Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Admiral Byrd, Three Guernsey Cows, A Milking Machine and a Scot born in Elgin, Illinois

When Admiral Byrd journeyed to the South Pole in 1933, he took three Guernsey cows and a milking machine. He also took sand and straw for bedding: 20 tons of hay, 12 tons of beet pulp and 2 tons of bran - enough to last for two years. (One of the cows was owned by J. C. Penney.) All of the cows, except one, made the 22,000 miles of sea travel and the isolation without incident. He brought back a new bull calf christened “iceberg” born just outside the Arctic circle. On the supply ship, the Jacob Ruppert, was a Surge Milking Machine invented by Herbert McCormack of Elgin, Illinois (USA).

The McCormacks were pioneers who came from Scotland in 1838 and settled just west of the little community of Elgin. They had 12 children and Herbert was the third from the youngest. “He was different from the rest because his pale blue eyes showed him to be a dreamer.” The parents were Presbyterians and ardent believers in religion and education. Most of the children graduated from the Elgin Academy and several were college graduates, including some of the girls. Herbert McCormack graduated from Beloit college in 1887.

On June 23, 1897, he was united in marriage to Miss Emma Miller and three children were born to the family. What were the goals and ambitions of Herbert McCormack? He just wanted to be an inventor! That was his goal and he was going to give it a try. During his lifetime he held more than 50 patents. He wrote all the patents himself and some of them you can now find on the Internet. He was a perfectionist, “never being satisfied until he had made his invention as nearly perfect as he could.” One of his first inventions was a “nail shingler,” which he used on buildings for the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904.

“On a fall day in 1922, Herbert McCormack showed his most famous invention which soon revolutionized the dairy business. It was a Surge Milking Machine. The machine had a surging action which permitted a tug – and – pull movement of the milker during normal milking, similar to the tugging and pulling of the calf.” One of the places where he experimented with his milking machine was the Elgin State Hospital. They began milking at 3:00 a.m. with a second session at 3:00 p.m. McCormack would be present making notes and keeping records.

Those of us who live in metropolitan areas go to the store and buy milk with hardly a second thought on how it arrived safely at market. Much of the credit goes to this man who just wanted to be an inventor. He died in August 1944. They lived in Florida at the time and his body was cremated and the ashes brought back to Elgin, Illinois, to be buried in the old pioneers’ cemetery which was part of his birthplace.

If you travel West out of Elgin on Highway 20, about 6 miles, on your right will be a small white church and a cemetery. I believe it is called the Memorial Washington Reformed Presbyterian Church. His father had given the land for the church and the cemetery. The church is now closed but the cemetery is cared for by the descendants of the pioneers buried there as a memorial to those people who had such a courageous and implicit faith in God.

Many years ago someone in the McCormack family sent me a lot of information about the family. I hope they will read this article and perhaps reestablish contact. One of the daughters was named Alice McCormack Ellingson, and in 1965, she lived in San Francisco, California. Descendants of those buried in the cemetery meet once a year, I believe in the month of June, and take care of the cemetery. They also hold a service and I remember that Rev. Donald Kinloch, former chairman of our board, was the speaker on several occasions. I no longer have the name and address of the contact person who at one time lived in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.

This blog is a tribute to Herbert McCornack, a descendant of Scottish emigrants, who just wanted to invent things - and invent he did!

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois St. Andrew’s Society
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NOTE: The Scottish American History Club meets this Saturday, February 4, 2012. The meeting will be in Heritage Hall at the Scottish Home and will begin at 10:00 a.m. The speaker is Tom Campbell, author of “Fighting Slavery in Chicago.” Mr. Campbell is a life member of the St. Andrew’s Society and a graduate of Dartmouth. He received his J.D. from Cornell University and has been named among The Best Lawyers in America. You will enjoy his presentation.


  1. 22,000 miles? Goodness - that's a journey and a half! Interesting post, Wayne. Off to see what else Herbert invented :-) Jo

  2. My wife recently gave me the book, How the Scots Invented the Modern World.
    I must check to see if McCormack is in it..