Justus Smith Stearns

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Justus Smith Stearns
J S Stearns1885.jpg
ca. 1885
Born Justus
April 10, 1845
Pomfret, New York
Died February 14, 1933 (aged 87)
Resting place Ludington,
Residence Ludington, Michigan
Nationality American
Other names Justus S. Stearns
J.S. Stearns
Education elementary
Occupation businessman
Known for developing western Michigan and southeastern Kentucky
Title President of many companies
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Paulina Lyon
Children Robert Lyon Stearns
born March 14, 1872
Parent(s) Heman S. Stearns
Mabel (Smith) Stearns
Stearns 1896 house in Ludington

Justus Smith Stearns (April 10, 1845 – February 14, 1933) was an American lumber baron and businessman.[1][2] He was Michigan's secretary of state in 1899 and 1900.[3]


Stearns was born in Pomfret, New York, April 10, 1845. He was an only child. He had limited formal education, with common schooling at the district school of Chautauqua County, New York. Stearns was trained as a farmer's chore boy as was usual at the time in the area. One of his duties was to milk twelve cows each day. His first exposure to the lumber business was in Pomfret at his father's retail lumber business where he took on a passion for the industry.[1][2]

His parents moved from the Pomfret area to Erie, Pennsylvania, when he was sixteen in 1861. Stearns' father was in the retail business there for about ten years. Stearns worked with his father there until 1867 when he moved to Conneaut, Ohio.[4]

Stearns married Paulina Lyon (b. November 24, 1849, Conneaut, Ohio; d. May 5, 1904, Ludington, Michigan) on March 4, 1868, at Conneaut.[5] They had one child, Robert Lyon Stearns, born March 14, 1872. Because of a tight financial situation with a venture with his brother-in-law Captain E. B. Ward and influence of the lumbermen of the Lyon family, Stearns decided to move to Ludington, Michigan. Initially he was a cashier working for his brother-in-law, Thomas R. Lyon.[4][6]

Stearns came to Michigan in 1876. He first worked at sawmills in Big Rapids. This early Michigan venture did not prove successful, and he then moved to Ludington. There, about 20 miles (32 km) east of Ludington, he operated a portable sawmill on the line of the Pere Marquette Railroad and founded "Stearns Siding" lumber camp in 1880.[6]

In 1882 Stearns built a house for the family at the corner of Washington Avenue and Fourth Street in Ludington at a cost of something over $6,000, a large sum for the time. In 1898 Stearns bought out the extensive lumber operation of Thomas R. Lyon and formed Stearns Salt & Lumber Company and Stearns Salt Block company.[6] It soon became a large company in Ludington with 50,000,000 board feet (120,000 m3) of lumber output annually and 300,000 barrels of salt yearly. He soon became one of the top businessmen in the state of Michigan.[2] In 1893 he formed Flambeau Lumber Company in Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin, with Fred Herrick. In 1894 he started Stearns Lumber Company in Odanah, Wisconsin.[6]

In Ludington he not only was in the lumber business, but was also in the salt business. Around 1890 his annual cut of the mills averaged 27,000,000 board feet (64,000 m3) yearly, with a daily production of 1,200 to 1,500 barrels of salt.[1] In 1898 he manufactured 125,000,000 board feet (290,000 m3) of lumber and was the largest manufacturer of lumber in the state of Michigan.[6]

Stearns Coal & Lumber Company
Company store in Stearns, Kentucky

Stearns had large timber interests in Michigan, Wisconsin, the Pacific Northwest, and Florida by 1901. At this time he started acquiring 50,000 acres (20,000 ha) of timber on the Cumberland Plateau in Kentucky, referred to as the "Big Survey." [7] This acquisition consisted of parts of southern Kentucky and northern Tennessee. Stearns, at this time, leased another 25,000 acres (10,000 ha) in Whitley County, Kentucky. He opened a company store there in 1902, and it became the hub of the new founded town of Stearns. The Stearns Lumber Company was renamed Stearns Coal & Lumber Company in 1910.[8]

Stearns secured transportation of his logs and lumber from the town of Stearns with the Kentucky and Tennessee Railroad. Initially the rails went from his town to Barthell, 3.5 miles (6 km) away. Then the lines were extended to Yamacraw and Oz. They eventually were extended in 1909 to White Oak Creek 20 miles (32 km) away from his town.

Stearns was referred to as the "Pine King" because of his vast timber holdings in the Ludington (Michigan) area and at Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin. In 1901 he purchased 30,000 acres (12,000 ha) of timber in Kentucky. Later with partners he acquired further large tracts of timber near Ashland, Wisconsin. Three years later he sold his interests to his partners and then took this capital to leverage it to acquire 107,000 acres (43,000 ha) in Tennessee and Kentucky. It turned out the timber land in Kentucky contained large coal deposits, and Stearns became quite wealthy from that. Stearns acquired 180,000 acres (73,000 ha) of pine timber land in 1903. He set up a mill at Bagdad, Florida, which he operated until 1919.[9]


Stearns ventured into other businesses other than lumber and coal. He purchased the Ludington Electric Light Company in 1900 and ran it for seventeen years. In 1901–02 he took over the Ludington & Northern Railroad. In 1910 he purchased the Carrom Company and in 1917 purchased the Handy Things factory. He also was associated with farm lighting, machine engines and stationary manufacturing. He was elected president of the Ludington First National Bank in 1910 and held that position for many years. The Stearns Hotel, on Ludington Avenue in downtown Ludington, was built by Stearns in 1901. At that time he organized the Stearns Hotel Company to operate it.[9]

Stearns Hotel, 1905

Stearns was the President of the following companies he formed: The Stearns Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan; Stearns Lumber and Salt Company, Ludington, Michigan; Stearns Coal Company, Cincinnati, Ohio; Stearns Company, Cincinnati; Stearns Lumber Company, Stearns, Kentucky; Stearns Coal Company, Stearns, Kentucky; Kentucky and Tennessee Railroad Company, Stearns, Kentucky; Stearns and Culver Lumber Company, Bagdad, Florida; Flambeau Lumber Company of Florida; J. S. Stearns Lumber Company, Odanah, Wisconsin; J. S. Stearns Improvement Company, Ludington; Ludington and Northern Railway, Ludington; and Stearns Lighting & Power Company, Ludington.[1][2]

Stearns was identified with large banking interests in implementing new banking laws beginning in 1899.[10] He is also identified with a number of smaller industrial concerns.[1] In the later part of the nineteenth century and early part of the twentieth century he was the heaviest lumber shipper in Wisconsin.[1] He organized and started up the Kentucky & Tennessee Railroad, Stearns Coal Company of Kentucky, Stearns Lumber Company Incorporated of Kentucky, and Stearns & Culver Lumber Company of Bagdad, Florida – all of which were operated through Stearns Company of Grand Rapids, Michigan.[2][11] Stearns built in 1902 the first all electric sawmill in the United States.[12][13][14]


Stearns was a Republican. He served as the chairman of Mason County, Michigan for several years and was School Director at Ludington in the same county. In 1892 he was Presidential Elector from the Ninth Congressional District.[3] Stearns was referred to as the "bald-headed man from Ludington." He served as a Harrison elector in 1888, but retired from active politics after that. Later he appeared as candidate for the office of Michigan Secretary of State in 1898 and was elected for two years. In 1900 he campaigned for Michigan governor against D. M. Ferry and A. T. Bliss, but lost.[1]

Stearns was appointed "Aide-de-camp" on the governor's staff by Kentucky governor Flem D. Sampson with rank and grade of colonel for recognition of the economic development of southeastern Kentucky.[9]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Gateway, Volumes 1, 1903, pp 22–24
  2. ^ a b c d e Michigan County Histories and Atlases Digitization Project - "History of Northern Michigan", page 1311–12
  3. ^ a b Michigan Biographies, p. 320
  4. ^ a b Ludington Daily News, April 11, 1923 Townsfolk give dinner in honor of Hon. Justus S. Stearns
  5. ^ Lyon, p. 202
  6. ^ a b c d e Mason County Historical Society, pp. 320–21
  7. ^ Rehder, p. 192
  8. ^ Profile for Stearns, Kentucky
  9. ^ a b c Ludington Daily News, Vol XLIII, No. 92, February 14, 1933, front page obituary
  10. ^ Michigan Department of State
  11. ^ When Coal, Lumber, & Railroads Were King...
  12. ^ Rehder, p. 193
  13. ^ White, p. 472
  14. ^ Caudill, p. 113
  • Caudill, Harry, Theirs be the power: the moguls of eastern Kentucky, University of Illinois Press, 1983, ISBN 0-252-01029-9
  • Gateway, Volumes 1, by L. F. Williams, 1903
  • Lyon, Sidney Elizabeth, Lyon memorial: Families of Connecticut and New Jersey, including records of the descendants of the immigrants, Richard Lyon, of Fairfield; Henry Lyon, of Fairfield, W. Graham Printing Co., 1907
  • Mason County Historical Society, Historic Mason County, Taylor Publishing Company, 1980
  • Michigan Department of State, General banking laws with amendments, Robert Smith Print Co., state printers and binders, 1899
  • Michigan State, Michigan Biographies, Michigan Historical Commission, 1924
  • Rehder, John B., Appalachian folkways, JHU Press, 2004, ISBN 0-8018-7879-9
  • White, James, The National cyclopaedia of American biography, vol 31, Pennsylvania State University Microfilms, 1967
Political offices
Preceded by
Washington Gardner
Secretary of State of Michigan
Succeeded by
Fred M. Warner