City Of Stearns Became A Coal & Timber Center


By Ralph Coghlan
Louisville Post - December 6, 1922

Twenty years ago the high plateau which bears the town of Stearns was the center of a vast and roaring wilderness. Nothing but the calls of animals and the soughing of wind through the pines disturbed its quiet serenity. Today, it is the industrial heart of McCreary County, through which flows a million tons of coal from summer to summer.

There are new noises, the noises of civilization. After all, what is the difference between savagery and civilization then differences in noises? Supplant the howls of wild animals with the heavy breathing of steam locomotives, the thud and the clink of coal-loading, the hum of a power plant and a sawmill, and you have in capsule form the whole history of Mc-Creary County development.

In Stearns, itself, the noises are more complex and illuminating. For here, on this high rocky shelf, may be detected more subtle noises; those made by women gossiping over bridge tables, by the contact of golf balls against wood and iron, by water running into shiny porcelain tubs, and by telephone bells. Indeed, it is all the gentle cacophony and euphony identified with 20th century manners.

This means that the little band of men, headed by Justus S. Stearns of Michigan, who came here two decades ago in that most fascinating of occupations, the opening of virgin territory, have not only brought their steam shovels and coal tipples, but also the comforts and some of the luxuries of life. The lounges in these houses might not fit a Ritz-Carlton spine, the hilly walks would tire Michigan Avenue feet, but they fulfill the purposes of the good American people who have come here to make a living.

All Prose And No Poetry

To men like John E. Butler, general manager of the Stearns properties in Kentucky, who has lived with the job of getting coal from the hills since the beginning, the change that has taken place is all prose and no poetry. "There may be romance in doing pioneer work," he told me, "but I don't look at it that way. To me it has been one hurdle after another with no time between for telling fairy tales."

Mr. Butler is this kind of man: Three years ago, he soberly and regretfully admitted that his tennis days were over. The approach to 50 is not characterized by hard, accurate serves and back-splitting returns. So he took up golf. Now there's a theory that the only good golfers are the ones who are born with mashies in their hands. Perhaps, Mr. Bulter didn't know about that theory. At any rate, his many golfless years haven't prevented him from becoming Stearns' best golfer. Over a course studded with stumps of trees, with cows for movable hazards and ravines to shoot over, Mr. Butler turns in neat cards of 14 and 76.

In three years, he has made golf hum with sober, deliberate, persistent, systematic effort. The same methods have characterized his share in the development of McCreary County. Men like Justus Stearns, whose whole life has been devoted to such immense projects; and Robert L. Stearns, his son, had the vision. Others like W. T. Culver and John E. Butler had the grasp of detail and the capacity for wholesale effort. Both were necessary for the finished product.

McCreary's Timber Wealth

The elder Stearns was attracted to McCreary County by the wealth of oak, poplar, and white pine which clothe its hills. Lumber was and still is his main pursuit. So that, when he dispatched W. A. Kinne and others to acquire for him large tracts of land hereabouts, his main idea was to cut the timber. Coal was only an afterthought. He knew, of course, that there was much coal, but the coal business was foreign to his cosmos. It was only after years of disheartening attempts to make lumber profitable that coal operations were begun.

It seemed that the Stearns Company built an enormous planing mill at the beginning; an electric plant, perhaps, the first ever constructed. It is capable of producing 70,000 feet of lumber every 24 hours. But the discovery was made that in order to get timber enough to feed this mill a railroad would have to be built through the hills.

Frail men would have thrown down their tools and taken the next Q. and C. train back to civilization, for the building of a railroad was a terrific task, and besides, it involved a tremendous outlay. In this case, good money was thrown after bad, and to spite the adage, both are now coming back with accumulated interest.

The Railroad Begun

The railroad was begun, pushed through hills, and smashed through rock. It became apparent that the time for thinking about lumber was past and that coal, lots of coal, must be dug to make the railroad pay. Its cost for the first 15 miles was $50,000 a mile. For the first four miles it dropped 500 feet. That meant heavy, expensive locomotives. So about ten years ago the company changed its policy, refinanced itself, and became the Stearns Coal and Lumber Company; object, divorce from wood and matrimony with coal.

From that time forward the penetration of Stearns into McCreary fastnesses has been progressive and fruitful. Today, the railroad, which was christened the Kentucky and Tennessee, reaches from Stearns to Exodus; a distance of 20 miles. When it is finished, it will measure 50 miles and will connect with the N. C. and St. L. south of the Kentucky-Tennessee border. In the weight of its rails and the size of its equipment the K. and T. is a full-grown husky railroad, with three passenger trains each way daily and any amount of freight.

What It Serves

Along its extent are mine No. 1 at Barthell, 1,000 tons; mine No. 4 at Worley, 1,000 tons; mine No. 11 at Yamacraw, 1,000 tons; Cooperative Coal Company at Cooperative, 1,000 tons (a new mine which is organized to give Stearns employees the privilege of buying its stock and sharing its earnings); mine No. 15 at White Oak, 150 tons; and mine "A" at Fidelity, 1,000 tons.

The K. and T. serves, also, the Paint Cliff Mine Company, whose president is Kenneth Meguire of Louisville; the St. Mihiel Coal Company at Oz, with a capacity of 400 and 150 tons daily, respectively; and the Camargo Coal Company at Camargo, which has a capacity of 500 tons daily. The coal from all these operations is taken from seams one, one and one-half, and two, and is of an exceptionally high grade; low sulphur content, low ash, and low flame.

In McCreary County, there are 11,676 people. About 2,000 of these are directly engaged in the work of mining coal. Assuming each to be responsible to a family of three, you arrive at the figure of 8,000, representing those directly dependent upon coal mining for a livelihood. In addition, there are merchants, lawyers, doctors, and others who are indirectly dependent. Practically every person in the whole county has been aided by that little band of men who came here two decades ago.

If the Stearns interest may be said to be McCreary's industrial monarch, it exercises its powers benevolently. It is Pisistratus, not Alexander. It is Charlemagne, rather than Frederick the Great. In such a poor section as was McCreary before its resources were tapped and when it had to depend entirely on the thin soil of the hillsides for a livelihood, it was inevitable that standards of living should have been low.

New Dwellings

Today, in all the mining camps are freshly-built dwelling houses, where human beings live under hygienic and comfortable conditions. In Stearns, with a population of 1,500, there are 300 of these residences. A wholesale grocery supplies food. A general store puts out supplies. A movie house and a poolroom furnish amusement. A barbershop cuts long locks and shaves blue chins. A good hotel receives guests.

For the children is a new school erected at a cost to the Stearns Company of $30,000. To this school, where both graded and high schoolwork are taught, are attracted the best teachers obtainable, the ordinary salary being supplemented by an additional sum, which comes from the Stearns treasury. Through the town is a mile and a quarter of Kentucky rock asphalt road. This was built by the company at a cost of $45,000 and will serve as the Stearns link in the great Cincinnati-Lookout Mountain Highway, which is now being constructed to connect North and South. McCreary County had voted a $200,000 bond issue to pay for constructing the road through its extent.

The Stearns Property

The property of the Stearns Company reaches into Tennessee and comprises more than 100,000 acres of coal land, in fee and under lease. This area contains 350,000,000 tons of coal. So that with a 100 % car supply every year, and it would take a diseased optimist to imagine such a thing, Stearns will be digging hereabouts for the next 350 years; which, according to the calender, brings up to 2,272 when even Bernard Shaw will no longer be living. To these horrendous figures must be added 380,000,000 feet of virgin oak, poplar, white pine, and other trees. For the timber that Justus Stearns came to get is still here.

Another example of the Stearns benevolent monarchism is the McCreary County Record, the only newspaper published in the county. This paper is ably, interestingly, and sometimes brilliantly edited by Mrs. K. W. Dyas, and it is financed by the Stearns Company. It is fashioned after the best standards, and it is in no sense a trade journal. While its policy is, of course, sympathetic with its backers, its news columns report the county's routine with fairness and with a spirit of ethical journalism.