The Stearns Lumber Company, which eventually covered forty acres, was opened by A. T. Stearns in 1849 at Port Norfolk where wood could arrived by ship or by rail.
By the early 20th century the wood used for this purpose was cypress. Introduced to cypress in 1871, Stearns became enamored of the wood, and in 1881 he contracted for a quantity of it near Mobile, Alabama. During the next two years he had 5,000,000 feet afloat at one time on its way to Boston. In 1883 he organized the Cypress Lumber Company and erected a big saw mill at Apalachicola, Florida, which became a model for cypress plants. In the early 20th century, the plant produced 20,000,000 each year. A. T. Stearns became known as the Apostle of Cypress. Stearns was the pioneer of ready-made houses in the United States, shipping portable houses to California via Cape Horn in 1851. His sons Frederick, Albert H. and Waldo H. joined him in the company. The company lasted until the 1930s.
“The Apostle of Cypress.” Published in American Lumberman. Chicago, June 10, 1899, number 1255
The Apostle of Cypress
Of all American woods the one whose development into lumber and into a position among the standard lumber commodities of the county has been encompassed with the most trying difficulties has been cypress. In colonial days, before the development of the great white pine industry and because of its merits and availability, it was highly appreciated, as is attested by the large number of old buildings constructed wholly or in part of cypress to be found along the Atlantic seaboard, and it has always been a standard building wood along the gulf coast. But for practically a century it was a neglected wood in the north and came to be almost unknown. It was the pariah of the southern swamps; it was the nemesis of the sawmill man; it was the cap-and-bells of the dealers; it was the disgust of the American consumer. Time, persistence and experience have gradually changed all this, but long after its merits were appreciated locally the north as a whole would have none of it. All this and more is a part of cypress history. Today, how different is the situation! It is now a standard wood, preferred in many localities and for many special uses, and gradually but steadily growing in favor everywhere.
The individual to whom the greatest meed of credit is due for the establishment of this magnificent wood in the appreciation of the country is Albert T. Stearns, of Boston, Mass. For nearly twenty-five years has he been its apostle and advocate, its sponsor and its friend, until today it stands the peer of any wood in America for many purposes, and in some instances has a recognized value of its own possessed by no other.
Standing exceptionally and pre-eminently alone in a chosen calling, the effort being in the line of an important detail of the vast lumber industry of the country, and fighting out his faith in a despised wood to a wonderfully successful issue a brief sketch of the career of Albert T. Stearns cannot fail to interest the clientage of the American Lumberman.
Mr. Stearns was born in Billerica, Mass., in 1821. His brother was the late E. H Stearns, of the Stearns Manufacturing Company, of Erie, Pa., distinguished in the annals of saw mill machinery inventions and production. Abner Stearns, the father, was a Massachusetts farmer, among whose other possessions was a saw and grist mill. The latter was of the frame saw type. The Stearns boys gathered their first machinery and lumber education at this mill.
In 1843 Albert T. Stearns made his bow to the lumber world by establishing a retail yard at Waltham, Mass. This was the first lumber yard in that city and is still continued, being the property of thebuttrick Lumber Company. This yard he sold in 1849, and immediately after he established a yard on the Neponset river, at Neponset, now a Boston suburb. From the modest start then made have grown up the mammoth yard and manufacturing plant of the A. T. Stearns Lumber Company, of which he is president and still active in management.
The A. T. Stearns Lumber Company plant, at Neponset, as it stands and is being operated today is an invaluable object lesson to the student of lumber affairs, as illustrative of the possibilities of an essentially wholesale-retail plant, advantageously located and properly managed. It covers fully forty acres, of which the manufacturing and storage buildings embrace a floor space of at least twelve acres. Here, landed direct from vessels or cars, are stored stocks of every known variety of American building lumber, to the extent of from 4,000,000 to 5,000,000 feet, cypress predominating. In the various and numerous factory buildings are produced every wood-essential that goes into house construction, including doors, sash, blinds, mantels, trim, moldings, wooden gutters, tanks and every variety of cut-up stuff. Every detail of the plant is complete, up to repair and blacksmith shops. The product is essentially high class, so much so that it has for many years been recognized as the standard of New England. Originally the lumber employed was native white pine. Changing conditions brought about the substitution of western pine and northern spruce, and now the chief material employed is cypress.
For many years and at the present time the specialty of the Stearns company has been the production of wooden gutters, extensively used in nearly all New England house construction. Pine was the original material employed for this purpose, but now cypress solely is the one used. For the making of this product Mr. Stearns invented and constructed a marvel in woodworking machinery. It is a machine that removes the core of a gutter in one piece, by means of a cylinder saw, leaving it available for reduction into moldings and other valuable products. As the material used for this purpose requires clear stock, the saving made by this machine has proven a handsome profit in itself.
Perhaps the largest and certainly the most interesting product of the Stearns plant is its cypress doors. Outside of the fact that the handling of the stock and workmanship are perfect, no one save the student of the possibilities of cypress in a utilitarian and decorative line can imagine the wonderful–even marvelous
–beauties of its texture, figuring and coloring. In the show room of the factory are displayed scores of finished doors that for beauty rival any lumber, and for variety of figure and coloring seem to cover the entire range of every wood in the world. The colors run from a light straw to almost the blackness of ebony. Intervening are hues of indescribable variety and arrangement, individual specimens of panels closely resembling the coloring and figuring of Mexican onyx. In the harmonious arrangement and matching up of these specimens the Stearns plant has become famous.
The A. T. Stearns Lumber Company uses annually about 20,000,000 feet of lumber, a large proportion of which is cypress.
Along in 1871, in a little cargo of hard pine arriving from Pensacola, Fla., were four or five thousand feet of cypress. This was the first of the wood Mr. Stearns had ever seen. The material was evidently sent as a sample , but scarcely attracted his attention. In fact, it laid around the yard for three or four years almost forgotten, and absolutely unsalable. About this time Mr. Stearns commenced the erection of a new office building at the Neponset plant, and his inability to dispose of the little jag of cypress induced him to utilize it for the doors and trim of this building. When the job was complete he woke up suddenly to the belief that he had discovered just the material he had been seeking for some years–a cheap substitute for white pine wooden gutters. The finishing was crude and the lumber not of the best quality, and the actual and valuable fact that he had unearthed one of the most desirable finishing woods in the world did not occur to him at that time. His interest in the wood, however, was great enough to induce him to start an investigation of the subject. He could learn but little, save the fact that there were large quantities of cypress in the inaccessible swamps of the gulf country, but there was no way of getting out the timber save an occasional tree; that it would sink like lead when green, and that there as but very little of the lumber produced. But he had made up his mind that we wanted cypress, and in 1881 went south with the intention of making a personal hunt for it. He succeeded in contracting for quantity of it at Stockton, Near Mobile, Ala., and bought all obtainable. At one time during the next two years he had 5,000,000 feet of the lumber afloat at one time en route to Boston. cypress won Mr. Stearns’ confidence completely from the start, and this confidence never flinched or wavered. In New England it was another matter. The dealer, the contractor, the builder and the house owner would have none of it The New Englander is notoriously “Sot in his way”–he had always had white pine gutters, and white pine gutters he would have. But Albert T. Stearns is of the same stock and his ire was up–his “Yankee” was up. His reputation and his fortune were at stake. He pleaded for the use of cypress gutters–he coaxed, threatened and cajoled–all to little purpose. It came to the extremity that he furnished cypress gutters free with the guaranty that he would replace them with white pine if they did not prove satisfactory. His faith and persistence eventually won out, but how near the venture brought him to bankruptcy will probably never be known to anyone but himself, for A. T. Stearns is not given to talking of his own affairs.
In 1883 Mr. Stearns acquired large cypress holdings on the Apalachicola river, organized the Cypress Lumber Company and erected the big saw mill at Apalachicola, Fla., which today is said to be the model cypress plant of the century. It consists of a double band saw, mill, equipped with special and extra heavy machinery, a planing mill and nearing completion, a large door factory. The plant produces upwards of 20,000,000 feet a year, largely cypress, but some hard pine and ash. The large purchases of timber made at the time, and since, will afford a log supply for many years to come.
When Mr. Stearns embarked in the production of cypress doors and trim in the Boston country some years ago he had to encounter a repetition of the same antagonism that met his original efforts to introduce cypress gutters. But the fight is over now and all New England is a staunch friend of cypress, and the many splendid mansions and beautiful churches of the Hub and surrounding country that are finished in Stearns cypress testify to the general conversion of conservative New England to the utility and beauty of the product.
Personally, Mr. Stearns is a striking type of the manhood of his natve state–tall, spare and active. He has always borne a reputation for the most scrupulous integrity; for indomitable will and perseverance; for skill in applied mechanics and sound business judgment. He has always been a fighter–when his conscience dictated that he was in the right. Some of the most notable battles in legal history he has fought to a successful issue, notably the Woodbury pressure-bar case, in which he was chief defendant. His persistent and successful fight saved hundreds of thousands of dollars to the planing mill fraternity of the country. He was the pioneer ready made house build of the United States., shipping portable houses to California via Cape Horn in 1851. He was the pioneer in the world in the production of machine stuck moldings, and for many years shipped large quantities abroad. He was the first exponent of yellow pine rift flooring, now a standard flooring product of the world. He was the pioneer in cypress prodction on a commercial scale. In short, Mr. Stearns has always been an advanced thinker in the lumber world and better than that, has put his ideas into successful execution. Today he is 78 years old, but as clear of mind and as alert and active as most men of two-thirds his years. In the conduct of the affairs of the Cypress Lumber Company he is ably seconded by his son, Frederick Stearns, Jr., vice president and manager of the milling plant, and by his son-in-law, Frederick C. Moseley, treasurer of the corporation. The lumber world–both producers and consumers–owe to Mr. Stearns a heavy debt of gratitude and good-fellowship for his great and progressive work in the calling, and the American Lumberman joins his many friends in the earnest hope that he may live many happy years to enjoy the fruits of his labor.
See also: Albert T. Stearns in Amrican Lumbermen. The Personal History and Public and Business Achievements of One Hundred Eminent Lumbermen of the United States. (Chicago: The American Lumberman, 1905), 15-18.
A. T. Stearns Lumber Co., Neponset, Mass.
… The business as established by Mr. A. T. Stearns in 1849 … Believing it to be essential to good results that lumber should be thoroughly seasoned before being kiln-dried, they have facilities for carrying a stock of 10,000,000 feet. In fact, their stock frequently exceeds that quantity. Their dry houses are of large capacity, holding over 1,000,000 feet of lumber, and their storage sheds for dry lumber are extensive and their stock complete.
From Picturesque Boston Highlands, Jamaica Plain and Dorchester. (New York : Mercantile Illustrating Co., 1895)