I was Googling some Menominee history the other day, and I kept running into Isaac Stephenson’s name. I shouldn’t have been surprised. I used to ride my bike home from school evert day on Stephenson Avenue, and once in a while I’d drive on Stephenson St. in Marinette. My grandfather’s Menominee drug store was across the street from the Stephenson Building. Aunt Martha worked at the Stephenson Public Library in Marinette. Katja and I used to visit the logging museum on Stephenson Island, and we’d take in the views of the river from Stephenson Park. On our way home we’d drive past the Stephenson National Bank. Then we’d sometimes go to the movies in nearby Stephenson, Michigan. Hmm, I guess Isaac Stephenson had some impact on the Twin Cities area. Actually the story of his life is so amazing, I thought I would pass along some of the highlights.
Stephenson Banking Co., Hall Ave., downtown Marinette
Known as “Ike” or “Captain”, Isaac Watson Stephenson was born on June 18, 1829 in York County, New Brunswick. His mother was a farm wife from Great Britain, and his father was a Scotch-Irish farmer and lumberman. As a child, Isaac attended public school for a few years, then dropped out to help his father in farming and logging. The New York Times (1918) observed that “his early education was, to say the least, of a practical nature, in which the great outdoors played a very important part.” In 1840 the family relocated to Bangor, Maine, and at age 16 Stephenson moved with prominent lumberman Jeffrey Sinclair’s family to Milwaukee where he worked on an unimproved farm with Mr. Sinclair. When the crops failed, Sinclair became interested in pine lands in the Upper Peninsula and sent Stephenson there to work in lumbering. Despite very harsh and dangerous conditions, Stephenson’s ability and diligence resulted in his being put in charge of the lumber camps at a very young age. In the winter he managed lumber operations in the Escanaba area, and in the summer he sailed freighters between Escanaba, Milwaukee, and Chicago. He owned and captained the Great Lakes schooner Cleopatra before he turned 21, though his ship was destroyed in a Lake Michigan gale a few years later. In 1852, when Stephenson was 23 and had entered business for himself, the city of Chicago awarded him the contract to supply timber for the construction of the city’s massive breakwater. Stephenson transported 100-foot pine logs lashed to the sides of ships because there were no Lake Michigan vessels with decks large enough to accommodate such huge logs.
Marinette County Logging Museum, Stephenson Island
Because of his expertise in lumbering and knowledge of the U.P.’s pine regions, Stephenson accompanied Daniel Wells Jr. to Sault Ste. Marie to the U.P.’s newly opened land office to purchase large tracts of Michigan timber land. His business rapidly expanded over a period of several years, and he was on the way to becoming one of the leading lumbermen of the Great Lakes region. He established the first steamboat service on the Menominee River, as well bringing steamboats to the Cedar, Ford, Escanaba. and White Fish Rivers near Escanaba. Despite skepticism by shipping experts that it would be possible, Stephenson developed a barge line on Lake Michigan which shipped greater quantities of lumber to Chicago than had ever been imagined. He went on to build the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal through Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula to Lake Michigan which saved freighters 150 miles in their trips to Chicago and avoided the highly dangerous straits where Green Bay opened into the lake.
Stephenson Lumber Mill Company Store, Wells, MI
In 1858 at age 29 Stephenson settled in Marinette, Wisconsin, and gained the controlling interest in Nelson Ludington & Co. and its great sawmill there. He built the Lauerman Brothers Department Store in Marinette and became the principal owner of the Peshtigo Lumber Company, the Menominee River Boom Co., the Stephenson Transportation Co., the I. Stephenson Co. of Escanaba, the Marinette and Menominee Paper Co., the Stephenson Manufacturing Co., the Escanaba and Lake Superior railway, and farms, hotels, northwestern U.P. iron mines, the Stephenson Opera House, and numerous other establishments and enterprises. The Menominee Boom Company sorted and delivered more logs than any other company in the world. To accomplish its work, Stephenson constructed 40 dams in the Menominee River. The Boom Co. handled an average of 700,000,000 feet of timber annually, and one year exceeded a billion feet. His principal sawmill at Peshtigo had a greater capacity than other other mill in the world, and Stephenson built the largest woodenware factory in the world at the site. The Peshtigo Fire of 1887 destroyed his company, resulting in $2,000,000 in losses, but they rebuilt immediately and resumed their operations.
Isaac Stephenson was founder and president of the Stephenson Banking Company in Marinette, the area’s first bank, and he was a founder of the Menominee Herald, Menominee’s first newspaper and predecessor of the Herald-Leader (now the Eagle-Leader). He owned nearly half a million acres of timberland in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Louisiana, land totaling the size of the state of Delaware. Stephenson built five houses in Marinette and Menominee, two of which are still there on Riverside Avenue. He owned a 900 acre dairy farm in Kenosha, regarded as one of the model farms in America; a Marinette farm devoted to solely trotting horses; and a cattle farm in Grass Lake which supplied President William Howard Taft with a prize Holstein cow named Pauline Wayne who lived and grazed on the White House lawn. One biographer said that Isaac Stephenson could rightfully be regarded as the industrial pioneer of northeastern Wisconsin and Upper Peninsula Michigan since his enterprises accounted for much of the development of the region.
Sen. Stephenson’s Household Artifacts, Marinette County Museum, Stephenson Island
Stephenson led in organizing Marinette County, donating land for the courthouse and other county buildings. He built the Stephenson Public Library, donated land for the Stephenson Training Institute and Stephenson Island Park, and provided land and cash for new churches in Marinette. Stephenson was active in Republican party politics throughout his adult life. In Marinette he was a town supervisor, county board chairman, and justice of the peace. He was elected to the Wisconsin state legislature twice. In 1882 he was elected to represent Wisconsin in the U.S. House of Representatives where he served for three terms (1883-1889). In 1900 he supported Robert M. La Follette’s gubernatorial campaign in Wisconsin, donating $500,000 to the candidate, and he served as an influential advisor to the Progressive faction of the Republican party. It’s estimated that he donated a million dollars to Republican candidates and causes during this period. In 1901 he established the Milwaukee Free Press, providing Progressive Republicans with a reform-minded metropolitan newspaper and competitor to the Milwaukee Sentinel.
Stephenson Public Library and Stephenson Island
In 1907 Stephenson ran for a U.S. Senate seat made vacant by the resignation of John C. Spooner and was elected. He was the wealthiest man in the Senate. In 1908 he ran for renomination, spending $130,000 of his own money on his campaign. He was opposed by his former ally Robert La Follette, purportedly because Stephenson refused to donate large sums of money to the latter. Though his re-election was blocked by investigations of charges that he had used his money to influence votes, Stephenson was vindicated and resumed his Senate seat from 1907 to 1915. The New York Times reported that, when Stephenson heard other senators in 1912 refer to his election as “a revelry of corruption,” he wept openly on the Senate floor and was subsequently reported to be dying of heart disease in the Michigan wilderness fifty miles from Escanaba. He recovered and announced in June 1914 his permanent retirement from public life. Stephenson spent his final years in Marinette, where he died at home at age 88 at 1:30 a.m. on March 15, 1918. He is buried in Forest Home Cemetery in Marinette.
Stephenson Family Tomb, Forest Home Cemetery, Marinette
The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography (1910, p. 51) states that "Mr. Stephenson is tall, spare, quiet and thoughtful…He is democratic and kindly in his intercourse with others, generous to individuals, liberal toward public enterprises and tenacious in his friendships. He is the wealthiest man in Wisconsin, but modest and considerate in all the ways of life. His memory is so remarkable that he is able to carry the infinite details of his many great business enterprises in his head.” Men of Progress (1897, pp. 76-78) states: “Though a man of great wealth he is free from ostentation, and is justly proud of what he has accomplished, because it came to him as the result of unremitting industry, enterprise and the sagacity born of a study of his opportunities and their possibilities.”
Nellie Walker (sculptor), Isaac Stephenson Monument, Marinette, 1921