Louis Bryant and Justus Stearns needed each other, and it’s surely no accident that their worlds finally intersected. Bryant, a bright young mining engineer, had moved into what is today McCreary County, KY at the beginning of the 1890s to consolidate mineral and land holdings acquired there by his father.
But while the Bryant family had mining expertise and raw land, they lacked the financial depth to develop the surrounding regional infrastructure they needed to grow their business. And so Louis hit the road to do a little selling. In 1893, he took a one-ton, thirty-six-cubic-foot block of bituminous coal from his family’s Worley mine to the Chicago World’s Fair.
Justus Stearns by this time had made a fortune in the lumber business from his base in Ludington, MI. But virgin timber resources in that region were becoming depleted as the upper Midwest grew in population.
And so Stearns hired field agents scattered around the country looking for business opportunities. He had expanded the already extensive holdings of Stearns Salt & Lumber Co. in the Midwest to include properties in the Pacific Northwest, the Great Lakes, New Orleans and Florida.
Kentucky was experiencing a lumber boom in the late 1890s, and Justus Stearns heard reports of vast tracts of virgin timber in the southern Kentucky counties of Pulaski, Wayne, and Whitley and Scott County just over the border in Tennessee.
In 1900, Stearns sent Michigan surveyor William Alfred Kinne to Kentucky to secure tracts to add to his timber holdings. Al Kinne traveled extensively through Kentucky and Tennessee, meeting up finally with Louis Bryant.
The two became friends, and Bryant later became a valuable associate of the Stearns Company, teaching them a great deal about coal mining.
By 1901, Kinne had negotiated a twenty-five-year lease with Bryant that called for the construction of a railroad and the opening up of mines in the area, and gave Stearns the right to harvest the timber in the area. Kinne secured 50,000 acres in what became known as “The Big Survey,” an area that included lands from the Kentucky & Tennessee counties mentioned earlier.
On May 22, 1902, Kinne and Nashville attorney E. E. Barthell rode horses three miles north from Pine Knot to a Cincinnati Southern siding known to the railroad crews as the Gum Tree Tie Yard. Acting as agents for the Stearns Salt & Lumber Company, the two men, using a briefcase as a desk under the big black gum’s boughs, signed documents which incorporated the Stearns Lumber Co., the Stearns Coal Co., and the Kentucky & Tennessee Railroad.
The old gum tree stood next to the site where the first company store in the brand new town of Stearns, KY would soon be constructed. The Stearns Company was the sole proprietor of its headquarters town, and would govern all aspects of daily life for the residents there.
The town site, one square mile purchased from the Bryant family, was uninhabited at the time but a fairly well known place in the region. Riley Sellars had owned a farm there, where General Ambrose Burnside’s troops had camped in September 1863 on their backcountry march to take Knoxville from the Confederates.
Stearns sat on the location of the old town of Hemlock, at the crossroads of the Somerset-Jacksboro Road and the east-west road from Williamsburg to Monticello.
In 1903, Justus Stearns sent his only son, Robert L. Stearns, to reside in the small company town that bore his name so that he might oversee all the operations in the community.
Al Kinne lived in Stearns the rest of his life and was later a Kentucky state senator. Barthell moved his practice to Chicago, but remained the company’s general counsel until his death. An in-law of Rob Stearns, he was honored by having the first company mine camp named after him.
Sources: Lore & Legend, Vol. 1, No. 1, p. 3, published by J. P. Thomas, Box 248, Stearns, KY 42657
Appalachian Folkways, by John B. Rehder, JHU Press, 2004