Stephenson, Isaac: Portrait of a 19th Century Lumber Baron

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RESEARCH QUESTION: What was Senator Issac Stephenson and the Marinette Boom Company's impact on the environment in Marinette County, Wisconsin?

Isaac Stephenson II was a Wisconsin state legislator, congressman, United States senator, and lumberman. He is also hailed as one of the most prominent citizens in the history of Marinette, Wisconsin. He was born in Canada in 1829 and immigrated to the United States when he was a teenager. In 1845, at the "age of sixteen," Stephenson journeyed westward with an entourage of others "to seek their fortunes in the Wisconsin and Michigan forests." [1] Stephenson, for the most part, lived in the Badger State for the rest of his life before passing away in his sleep in 1918, three years after privately publishing his memoirs, Recollections of a Long Life, 1829-1915. A bank, an island, two streets, and a library are all named in his honor.[2] A statue of Isaac is located on the island.

Thesis: while Stephenson's political and philanthropic service to Marinette and the state of Wisconsin as a whole is honorable, his "service" to the environment was not. His logging practices were unsustainable; and, as a direct result, Isaac's legacy needs to be reevaluated.

Stephenson: A Very Brief Biography

Early Life

Isaac the Second was born on June 18, 1829 in New Brunswick, Canada. He was the fourth child of Isaac and Elizabeth Stephenson. The senior Stephenson was a lumberman, a "manager of estates...of loyalists who fled the United States after the Revolutionary War," and a firm believer in the idea that hard work never hurt anyone.[3] Because of this, Isaac recounted in his memoirs, "life along the St. Johns River...was full of activity; and in the forest or on the farm every moment...of the day, from dawn until twilight was given up to labor."[4]

Fourteen years after Isaac II was born, the senior Stephenson decided that it was best to move on, location wise that is. It is actually unclear why he felt this way. What is clear, however, is that Issac I packed his bags and “went to Maine and settled in township number eleven, in Aroostook County, at a place now known as Ashland, where he purchased a farm”; and, a few weeks later, “became a citizen of the United States.”[5] He left the family behind. But not for long. One year after settling in the Pine Tree State, the senior Stephenson’s family packed their bags and made their way to the United States.

Lumberman Origins

Isaac II started lumbering at a very early age. Accounts show that the man was “hired” by his father “when he was barely 11” to serve “pork, beans, bread, molasses, tea, and dried apples” to the “15 men” that live at the senior Stephenson’s “camp.” [6] A few years later (when he was either 13 or 14), he was given the task of training young, healthy yokes of oxen to haul lumber. Isaac accepted the challenge; and, after “two months” of “great patience and forbearance,” the oxen were ready to work. [7] And so was Stephenson. Upon turning over the oxen to his father, Isaac was given a new job: driver. A driver was simply a person that cut down trees, loaded them onto a wagon pulled by a yoke of oxen, and drove the wagon to wherever it had to go. Stephenson made several trips all throughout the state; and, according to the New England Historical Society, eventually “caught the eye of Jefferson Sinclair, one of the owners of the lumber company” and was “offered…160 acres, a house and farm equipment if he would go with him to Wisconsin until he was 21. Isaac accepted.”[8]

Statesman

Stephenson was also, in addition to being a frontiersman and lumberman, a politician or statesman. The man represented the people of Door, Oconto, and Shawano counties in the Wisconsin State Assembly during the 1866 and 1868 sessions.[9] Seventeen years after first getting elected to the assembly, Stephenson "was elected” to serve in the United States House of Representatives “by a majority of two hundred and fifty-six out of forty-seven thousand votes.”[10] He would be reelected to two more terms. In 1907, Isaac was elected to represent the state of Wisconsin in the United States Senate. There he would serve until retiring in 1915 due to his age. Throughout the mid to late 1800s, Isaac served in a myriad of local offices.

Death

Stephenson lived the rest of his life in Marinette, Wisconsin. On March 15, 1918, "at 1:30 o'clock," the "famous politician and lumber king" that "had vast wealth amassed in [the] northwoods," to quote the Associate Press, passed away at his palatial home.[11] He was eighty-eight years old.

Marinette and the Lumber Boom

Historical Context

The state of Wisconsin experienced a lumber boom from 1830 to 1900 During this seventy year time period, the “price” of “pine lumber” had been cut from “$60 per 1,000 board feet...in 1836…to an average ranging from $15 to $20 at Chicago and sale points along the Mississippi for Wisconsin pine…[by] the second half of the century. .[12] With prices like these, numerous Wisconsin lumber barons began exploiting Wisconsin forests; and, by doing so, reaped a huge profit. As it turns out, Isaac Stephenson was one of these nineteenth century lumber barons.

Stephenson and the Marinette River Boom Company

Isaac Stephenson settled down in the city of Marinette in 1858, thirteen years after moving with Mr. Sinclair to the state of Wisconsin and three years after Mr. Sinclair took his own life. [13] Upon settling in Marinette, he “took charge of the N. Ludington Company,” which would quickly become the Menominee River Boom Company, that was in desperate need of leadership after Sinclair’s untimely death.[14] He worked hard to make it one of the most productive lumber companies in the country. But while “he would make his great fortune in Wisconsin during the Civil War,” Isaac “suffered great losses in the Peshtigo Fire of 1871,” one of the worst fires in all of American history.[15]

Isaac easily bounced back, more bound and determined to utilize what seemed to be the extremely bountiful white pine forests that graced Marinette and the expansive Upper Peninsula of Michigan. During the remainder of his years in the logging industry, his workers were forced to work so hard that “in the summer of 1885 the lumber workers on the Menominee River organized their own union.”[16] At the same time, whole pine forests started to become barren. By “1893, nearly three fifths of the [Wisconsin] timber was wasted, and not over 40 per cent reached the mills.”[17] Because of the fact that he was one of the biggest lumber barons in the entire state, Isaac is largely responsible for this. And he agreed. Twenty two years later, as he was writing his memoirs, Isaac talked about his impact, and the impact of many other lumberman on the environment by writing: “when I went to Maine with my father, the upper reaches of the Penobscot poured a constant stream of logs down to the busy mills between Oldtown and Bangor...what once seemed to be illimitable stretches of virgin forest in New Brunswick, in Maine, in Wisconsin and Michigan, have melted away before the westward tide of settlement. The scarcity of timber that seemed so remote then is now ominously close.” [18]

Conclusion: Stephenson's Environmental Impact

Isaac Stephenson II lived a remarkable life and made a positive impact on a lot of people during his eighty-eight years on this earth. He made the journey from Canada to the United States when he was just a boy, started logging at a very early age, valiantly served the people of Marinette and Wisconsin in various local, state, and federal offices, and built one of the biggest lumbering operations in the entire country. But at the same time, he made a negative impact on the environment. After bouncing back from one of the greatest tragedies in all of American history, Isaac the Second charged his company with harvesting as much timber as they could. They did as he asked; and, by doing so, help to decimate the bountiful white pine forests that graced the Marinette and Upper Peninsula landscapes, among others. And while a majority of the trees have grown back, the absence of virgin white pine forests in the regions of interest go a long way in showing the extent of Stephenson’s environmental destruction.

References

  1. Isaac Stephenson, Recollections of a Long Life, 1829-1915 (Chicago: Privately Published 1915; HathiTrust, 2011), http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=yale.39002008664287;view=1up; seq=6
  2. Stephenson National Bank and Trust, Stephenson Island, Stephenson Avenue, and Stephenson Public Library are all located in Marinette. The other street, Isaac Street, is located in Stephenson, Michigan. The city of Stephenson and Stephenson Township are not named after Isaac, but his brother, Samuel Merritt.
  3. New England Historical Society, Isaac Stephenson: Bullwhacker on the Aroostook, New England Historical Society Website, accessed April 23, 2016, http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/isaac-stephenson-bullwhacker-aroostook
  4. Isaac Stephenson, Recollections of a Long Life, 1829-1915 (Chicago: Privately Published, 1915; HathiTrust 2011), http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=yale.39002008664287;view=1up;seq=6
  5. Isaac Stephenson, Recollections of a Long Life, 1829-1915 (Chicago: Privately Published, 1915; HathiTrust 2011), http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=yale.39002008664287;view=1up;seq=6
  6. Isaac Stephenson: Bullwhacker on the Aroostook, New England Historical Society Website, accessed April 23, 2016, http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/isaac-stephenson-bullwhacker-aroostook
  7. Isaac Stephenson: Bullwhacker on the Aroostook, New England Historical Society Website, accessed April 23, 2016, http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/isaac-stephenson-bullwhacker-aroostook
  8. Isaac Stephenson: Bullwhacker on the Aroostook, New England Historical Society Website, accessed April 23, 2016, http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/isaac-stephenson-bullwhacker-aroostook
  9. Michael J. Keene, “Those Who Served: Wisconsin Legislators, 1848-2007,” in The Wisconsin Blue Book, 2007-2008, ed. Lawrence S. Barish (Madison, WI: Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau, 2007), 178.
  10. Isaac Stephenson, Recollections of a Long Life, 1829-1915 (Chicago: Privately Published, 1915; HathiTrust, 2011), http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=yale.39002008664287;view=1up; seq=6. 196
  11. Associated Press, "Isaac Stephenson Died Today in His Home in Wisconsin," Dixon Evening Telegraph, March 15, 1918, p. 1.
  12. Robert C. Nesbit, Wisconsin: A History (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 296.
  13. Isaac Stephenson, Recollections of a Long Life, 1829-1915 (Chicago: Privately Published, 1915; HathiTrust 2011), http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=yale.39002008664287;view=1up;seq=6
  14. Isaac Stephenson, Recollections of a Long Life, 1829-1915 (Chicago: Privately Published, 1915; HathiTrust 2011), http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=yale.39002008664287;view=1up;seq=6
  15. Isaac Stephenson: Bullwhacker on the Aroostook, New England Historical Society Website, accessed April 23, 2016, http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/isaac-stephenson-bullwhacker-aroostook
  16. Robert C. Nesbit, The History of Wisconsin: Urbanization and Industrialization, 1873-1893 (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 75.
  17. Robert C. Nesbit, The History of Wisconsin: Urbanization and Industrialization, 1873-1893 (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 86.
  18. Isaac Stephenson, Recollections of a Long Life, 1829-1915 (Chicago: Privately Published, 1915; HathiTrust 2011), http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=yale.39002008664287;view=1up;seq=6

Archival Resources for Further Research

The UWGB University Archives and Area Research Center has a copy of Dr. Carl E. Krog's doctoral dissertation, "Marinette: Biography of a Nineteenth Century Lumbering Town, 1850-1910" in its collection. Dr. Krog was granted rare access to the private papers of Issac Stephenson when he was in the process of wrapping up his studies at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Because of this, his dissertation is invaluable. The dissertation can be checked out for no more than three hours and cannot be removed from the archives.

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