Homestead. His property was on both sides of Richard Road, south of Lucille (S.W. 360th St.) Drive.
Rev. Joseph 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.27 Cormack’s obsession with obtaining custody of his son very likely had a negative impact on his marriage to Maude.
After the 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 in 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.28 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’s son, Joseph Marshall, graduated from Northwestern University with a B.A. in 1913 and went on to attend Yale University in 1914. His son’s home town was shown as Detroit, Florida.29 During the summer of 1913, between the time he graduated from Northwestern and enrolled at Yale, he came to Detroit to help in his father’s store.31 After the war was over, he established his law practice while living with his uncle, John S. Cormack, in Eastland County, Texas.32
Rev. Cormack made the social rounds and preached in churches when he wasn’t busy in his store, the Florida City Mercantile Co. In 1915, he branched out and began selling packing crates of all kinds.
In early March of 1916, Cormack had almost completed a warehouse addition to his store to accommodate his “increasing trade.”34 The warehouse was likely in the rear of his storefront, as Morris Garfunkel, a furniture merchant from Key West, had erected a two-story building next to Cormack’s store in late 1914.35 He attended the May Day celebration held at Redland on May 1, 191636 and preached for 6 weeks at the Florida City Methodist Church during the absence of Rev. C. G. Nelson, who went to Oklahoma.37 In July, Rev. Cormack’s son came for a visit and they enjoyed a fishing trip out into the bay with members of the Becker family.38 In early 1918, the son who was the center of his earlier custody battles, Kimball James, came to visit. James had applied to the Naval Academy in Annapolis and came down from Sycamore, Illinois, to visit his father while he waited to be admitted.39 Since Rev. Cormack had two sons in the service, it was no surprise to see that he purchased Liberty Bonds at the annual May Day festival, held in Redland on May 1, 1918.40
On March 20, 1919, Rev. Cormack held a clearance sale at his store41 and on July 3, it was noted in the newspaper that Mr. and Mrs. J. M. Leach had taken over management of the store.42 John M. Leach was the father of Marjorie Iva Leach, who married Ben Archer of Key West in 1921. The family had moved to Florida City in 1916.43 Ben and Marjorie established The Homestead Leader in 1923. Cormack’s health, never very robust, apparently took a turn for the worse, as he left for a sanitorium in New York on August 1.44 He returned in early September, having been treated at the Methodist hospital in Brooklyn.45 The nature of his illness was not stated, but it was likely tuberculosis.
By June of 1920, when J. H. Dietz moved into “the Carmack (sic) tenement” and was “assisting Mr. Carmack (sic) in the store” in Florida City,46 it was apparent that Rev. Cormack was no longer taking an active part in his business. He continued to be active in the community though, preaching at the Methodist Church in Florida City and also preaching in Coconut Grove. In April of 1922, the Miami Herald reported that he had sold the stock of goods in his store to Bevis & Roberts, though he retained ownership of the building.47
In the summer of 1922, Cormack moved to Miami, probably to seek treatment for his illness. In early September, Cormack sold his properties in Florida City, which included “308 acres of glade and pine land, 8 town lots and several store buildings” to George McKinnon of Miami.48 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 properties, George A. McKinnon.49 McKinnon was a partner in the Ryan-McKinnon Realty Co. and a prominent Miami businessman.50 The hotel was located at 135 N.E. 1st St. and was a three-story building with 31 rooms, built in 1921.
In his obituary, entitled “Rev J. M. Cormack Dies in Miami Sanitarium,” 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.”51 Joseph died on December 31, 1923 in Miami and was buried in Woodlawn Park Cemetery52 in Miami on January 3, 1924.
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 article 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.