Charles Mears, c. 1856
|Born||March 16, 1814
North Billerica, Massachusetts
|Known for||developing western Michigan|
|Parent(s)||Nathan Mears & Lucy Mears|
|Relatives||Thomas Mears, grandfather|
Mears was the son of Nathan Mears and his wife Lucy. Mears had an older brother, Edwin. His next brother, Nathan, was younger than him, with his sister, Lucy Ann, younger yet and the youngest sibling was Elbert (also known as "Albert"). His grandfather was Thomas Mears, a minuteman in the American Revolutionary War. Mears was born in North Billerica, Massachusetts on March 16, 1814. His mother's family had the Scottish name of Levistone; which was anglicized to "Livingston." Mears's father was, from 1821 to 1828, one of the town’s fathers. He built and operated a sawmill, owned several farms, and kept a store.
In 1795, ground was broken at Billerica Mills for the Middlesex Canal (the first canal in the United States) which opened in 1802. Mears’s father owned one of the locks on the canal. Mears and his brothers became familiar with canals, canal locks, control of water power for dams, and mill machinery because of their father’s operations on the Concord River.
Mears and his siblings were not allowed to follow their own desires, which was the New England custom of the time. Mears used to look forward to "Training Day" because then he could get "a card of gingerbread." He was ambitious, revealing his early entrepreneurial trends. He was known to have said he was willing to "run a mile for a nickel."
Unfortunately, Mears and his siblings were left orphans very early in their lives by the death of their mother in 1827 and of their father a year later. Guardians were then appointed to take care of them. They were sent to the academies of that day to finish their education. Mears went to country schools to learn his basic schooling and then went to trade school in Lowell, Massachusetts to learn the cabinet trade.
One account has Mears in the lumber and provision trade in Massachusetts in 1835 and 1836. By then Mears and his brothers, like most of the young men of New England, were looking toward “the West” for new life adventures. In 1836 Mears's sister married and the brothers no longer felt obligated to stay in Massachusetts. They studied the “Farmer's map of Michigan” and decided to move to the newly opened western territory of Michigan. Mears and his brothers went to Paw Paw, Michigan, because of the Paw Paw River and its navigational capabilities to Lake Michigan.
They decided to start a general merchandise business in Paw Paw which they called E. & C. Mears & Co. In the fall of 1836 they bought a large and general stock of goods which they shipped from Detroit. The steamer carrying this first set of goods was routed through the Straits of Mackinac and then down south on the western coast of Michigan to St. Joseph and eventually to Paw Paw. However their first stock shipment was broken into at Mackinac and much of it stolen. They took a stand and eventually prospered in Paw Paw in spite of the hardships. In 1837 their youngest brother Albert came to join them from the East.
The business Mears and his brothers did consisted of buying and selling anything which the few white settlers and the many Indians might wish to purchase or dispose of. Game was plentiful and a large business was done in furs. The firm may have also speculated in land and village lots, since the records of the county recorder indicate that they did acquire title to land which they later sold.
Mears soon became restless having heard of locations farther north along the Lake Michigan shoreline better suited for general business and lumbering. He was anxious to reach this virgin territory in order to obtain some of this valuable pine timber in advance of the speculators already coming in large numbers. An exploring expedition was decided upon by Mears and his older brother. A small craft was built for the purpose of navigating the rivers going north and Lake Michigan. The sixteen-year-old Albert was also eager to go. They added to the party two other men called Charles Herrick and Benjamin True or Trew. It was on or about May 8, 1837 when they left Paw Paw and went as far north as Manistee. Going into 1838 they scouted out many areas with lumber mills along the Lake Michigan western shoreline. They came back down south and settled initially in an area now called Whitehall, Michigan.
In the next 25 years, Mears would purchase about 40.000 acres (0.16187 km2) of land in Michigan, construct and operate 15 mills, and build five harbors along the western coast of Michigan for the transport of his lumber. Mears was known as the "Christopher Columbus of the West Coast."
Western Michigan development
Mears had a hand in developing many of the towns on the west coast of Michigan. His motive for doing this was because he owned thousands of acres of timber land and needed to transport the lumber from his sawmill operations to Chicago. He was well known for opening many harbors in towns of western Michigan to be able to transport his lumber. Mears built and sailed his own boats. He also constructed and operated his own sawmills for his lumber since he owned thousands of acres of timber in Michigan.
Mears dug a wider channel for the Pentwater River going to Lake Michigan that wandered through the sand dunes area. He built his sawmill on its north bank in 1855 to make and haul lumber to his yards in Chicago. Mears shortly thereafter built a store and boarding house for the necessary people he needed for labor to work his sawmills. When he discovered a deposit of clay there, he built a tile and brick factory. Mears first called this community Middlesex and it was renamed to Pentwater when the village was formed in 1867.
In 1837 Mears built his first lumber mill on White Lake. Mears platted the village of Whitehall along with Giles B. Slocum around 1859. It was originally named “Mears” which in 1862 was renamed to “Whitehall” because of its association with nearby White Lake. The town is a strategic location for floating and distributing lumber to Lake Michigan. The town prospered because of this advantage.
Mears built sawmills in the Ludington area in settlements then called Little Sauble (1851) and Big Sable (1854). These two settlements were later renamed by Mears to Lincoln and Hamlin in 1861 in honor of the successful Republican Presidential ticket. Mears served in the Michigan senate and was a member of the Republican Party. He was a personal friend to Abraham Lincoln and had the town he lived in near Ludington renamed to "Lincoln."
The Mason County Courthouse was moved from Burr Caswell's farmhouse to Lincoln in 1861 to the first building specifically built as a courthouse for Mason County, Michigan. The county seat moved into the city of Ludington in 1873 when Mears built some sawmills in the area.
- Mears, Carrie Ellen, Charles Mears, Pioneer of the White Lake area, self-published family book (1920) at University of Michigan.
- Federal Writers' Project, Michigan: A Guide to the Wolverine State, published by US History Publishers, ISBN 1-60354-021-0
- Cabot, James L., Ludington 1830 – 1930, Arcadia Publishing (2005), ISBN 0-7385-3951-1