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Mason County Memories


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History Columns are arranged by year of publication in the Ludington Daily News



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Justus Stearns

Ludington's grand old man as Col. Justus S. Stearns was referred to passed away early in the morning of February 14th 1933 at 87 years of age. He had been urged to go south for the winter months but he chose to remain in Ludington at his home at 301 E. Ludington Ave.

The Ludington Daily News that day carried this " Mr. Stearns was urged to go south in the fall, but postponed the trip because he preferred to be in Ludington. The refusal to leave Ludington in the fall was characteristic of Mr. Stearns attitude towards the place. He loved Ludington. All his many memories of adventure, success, of love and of home were bound up with Ludington and to him it was the dearest and most beautiful place on earth. He had nursed the town, encourage it, concerned himself with all its affairs and it was to him like a beloved child."

Justus Smith Stearns was born April 10th 1845 in Chautauqua New York the only son of a farmer by the name of Herman S. Stearns. In his early days of farm chores he was responsible for the milking of 12 cows among other tasks of helping to run a family farm. By age 16 his family moved to Erie Pennsylvania where his father was engaged in the retail lumber business before moving on to Conneaut Ohio with young Justus working alongside his father for 10 years.

It was while in Conneaut Ohio that Justus met and eventually married Paulina Lyons in 1869 and it was through his marriage and relationship with Eber Ward his brother in law that he made the decision to move to Ludington. At the time of Eber Wards death in 1875 Justus had been contracted to deliver consignments of lumber, but Wards sudden death and a change in the market conditions forced Stearns into bankruptcy at the age of 30.

Years later when he had regained his financial position he returned to Ohio and paid all debts that he had been absolved from through the bankruptcy courts. In 1876 he found himself clerking in one of the Ward's stores in Ludington for 75.00 per month, at the time a good salary. By 1880 Justus had saved enough to purchase some pinelands and began lumbering operations at what would be known as Stearns Siding. The post office there however was called Bennett after the bookkeeper, stationmaster and postmaster. It was through his dealings at this time that he forged business relationships in Scottville and leased a store the he eventually took into partnership with J.N. Mack, selling the interest to Mack in 1901

It as not the lumbering there at Stearns siding that gave Justus the title of Pine King but rather a deal that he was able to secure in a partnership with Mr. Herrick to six townships full of white pine purchased from the Chippewa's. The lumbering operations in Fond Du Flambeau Wisconsin carried on for 25 years and laid the foundation for his fortune.

Timberlands were purchased in Arkansas but they closed out there holdings there in order to develop the properties purchased in Kentucky. In 1901 Stearns purchased 30,000 timbered acres from T.R. Lyon and Stearns Kentucky was born. Over the course of his involvement with that enterprise and partnership with Robert Stearns and W.T. Culver it grew into over 100,000 acres in 5 counties of timber and coal.

Coal became a big part of the business with Coal Companies being formed in both Atlanta Georgia (1924) and Louisville Kentucky (1925).

Florida was also a part of the Stearns and Culver holdings, 180,000 acres of pine were purchased near Pensacola and were a going part of the Stearns holdings until sold in 1919 to Bagdad Land and Lumber Company. Lumber holdings also included L'Anse Michigan and Lake Linden Wisconsin, and three retail lumberyards in Grand Rapids.

This was really just the tip of the Stearns Iceberg. In 1898 Stearns had purchased the salt wells, docks, mill and other buildings on the Pere Marquette Lake that had belonged to Catherine Lyons Ward, J.B. Lyons and Thomas Lyons and renamed the business there Stearns Salt and Lumber Company. This was eventually sold to Morton Salt Company in 1922.

He found time to run and be elected as the Michigan Secretary of State in 1898 and was unsuccessful however in his bid for Michigan Governor in 1900. Frank Filer sold his Electric Company to Stearns in 1900 and this enterprise was known as Stearns Light and Power Co. He took over the Epworth Hotel in 1900 for ten years and built the Stearns Hotel in 1901 took control of the Dummy Line in 1902. In 1904 his wife passed away and it was in 1907 that he turned over his home on South Washington Avenue for use by the newly formed Hospital Association for the new Paulina Stearns Hospital. Other Ludington holdings included the Carrom Company (1908) formed the Stearns Motor Company in 1909 and Handy Things manufacturing (1917).

He attained his rank of Colonel from Governor Flem D. Sampson of Kentucky in 1930 when he was appointed as an Aide De Camp on the Governors staff in recognition of his sterling qualities as a businessman.

In closing we quote from an editorial in the February 15th edition of the Ludington Daily News. " Col. Stearns was essentially a builder; he was progressive; he was an unusual organizer. He was one of those men, comparatively rare in the smaller communities who was literally a Captain of Industry. He built constructively, and as he built for himself so did he build for Ludington. He needs no graven monument to keep his memory fresh in the hearts at home."

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