A Little Rye History
The Philanthropic Legacy of John Motley Morehead
On March 21, 1925, The Rye Chronicle reported that John Motley Morehead, one of the community's most distinguished residents, had been elected to the Rye Village Board of Trustees as part of a “clean sweep for the Village Welfare Party.” That newly formed party's platform called for “recognition that the phenomenal growth of Rye demands a new perspective on the problems of the Village.”
When he was honored by the local American Legion Post 38 years later, Morehead recalled that in 1925 “the village of Rye was badly run down. The streets were dug up and largely impassable; the contractors who had the contracts for the work were bankrupt … Rye was dumping all the city wastes, untreated, in either Long Island Sound or the upper end of Milton Bay. There was general confusion.”
In his blunt assessment, “The Town government was in the hands of local residents, honest enough, but the job was too big for them and got out of hand. When any need for more money came up they just raised the taxes. Matters were really desperate.”
The long-serving president of the Village Board, Theodore Fremd, retired in 1926, and Morehead was elected as his successor without opposition (the office was renamed mayor in 1927). In his later American Legion address, Morehead noted with characteristic wit that when his predecessor had “appointed me as a member of the Sidewalk, the Sanitation, the Garbage, and the Sewer Committees … I knew what old Theodore thought of me.”
He failed to mention, however, that the Village Welfare Party's campaign advertisements had touted his skills as “an experienced engineer” who would provide “expert handling” of Rye's growing sewer problems. Those were a far cry, of course, from the complex problems Morehead had dealt with in his many years as a senior electrical and chemical engineer for the Union Carbide Corporation and its affiliates.
Born in Spray, N.C., in 1870, Morehead was the grandson and namesake of an ante-bellum governor of that state for whom Morehead City, N.C. was named. When the younger Morehead graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1891, he went directly to work as a chemist for a small company in his hometown of Spray.
The company was a new venture founded by his entrepreneurial father, James Turner Morehead, and Thomas Willson, a Canadian inventor. Its goal was to produce aluminum by using one of the first electric-arc furnaces in the United States. Although the company's founders never succeeded in manufacturing pure aluminum, they made two major discoveries by accident.
As Morehead described the process nearly 70 years later, “we just got [from the furnace] a lump of this stuff about the size of a coconut. I took it back to the laboratory to analyze it. When we put it in water it gave off clouds of gas, and when we lit the gas, it burned with clouds of smoke.” The “stuff” turned out to be calcium carbide, which produced acetylene gas when mixed with water.
By 1900, methods had been developed for producing calcium carbide in commercial quantities, which led to rapid growth in the use of acetylene gas, especially for lighting and welding. Morehead, who invented an apparatus for the analysis of industrial gases and published a book on the subject, became an expert engineer and technical advisor in the field, supervising the construction of numerous manufacturing plants in both the U.S. and Europe.
For 15 years he was the Chief Chemist and Engineer of Tests at the People's Gas Light and Coke Company in Chicago, which was heavily involved in the production of toluol, a key ingredient of the explosive generally known as TNT. When the U.S. entered World War I, Morehead was recruited as a member of the War Industries Board, in Washington, by Bernard Baruch, head of the WIB.
Commissioned a major on the Army General Staff, Morehead headed the Industrial Gases and Gas Products Section and was secretary of the Explosives Division of the WIB. Later, he wrote that the latter branch oversaw an increase in “the annual toluol production of the United States from a quarter of a million to twenty-five million gallons-one hundred fold-in eighteen months and were supplying all of the allies with their high explosives at the time of the armistice.”
After the war ended, Morehead rejoined the company, then called the Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation (UCC), of which he was already a major shareholder. Formed by a merger of several companies in 1917, UCC experienced significant growth during the war because of the expansion in markets for a number of its chemical and metal alloy products.
Because the UCC corporate headquarters was located in New York City, Morehead wanted to live within commuting distance of his office. In 1919, he moved to Rye with his wife, the former Genevieve Birkhoff of Chicago, whom he had married in 1915. Their home, which was located on Milton Point at the end of Forest Avenue, was named “Blandwood” after the estate in Greensboro, N.C., that belonged to his grandfather, Governor John Motley Morehead.
His concern about Rye's future, perhaps along with his family's tradition of public service, led him into politics. Recounting some of the accomplishments during his term as president and mayor, he noted: “We discouraged the building of small one-family houses. We passed strict zoning laws to keep them and certain undesirable manufacturing concerns and apartment buildings out of certain sections. We used as a slogan: 'Keep Rye Residential' … straightened out Rye's financial affairs, paid up all debts and re-established Rye's credit.”
In 1930, Morehead resigned as mayor of Rye when President Herbert Hoover appointed him as Minister (the title was later changed to Ambassador) to Sweden. His appointment had been strongly advocated by North Carolina's two Democratic senators even though Morehead was a staunch Republican. In 1930, he received the Linnaeus Gold Medal from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in recognition of his contributions to science.
When Franklin Roosevelt succeeded Hoover as President in 1933, Morehead returned from Sweden to his home in Rye and resumed his work at UCC. Over the next three decades, he devoted an increasing amount of his time and effort to philanthropy, especially for the benefit of his alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC).
After his wife died in 1945, he created the John Motley Morehead Foundation, initially to erect the Morehead Building at UNC, which houses a planetarium, observatory and art gallery. In 1951, the Foundation began awarding the prestigious Morehead scholarships based on merit and has awarded more than 2,300 scholarships over the past 56 years. Morehead Awards provide the holders with full funding for four years of undergraduate study at UNC.
Various parts of the Rye community were also beneficiaries of Morehead's philanthropy during his residency of more than 45 years. In 1927, he actively raised more than $1 million for United Hospital and donated a substantial amount of equipment in memory of his father. Under his will, he left the hospital a bequest of $50,000.
His most notable gift to the citizens of Rye, however, occurred in December 1964 when the new City Hall was completed at a cost of more than $500,000, entirely funded by him. Unfortunately, he was not able to attend the dedication, because he had fallen and suffered a broken hip shortly before while hurrying from his office to catch a commuter train at the age of 94.
When he died in January 1965 he left no descendants. He was predeceased by his second wife, the former Leila Houghton, whom he had married in 1949. Morehead had enjoyed great wealth, which he had managed wisely and shared generously, leaving many admirers and a growing number of stellar recipients of Morehead scholarships.Next time you are in the vicinity of City Hall, go into the lobby and visit the avuncular-looking portrait of Rye's generous benefactor, John Motley Morehead III. You can almost hear him saying, as he once told a graduating class at UNC, “While money does not always bring happiness, it helps to quiet the nerves.”