This is the first of our new Living History series, sponsored by Cole’s Antique Villa, 120 N. Main St., Scottville, 231-936-1123, colesantiquesvilla.com.
By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief.
EPWORTH HEIGHTS (Pere Marquette Township) — Every year thousands of people visit Stearns Park beach in Ludington. The park, which stretches almost a mile from the channel north to about Tinkham Avenue, has been ranked as one of the best beaches in the world. The park was mostly a result of the generosity and vision of Justus Stearns, over 100 years ago.
Overlooking the park, high up in the hills of Epworth Heights, sits the cottage Stearns built in 1903, Lake Forest. It sits on the highest peak on the south side of Epworth and provides a panoramic view of the beach and Lake Michigan.
Today, the cottage is the summer home of Robert and Emily Gable; Robert is the great-grandson of Justus Stearns and recently commissioned the writing of the book “Justus S. Stearns: Michigan Pine King and Kentucky Coal Baron, 1845-1933,” written by Mike Nagle of Ludington.
I visited Bob and Emily on a cool mid-August afternoon. Lake Forest is located near the end of a winding narrow street. Even from the street, the cottage sits high on a hill. One has the choice of climbing up the steep steps or riding the lift.
“This place keeps me in shape,” says 82-year-old Bob as he greets me.
“Justus was helping Epworth Assembly get on a good economic basis. He spent about 10 years working with them and they were very appreciative to him,” Bob says. “So, they told him to chose wherever he would like for the site of his cottage. This is the spot he chose, the view is just absolutely beautiful.”
The rear entrance of the cottage, which serves as the primary entrance, brings visitors into what was likely the servants’ area. Bob points out bedrooms on either side of the hallway. “These are now guest rooms but when this was built, it’s likely these are the rooms where the servants stayed.”
The hallway also serves as the laundry room and the mechanical room.
“We just put central air conditioning in here a few years ago,” Bob says. “It took over 100 years, but we finally decided it was time.”
The first floor is also the location of the formal dining room and kitchen. The dining room consists of a long wooden table that came from the estate of Robert and Laura (Freeman) Stearns, Bob’s grandparents. That estate was located just up the beach and is now owned by Bruce Wadel. In fact, much of the cottage’s decor belonged to Robert and Laura Stearns.
In order to move the table into the cottage, a wall had to be removed.
“I was too young and naive to know any better,” jokes Emily. “I just asked the construction crew to do whatever it took to get the furniture in the house.”
Bob and Emily have owned Lake Forest since 1966, after Bob’s mother, Paulina (Stearns) Gable Bennett, died. Paulina purchased the cottage from her grandparent’s estate.
The cottage remains mostly intact from its original construction but has been updated through the years to be more practical. The Gables have added some windows allowing for a nicer view from the dining room and the all-season porch one floor above.
Bob and Emily spend most of their time on the second floor. Besides the all-season porch, they enjoy sitting by the bay window that faces east. Emily had the bay window installed after they moved in. She said it brightens up the living room. The third floor of the cottage features bedrooms, including Justus Stearns’ room.
The cottage is a tribute to the Stearns family. It is decorated with furniture, photographs, paintings and collectables from Bob’s family. Though it originally belonged to Justus and Paulina Stearns (Paulina sadly died only a year after the cottage’s completion), it contains much of their art of their only child and Bob’s grandfather, Robert, who was a trained artist who is probably known locally for his cartoon character Oswald Crumb.
While Robert’s passion was art, his father thought he would be better off running the family business. He worked here in Ludington at the Stearns Lumber and Salt Company and then eventually ran the operations at the Stearns Lumber and Coal Company in Stearns, Kentucky. Later, Robert settled in Oregon, which is where Bob was born.
Bob spent the first seven years of his life in Oregan until his father died. His mother, who was named after her grandmother, Paulina (Lyon) Stearns, then moved to Tucson, Arizona where she married James Bennett who split his time between Tucson and Minneapolis.
As Bob grew older, he learned more about his family’s interest in the Stearns Lumber and Coal Company in Stearns, Kentucky, a town his great-grandfather founded. Though his father was never involved in the company, Bob became involved as secretary after college. He moved to Stearns, Kentucky and started a family.
Bob then got involved with politics and moved his family to Franklin, Kentucky, the state capitol.
He ran twice as the Republican candidate for governor of Kentucky and once for senate. He served as the chairman of the Kentucky Republican party and worked on the campaign to elect Howard Baker as senator of Tennessee. Baker later went on to become President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff.
While Kentucky is home, Ludington holds a special place in the hearts of members of the family. Bob and Emily’s children and their children continue to visit the cottage in the summer.
“Our family has been here since the 1880s and we have always had a major interest in and around Ludington,” Bob says. “We are proud to be part of this town and proud of the legacy of my great-grandparents. I was extremely pleased with Mike Nagle’s book and actually learned a lot about my ancestors after reading it.”
An official launch party for Mike Nagle’s book about Justus Stearns will be held at 7 p.m. on Thursday, September 10, appropriately, in the ballroom in the Stearns Motor Inn (the hotel built by Justus Stearns). The event is open to the public. Nagle will speak about the book and will also be available to sign books.
Locally, the book is for sale at the Book Mark in Ludington and Historic White Pine Village in Pere Marquette Township.
This is the first of our new Living History series, sponsored by Cole’s Antique Villa, 120 N. Main St., Scottville, 231-936-1123, colesantiquesvilla.com. Open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.