Justus S. Stearns: Michigan Pine King and Kentucky Coal Baron, 1845–1933 by Michael W. Nagle (review)
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Justus S. Stearns: Michigan Pine King and Kentucky Coal Baron, 1845–1933. By Michael W. Nagle. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2015. Pp. xiv, 269. $39.99 cloth)

The legacy of Justus Stearns’s Kentucky foray can be found in McCreary County, by taking the Big South Fork Scenic Railway (starting [End Page 83] at the eponymous town of Stearns) down to the former coal camp of Blue Heron. Both Blue Heron and the railway now belong to the McCreary County Heritage Foundation, which operates them as a tourist excursion and museum. At their founding in 1902, however, the towns and the Kentucky and Tennessee Railway constituted the southern reach of Stearns’s extensive resource-extraction holdings, most of which were located in the Great Lakes region. Michael W. Nagle’s biography of Justus Stearns also focuses on the northern base of Stearns’s operations, devoting three of the nine chapters to Kentucky. Given Stearns’s longtime residence and business presence in Michigan, the northern approach is appropriate. That approach also gives the Kentucky reader a sense of the context in which so much of the mining and logging industry of the state took place—the control of resources in the hands of non-local entities. Read as a business history, the book reveals some of the personal and financial networks that characterized turn-of-the-century enterprise.

But Nagle is writing biography, not business history. Structural economic analysis ultimately does not play a role here. Instead, Nagle is concerned with Justus Stearns the person, as seen mainly through his public activities. In Nagle’s interpretation, Stearns was quite an impressive character, an upstanding Captain of Industry. Nagle sees Stearns as an exemplar of the progressive, civic-minded businessman who used his wealth for the benefit of the public at large. Stearns conducted his logging and sawmill endeavors efficiently and with integrity, taking special care to provide his lumbermen nutritious food and comfortable accommodations. He contributed to the improvement of his hometown of Ludington, Michigan, by funding (for example) a hospital and public park. In Kentucky, too, Stearns acted the philanthropist, supporting public education and opening company land to his workers to produce some of their own food. As befitting the businessman’s calling, Stearns also entered the political realm. Here, according to Nagle, Stearns’s ambitions took a back seat to his high principles. A two-time candidate for the Republican nomination for governor of Michigan, Stearns lost both bids, Nagle [End Page 84] says, because his support for railroad regulation and a more open primary system alienated the power brokers within his party.

Even in this admiring biography, Nagle is not blind to problematic aspects of Stearns’s activities. We learn, for example, that in 1908 Stearns pled guilty to collusion with railroad companies, gaining rebates from them in violation of federal regulation. More seriously, Stearns, through an absentee owners’ neglect, seems to have cheated the Chippewa (Ojibwa) of Wisconsin out of much of the value of their timber. In Kentucky, Stearns took a hard line against workers who tried to organize labor unions, leading in part to a shoot-out at the Stearns Hotel between the National Guard and a group of union men. Nagle might also have probed a little more deeply into the process by which Stearns gained control of coal resources in his southern realm. What the author relates as legitimate efforts to untangle complexities in land titles might as easily be interpreted as strong-arm tactics to deprive people of land they thought they legally owned. But Nagle wants to see Stearns’s failings as the minor character flaws of an individual rather than as indications of deeper economic structural injustices. Nagle also contends that Stearns, largely through his son, Robert, maintained a much more positive and paternalistic presence in Kentucky than in his other out-of-state holdings (such as the Ojibwa reservations in Wisconsin). That fact dissuaded Nagle from applying an exploitation model of land acquisition to Stearns’s holdings in Kentucky.

The sympathetic, flattering tone that Nagle brings to his subject is unusual and perhaps even refreshing in current historical writing, especially on topics...