John Buchanan McCormick was a man of extraordinary talents who always called Smicksburg, Pennsylvania, his home. His life was a blend of art, music, craftsmanship, and innovation, leaving a lasting legacy in the Smicksburg area and beyond. McCormick was celebrated not only for his musical talent and local artistry but also for inventing a groundbreaking water turbine, recognized by a historical marker on U.S. Route 22 near Armagh, PA, for its significant contribution to American industry.

Born on November 4, 1834, in Sinking Valley, Blair County, PA, McCormick moved to Smicksburg with his family in 1837. His father, a tanner and wagon maker, was instrumental in building the Smicksburg Presbyterian Church. McCormick’s artistic journey began at a young age, under the guidance of his grandmother, leading to a lifelong passion for sketching and painting, drawing inspiration from the landscapes of Smicksburg.

At eight, he started working in his father’s shop, showing a knack for creating useful items, including furniture. By seventeen, he was honing his craft in his uncle’s cabinet and chair shop, where all work was meticulously done by hand. Around this time, McCormick’s love for music blossomed; he built his own violin and started traveling the county to perform and conduct singing schools. For twenty-two years, he walked thousands of miles across the region, teaching music and sharing his talents.

McCormick’s journey wasn’t just about art and music; it was also marked by innovation. Amid personal and professional challenges, including a heartbreak and a pivotal moment of invention at his uncle’s mill, McCormick designed a new type of water turbine, leading to several patents. His “Hercules” turbine, tested and praised for its efficiency, demonstrated his ingenuity and contribution to hydraulic engineering.

Despite facing setbacks, including intellectual property theft and the need for corporate espionage to protect his inventions, McCormick’s work in hydraulic motors earned him recognition as a leading designer and perfecter. His turbines, particularly the “McCormick’s Holyoke Turbine,” showcased his unparalleled skill and impact on the industry.

McCormick moved back to Smicksburg and, in 1896, bought a farm with an old stone house that had been built in 181 by Judge Joshua Lewis. The house had been sold to John Stewat, an ancestor of the famous actor, Jimmy Stewart, in 1837. It had been a life-long dream of McCormick’s to own the house. However, he stayed either in Smicksburg or with his mother at her home in Marion Center. On 22 January 1902, he married Mabel Kinter, who was 27. He was 67. They had two children: John B,
Jr. born in October, 1902, and Margery born in March, 1906. After his marriage he expanded the house and added the distinctive tower. John Lewis did the work, completing the renovations in 1905. At one point where the old masonry and the new work join together, the stone wall is seven feet thick! McCormick’s grandson and his family still live in the stone house near Smicksburg. The house was opened briefly for visitors in 1967, and in 1974 was placed on the National Register of Historic

McCormick’s life was rich and varied. After marrying Mabel Kinter at 67 and starting a family, he continued to innovate and contribute to community projects. Even in retirement, he was called upon for significant projects like the turbines for the Niagara Falls plant. McCormick remained active in music, performing at 81 to raise funds for a community hospital. He passed away on August 21, 1924, leaving behind a legacy of creativity, innovation, and dedication.

Following his death, his widow refused to live in the old stone house, and took up residence in what was probably the most elegant house in Smicksburg, which had been constructed on the site of the old Presbyterian Church. She resided there until forced to move out in 1941. She passed away near Smicksburg on 24 October 1946. You can still visit the foundation of the house in Old Smicksburg Park.

His story doesn’t end with his death. McCormick’s contributions were eventually recognized at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Science and Technology, ensuring his remarkable journey from a local artist and craftsman to an inventor who significantly improved living standards continues to inspire. John Buchanan McCormick’s life was a testament to the power of talent, hard work, and resilience, forever marking him as Smicksburg’s most famous son.

Timeline of John Buchanan McCormick’s Life

1834: Born on November 4th in Sinking Valley, near Tyrone in Blair County, Pennsylvania.

1837: Moves with his family to Smicksburg, where he would consider home for the majority of his life.

Early 1840s: Begins attending school in the home of Mrs. McCumbers and starts working in his father’s shop at the age of eight.

Mid-1840s: Learns how to sketch and paint, particularly influenced by his Grandmother Buchanan.

1844: Crafts a rocking chair for his sister at the age of ten, marking his early interest in craftsmanship.

1851: At seventeen, starts working with his uncle, David B. Buchanan, in the cabinet and chair shop and builds his first violin.

1851-1873: Conducts traveling singing schools across the county for twenty-two years, becoming well-known for his musical talent.

1858: Paints “Donati’s Comet,” one of his favorite works, as it appeared at its brightest over Smicksburg.

1868-1869: Designs his first water turbine during a drought affecting his uncle’s mill’s operation in Armagh.

1874: Patents his first turbine in partnership with James L. Brown, Sons, Co.

1876: Patents the “Hercules” turbine on January 11th, an advanced design that showcases his ingenuity in hydraulic engineering.

Late 1870s to 1880s: Faces challenges with intellectual property theft but continues to innovate and perfect hydraulic motors.

1881-1883: Publishes three books of music, featuring several original compositions, funded by royalties from his turbine inventions.

1892-1893: Challenges other companies to produce a more efficient turbine than his “Holyoke Turbine,” showcasing his confidence in his designs.

1896: Buys a farm with an old stone house in Smicksburg, fulfilling a lifelong dream.

1902: Marries Mabel Kinter on January 22nd at the age of 67. They would have two children: John B. Jr. and Margery.

1905: Completes significant renovations on his Smicksburg property, adding a distinctive tower.

Late 1800s to early 1900s: Continues to work on significant projects, including turbines for the Niagara Falls plant and the Soo power plant in Michigan.

1924: Passes away on August 21st at his home in “the fair vale of Mahoning,” leaving behind a legacy of creativity, innovation, and perseverance.

Posthumous Recognition: In 1959, his daughter Margery secures recognition for McCormick’s accomplishments with a permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Science and Technology.

FAQ: John Buchanan McCormick

1. Who was John Buchanan McCormick?
John Buchanan McCormick was a multi-talented individual from Smicksburg, Pennsylvania, known for his contributions as a local artist, craftsman, musician, and inventor, particularly of a modern mixed-flow type water turbine that made a significant contribution to American industry.

2. When and where was McCormick born?
McCormick was born on November 4, 1834, in Sinking Valley near Tyrone in Blair County, Pennsylvania.

3. What is McCormick best known for?
He is best known for designing the first modern mixed-flow type water turbine, which played a pivotal role in the advancement of American industrial technology. A state historical marker commemorates this contribution on U.S. Route 22 west of Armagh, PA.

4. What were some of McCormick’s other talents?
Besides his invention, McCormick was a skilled artist and craftsman, producing paintings like “Donati’s Comet” and “The Country Boy on Sunday Morning.” He was also a musician who built his own violin, conducted traveling singing schools for over two decades, and composed music.

5. Did McCormick receive formal education?
As a boy, McCormick attended school in the home of Mrs. McCumbers, where the classroom featured simple pine slabs for seats. His formal education was limited, but he received artistic guidance from his grandmother and developed his skills in craftsmanship and music through practice and self-study.

6. How did McCormick contribute to the music field?
He traveled extensively to conduct singing schools, teaching music and performing across the county. McCormick’s musical career also included composing his own music, with pieces named after local towns and churches, and publishing three books of music.

7. What led McCormick to invent the water turbine?
Facing a drought that reduced the water level in a pond powering his uncle’s mill’s water wheel, McCormick tinkered with the wheel to improve its efficiency. This experimentation sparked the development of his first water turbine, leading to multiple patents for improved designs.

8. Were McCormick’s inventions recognized during his lifetime?
Yes, his inventions were recognized, but he also faced challenges, including intellectual property theft. Despite this, his “Hercules” turbine was highly praised for its efficiency and marked a significant advancement in hydraulic power.

9. What personal challenges did McCormick face?
McCormick experienced personal challenges, including a broken heart from a thwarted romance and professional setbacks like the theft of his turbine design. Despite these, he continued to innovate and contribute to his fields of interest.

10. How is McCormick remembered today?
McCormick’s legacy lives on through a state historical marker and his contributions to art, music, and industrial technology. His life and work are a testament to his diverse talents and his impact on improving the standard of living and industry. In 1959, his daughter succeeded in having his accomplishments recognized with a permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Science and Technology.

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