WSCC professor authors book on the legacy of Justus Stearns.

August 19, 2015

Nagle prBy Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief.

LUDINGTON — The legacy of Justus Stearns runs deep in Ludington and the surrounding area. At the turn of the 19th century, Stearns was Michigan’s largest producer of manufactured lumber and the owner of a prosperous coal mining operation headquartered in Stearns, Kentucky, a town he founded. Over the course of his career, he would own at least 30 manufacturing businesses — making everything from finished lumber to kitchen utensils, game boards and motors — as well as hotels, a railroad and a power company.

Over 100 years later, Stearns is still a common name in Ludington. Each year, thousands of people spend time at Stearns Park, one of the best free public beaches in the Great Lakes. The Stearns Motor Inn, once known as the Stearns Hotel, continues to operate on the east side of downtown. Up until the late 1960s, the Paulina Stearns Hospital, was the area’s primary health care facility.

West Shore Community College professor Mike Nagle has spent the past five years pursuing Justus Stearns and the impact he has had on Ludington and his namesake town in Kentucky. The result is a new book, “Justus S. Stearns: Michigan Pine King and Kentucky Coal Baron, 1845-1933.”

Sneak previews of the book are available locally at Historic White Pine Village and the Bookmark, however, an official launch party will be held on Thursday, September 10, appropriately, in the ballroom in the Stearns Motor Inn. The event is open to the public. Nagle will speak about the book and will also be available to sign books. Nagle will also be at Historic White Pine Village’s Logging Day on Friday, August 29 at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. where he will be signing books.

“I have learned so much and I had no idea the complexity of his activities,” Nagle said. “I knew about Stearns Park and the Stearns Hotel but I didn’t know he was the largest producer of lumber in Michigan in the late 1800s. He ran for governor several times and was Michigan’s Secretary of State.”

Researching Stearns has taken Mike all over Michigan, to Kentucky and Washington, D.C.

“I didn’t really know where to start,” he said. “The first several months I looked at the archives of the Grand Rapids Press. I spent weekends there, along with winter and spring breaks. Newspapers have been a major source.”

Nagle said he made multiple trips to Stearns, Kentucky.

“Stearns, Kentucky was probably the most surprising part of the project for me,” Nagle said. “I had intended on writing one chapter about it and ended up with three chapters. It’s one of the more compelling stories in the book. The Stearns Mining Company ran from 1902 to 1975 in southern Kentucky. One of the most dramatic stories happened during a union strike on Christmas Day in 1908. The Stearns Hotel of Stearns, Kentucky, was burned down and a federal marshal was murdered.”

Researching Justus Stearns taught Nagle a lot about Ludington too.

“Justus Stearns saw that the lumber industry was nearing its end in Michigan. He knew that in order for Ludington to survive it needed to diversify its industries and business and it needed to attract visitors. So, he offered to sell his waterfront property north of the channel to the city.”

In 1908, the people of Ludington voted to tax themselves $50,000 to purchase the land that is basically now known as Stearns Park. In 1909, that property was purchased.

“That same day, Justus Stearns donated $50,000 to a group, that basically can be described as the chamber of commerce, to promote Ludington and attract business here.”

Later, Laura Estelle Freeman Stearns, the widow of Justus’ son, Robert L. Stearns, donated the southern portion of the land, about where the modern day Ludington Area Jaycees’ mini golf is, to the city.

Justus Stearns’ Epworth Heights cottage remains in the family, owned by Robert Gable, his great-grandson, who commissioned Nagle to write the book. Robert Stearns’ estate is located just up the road and is now owned by Bruce Wadel. Robert’s son’s house, located just to the south, also still stands and is owned by the Gibbs family.

Stearns’ local impact reached beyond Ludington. He was partners with lumber mill operators from Scottville. He operated the Stearns Siding Company near the Mason-Lake counties line in Carr Settlement.

The book is being printed by Wayne State University Press.

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