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Justus S. Stearns

Michigan Pine King and Kentucky Coal Baron, 1845-1933

Michael W. Nagle

Award Winner

Biography, History, Michigan

Great Lakes Books Series

Hardback
Published: September 2015
ISBN: 9780814341261
Pages: 288 Size: 6x9
Illustrations: 45
eBOOK
Published: September 2015
ISBN: 9780814341278

Near the turn of the twentieth century, "Pine King" Justus S. 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, Stearns would own at least thirty manufacturing businesses—making everything from finished lumber to kitchen utensils, game boards, and motors—as well as hotels, a railroad, and a power company. He was also an active member of the Republican Party who served one term as Michigan’s secretary of state and a philanthropist who gave a great deal of his wealth to causes in both Michigan and Kentucky. In Justus S. Stearns: Michigan Pine King and Kentucky Coal Baron, 1845–1933, author Michael W. Nagle details Stearns's astounding range of accomplishments and explores the influence of both paternalism and Social Darwinism in his business practices.

Nagle begins by addressing key events in the first few decades of Stearns’s life and his initial foray into the lumber industry. Subsequent chapters explore Stearns’s political career, his timber operations in Wisconsin, and his coal, lumber, and railroad operations in Kentucky and Tennessee. Nagle also details the ancillary businesses that Stearns founded or purchased in the early twentieth century, even as his Stearns Salt & Lumber Company served as the anchor of his Michigan holdings, while Stearns Coal & Lumber did the same for his operations in Kentucky. The final chapter offers an overview and analysis of Stearns’s lifetime of accomplishments, including his impact on the town of Ludington, Michigan, where he maintained a residence for over fifty years.

Nagle makes extensive use of primary source material from several historical archives as well as contemporary newspaper accounts, court documents, company records, and other primary sources. American history scholars, as well as general readers interested in Michigan’s lumbering era and Kentucky’s mining history, will enjoy this biography of an exceptionally influential businessman.

Michael W. Nagle is a professor of history and political science at West Shore Community College in Scottville, Michigan. He is the author of LecturePoint, a series of web-based interactive lectures covering topics in U.S. history.

This is an excellent biography of an important man and a major contribution to business and Michigan history. The analysis and insight into a man who might be called a ‘robber baron’ is really remarkable. Highly recommended for all with even a minor interest in the various subjects covered.

– Donald Whisenhunt, professor emeritus, Western Washington University

The biography is a window to the region’s entrepreneurial spirit, and it rides on Stearns’ monopoly-building foray. A quick read, it felt like a guided walk through Ludington and the region’s hard-fought flight to industrialization. [Nagle] navigates Stearns life with ease, manipulating time without losing clarity. Hopping back and forward, Nagle parades his knack for tuning descriptive anecdotes in each of the nine winding chapters.

– Kevin Duffy, Great Lakes Echo

Michael W. Nagle’s book Justus S. Stearns is another strong example of an overdue treatment of a significant figure in Michigan and Kentucky. Justus Stearns personifies the long-held belief in the American dream. Working as a farmhand milking cows was the entry-level job that ultimately led to his becoming a lumber baron, owner of major business interests, and Michigan secretary of state. Professor Nagle has tenaciously researched the life and times of Stearns and written a compelling narrative.

– William M. Anderson, former director of the Michigan Department of History, Arts, and Libraries and author of The Glory Years of the Detroit Tigers: 1920–1950 (Wayne State University Press, 2012)

In the end, Nagle offers a solid biography of an accomplished businessman and philanthropist. . . .overall, thorough research and clear prose offer the reader valuable insights into the primary commodity trade—warts and all—during a significant period of American industrialization.

– Sean Patrick Adams, The Michigan Historical Review

The sympathetic, flattering tone that Nagle brings to his subject is unusual and perhaps even refreshing in current historical writing, especially on topics related to capitalist resource extraction. [. . .] Nagle makes his case well and his portrait of Justus Stearns the person generates a certain respect for his subject [. . .]

– Robert S. Weise, Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

[. . .] Nagle’s ability to highlight how seemingly unconnected regions and industries could be pulled together through common businessmen’s transactions adds much-needed complexity to our understandings of late nineteenth– and early twentieth–century investing. Holdings in multiple industries and regions were never limited to big businessmen but were part of the regular transactions of smaller businessmen like Justus Stearns. Nagle’s demonstration of this is a valuable contribution to turn-of-the-century business studies.

– Dana M. Caldemeyer, Ohio Valley History

  • 2016 Kentucky History Award - Result: Winner
  • 2016 Next Generation Indie Book Award - Result: Finalist in the Autobiography/Biography category