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James Shearer (1823-1896)
Prominent engineer and businessman of the late 19th century.
  • by Marvin Kusmierz (May 2003)
  • Genealogy:
    Parents: George & Margaret (Buchanan) Shearer
    Birth: 12 Jul 1823, Albany, NY
    Death: 14 Oct 1896, Bay City, MI
    Spouse: Margaret J. Hutchison of Detroit, married 1850
    Children: George Henry, Ella, Chauncey Hurlbut and James Buchanan.

    James Shearer's contributions to Bay City are many placing him among the prominent men in this community's history.

    He grew up in Albany, New York being raised by Scottish parents whose names are unknown as of this writing. He was only 15 years old when he departed Albany and arrived in Detroit, MI where he began an apprenticeship program to become an engineer. I wasn't able to find any mention of Why he chose Detroit, but that is where he spent the next six years learning to be an engineer. Completing this program in 1844, he returned to Albany and attended school at the Albany Academy during the Winter/Spring session.


State Capital

    In the Summer of 1845, the well educated 22 year old journeyed to several states in search of employment. He ended up in Montgomery, Alabama that Fall where he found work in the construction of the state’s new capital building which was under contract to B.F. Robinson and R.W.R. Bardwell. Apparently, James' extensive education served him well as he was promoted to superintendent of the project and supervised its completion in December 1847. Two years later, the building was completely destroyed by fire.

    He returned to Detroit in 1848 and established his own engineering and construction business. The company was very successful in obtaining contracts. One was for construction of the St. Johns Espiscopal Church on Woodward avenue and High street. James was an excellent manager and at the time was considered one of Detroit's most successful business men. It was during these early years in Detroit that he married Margaret J. Hutchison in 1850.

    In 1861, the year in which the Civil War began, James decided to try his hand at politics. That year he ran a successful campaign and was elected to the seat of city alderman. He was faced with an unusual situation as a new alterman due to the war. As an alterman he was involved in filling the quota of men from his area to support the Union cause in this war. Each sent on to the war effort, left behind a family which James provided assistance to. He also made several trips to the war zone to support those he had sent there. The uniqueness of this period imposed a high demand on his time. So much so, that he felt compelled to relinquish his own business interests in order to give his undevided attention to his constituents. An example of an action that speaks loudly of the noble and caring nature of his character.


    During the Winter of 1863, James made a trip north to Bay City. His purpose in doing so is unknown, however, it seems reasonable to conclude that he was interested in learning first hand about the booming growth that was taking place here. He apparently liked what he saw -- the following Spring he purchased the Raymond Mill. Shortly thereafer, his brother, George H. Shearer arrived to take over management of it. The mill was among the larger ones in the valley. Records for 1865 list it as producing 6,800,000 board feet of lumber.


    George was a mechanical engineer of sorts, a skill he ably applied to make improvements at the mill. He designed and made several new pieces of machinery that increased the mills rate of production. The mill was a great success for James which he held onto until 1874. That year the Michigan Central Railway Company expressed an interest in acquiring the property. The price was attractive enough that James decided to sell the mill.

    George was a successfull business man on his own merits. And, like his brother, he involved himself in this community's civic affairs . George was part owner of the McDonald & Shearer Bay City Mills which made flour, he also served as a school board member (1885 to 1885), and held the office of mayor of Bay City.


    James Shearer's family home the n.e. corner of Center & Monroe.
    The house next to it belong to his son, George H. was married to Elva Culver.

    Early view of James Shearer's home (on right) looking west down Center Avenue.

    In 1865, James made the move to Bay City with his wife Margaret and family. Their first residence was James Birney’s original home. Later, they moved into the former residence of James Fraser where they stayed for five years. James purchased Thomas Watson's brick house on the northeast corner of Center and Washinging avenues where they set up residence. Watson's house, built in 1863, was the first brick structure in the city. James constructed his next home, a fine brick structure on the north east corner of Center and Monroe which was completed in 1876. That year, George and his wife, Elva, built a home at 814 Monroe right next to James and family. Both of these centennial homes are still in service today.


    Shearer Block: James built his first business block here in 1866 on the northeast corner of Water and Center. Many at the time when it was being built considered it "financial folly" on the part of James believing there was no need for such a large structure. However, the block was completed in 1866 and turned out to be a successful enterprise in a relatively short time . The building still stands and is now home of the Mill-End store.

    Shearer block on n.e. cor. Water & Center (now, Mill-End Store).

    Central Block: James tore down the brick building on Center and Washington to make room for his first business block. Named the Shearer Central block, it was completed in 1880. The former Kresge building now stands on this corner.

    Central Block n.e. cor. Center & Washington (replaced by Kresge building still standing.)

    Shearer Brothers Block: The last of his business blocks is located on the n.w. corner of Center and Adams. This building opened in 1884. In 2004 a project began to restore the building.

    Shearer Brothers block, nw cor. Center & Adams being renovated by James Reid.
    Top: (L) 2003 - beginning of renovation. (R) 2004 - new roof crown being added.
    Bottom: (L) 2004 - view of completed crown edging. (R) 2004 View of south side of bldg from 5th & Adams.

    The first of lease office space in the new Shearer Bros. building was Robert Black according his 1944 obituary published in The Bay City Times. Mr. Black owned the Black Lumber Company and resided at 319 North Van Buren street.

    Renovation work began in 2003 on the building to restored it to near original conditions, except the upper levels which historical have been used for office rentals will turned in to condos. The street level will continue to serve small business owners.

    The results will be revitalized residential and business structure assuring this landmark of James Shearer will have a bright future for many decades. The change recognizes the growing trend of people "wanting" to live in the downtown area where they are within walking distance of cultural activies, parks, shopping and fine restaurants.

    I can't help but think James Shearer is pleased with what is happening to his structure. He might even remark, "What took so long?" With the success of the Jennison condos, very few view this the “folly” of a modern day James, rather it is seen as a vision of one of the “doers” in this community.


    James was also actively involved in public service and other business activities:

    In 1868, he served as President of the First National Bank.

    In 1871, Michigan Governor Henry P. Baldwin called upon him to sit on a three person commission to oversee construction of a new Capital building in Lansing. Completed in 1879, the building was highly acclaimed as an exceptionally fine structure for state government. Local citizens took great pride in James’ role in the project, and to show it, they honored him with a dinner ceremony held at the city's best hotel -- the Fraser Hotel which preceeded the Wenonah Hotel on the south east corner of Center and Water.

    He was also elected as the the "first president" of the Lumberman's Association that year.

    In 1885, Governor Alger, appointed James as a commissioner overseeing the ceremony celebrating 50 years of statehood that was held in Lansing on June 15.

    1880 to 1887, he served as a Regent of the University of Michigan -- the first from Bay City to hold this position.

    He was an active member of the First Presbyterian church located on the n.e. cor. Jackson & Center, a block east of their Monroe residences.

    Both James and George were original shareholders in the Elm Lawn cemetery when it opened in 1890 -- each owning 120 shares.


    When his son's were at the appropriate age, James brought them into the business at which time he changed the name from "James Shearer Company" to "James Shearer and Sons". His sons are described as being of the same fine character as their father. By 1882, they were for the most part managing the business.

    I was able to find the following information on the marriages of his sons, but nothing was found on his daughter's family:

      George H.
      He married Elva Culver, daughter of Descum Culver of Bay City.

      Chauncey Hurlbut
      (11 Dec 1858, Detroit, MI - 27 Jul 1926, Bay City, MI) Burial at Elm Lawn Cemetery in Bay City. He married Marie L. Deshler of Columbus, OH.

      James Buchanan
      (1857, Detroit, MI - 1928, Bay City, MI), burial at Elm Lawn Cemetery in Bay City. He married Amelia Marston, daughter of Judge Isaac Marston of Bay City.

      Elm Lawn Cemetery family burial site:
      Buried near James Shearer's family burial sites in Section 13 are the family sites of his brothers, George H. and John W.

      The following information is from the markers of these families and data from the 1870 Michigan Census taken in June of that year:

        James Shearer Family

        Isaac Marston Shearer (1883-1892)
        James Buchanan Shearer (1857-1928)
        Amelia Marston Shearer (1864-1941)
        Harold Hutchison Shearer (1886-1938)
        James Shearer, Jr. (1884-1973)
        Chauncy Hurlbut Shearer (11Dec1858-27Jul1926)
        James Shearer (12Jul1823-14Oct1896)
        Margarette J. Shearer (25Mar1829-20Feb1899)
        Ellen Hutchison (died 15Jun1909)
        1870 CENSUS
        James Shearer: Age 40, Pres. of Bank, born NY
        Margaret, 39, Keeping house, born NY
        George, 18, at school, born MI
        Ella, 15, at school, born MI
        James, 13, at school, born MI
        Chauncey, 12, at school, born MI

        George H. Shearer Family

        Emily D. Shearer (1Aug1899-2Jun1903)
        Laura A. Shearer (1844-1892)
        George H. Shearer (9Jul1825-20Oct1894)
        Charles E. Shearer (1902-1959)
        Lottie E. Shearer (1873-1925)
        Frank H. Shearer (1869-1942)
        1870 CENSUS
        George Shearer: Age 44, Mill Owner, born NY
        Laura, 26, Keeping house, born MI
        Henrietta, 15, at school, born MI
        Carrie, 11, at school, born MI
        Frank, 2, at home, born MI

        John W. Shearer Family

        Margaret Shearer (1888-1952)
        Fred E. Shearer (1872-1952)
        J. Irving P. Shearer (1868-1943)
        Mary E. Shearer (1840-1919)
        John W. Shearer (1831-1903)
        Minnie E. Shearer (1872-1966)
        1870 CENSUS
        John Shearer: Age 36, Builder, born NY
        Mary, 29, Keeping house, born OH
        James, 3, at home, born MI
        Beaumont, Mattie, 23, Domestic servant, born Canada.

      Please contact us If you can provide further information (photos, family details, etc.) on James Shearer and his family!

      • General History of the State of Michigan with Biographical Sketches, 1873, Charles R. Tuttle.
      • History of Bay County, Michigan with Illustrations & Biographical Sketches, 1883, H.R. Page & Co.
      • The Bay County Story - From Footpaths to Freeways, book by Leslie Arndt - 1982.
      • [-] Online history of St. Johns Episcopal Church, Detroit, MI
      • [-] State Capitals of Alabama [www.archives.state.al.us]
      • Images of John W. and J.I.P Shearer donated by Jim Petrimoulx - Jan. 2008.
      • History of the University of Michigan, by Burke Aaron Hinsdale (1906)
    James Shearer

    Shearer's 1862 Tool Chest
    {View Pictorial}

    Related Pages:
    1892 bio/1896 Death notice
    1879 Central Blk., Tribune
    Shearer, Chauncy H. son
    Shearer, G. Henry son
    Shearer, Geo. H. bro.
    People Referenced
    Baldwin, Henry P. (Gov.)
    Bardwell, R.W.R.
    Beaumont, Mattie
    Birney, James
    Culver, Descum
    Culver, Elva
    Deshler, Marie L.
    Fraser, James
    Hutchinson, Margaret J.
    Marston, Amelia
    Marston, Isaac (Judge)
    Robinson, B.F.
    - Carrie
    - Charles E.
    - Chauncey H.
    - Ella
    - Emily D.
    - Fred E.
    - Frank H.
    - George H.
    - Isaac M.
    - Harold H.
    - Henrietta
    - J. Irving P.
    - James
    - James B.
    - John W.
    - Laura
    - Lottie E.
    - Mary E.
    - Margarette J.
    - Minnie E.
    Watson, Thomas
    Subjects Referenced
    Albany Academy
    Albany, NY
    Bay City, MI
    Civil War
    City alterman
    Columbus, OH
    Detroit, MI
    Elm Lawn Cemetery
    Fraser Hotel
    James Shearer Co.
    James Shearer & Sons
    Jennison condos
    Kresge building
    Lansing, MI
    Mayor of Bay City
    McDonald & Shearer Mill
    Michigan Census
    Michigan Central RR
    Mill End store
    Montgomery, AL
    New York
    Raymond Mill
    Reid, James
    Shearer block
    Shearer Bros. block
    Shearer Central block
    St. Johns Espiscopal Church
    State Capital
    Univ. of Michigan
    Wenonah Hotel
    Internet Resources
    [-] Shearer's involvement in building Michigan's Capital building, article by Dave Rogers. [mybaycity.com]

    G.(George) Henry Shearer
    Son of James & Margaret.

    John W. Shearer (1833-1903)
    Brother of James & George. 2nd Lt. in MI Inf. during Civil War. Residence at 412 N. Jackson.
    Saginaw Courier Herald
    May 16, 1903
    Prominent Bay City Contractor's Sudden Summons.

    Bay City, Mich. May 15.-- John W. Shearer, a promient building contractor, dropped deat at his home, this morning. He was 72 years old, and had been in business here for many years, formerly in partnership with his brother, the late James Shearer. Prior to coming here he was engaged in business in Detroit for several years. Mr. Shearer enlisted as a private in the Second Michigan infantry during the rebellion, and was soon promoted to lieutenant, serving through several campaigns.

    J.I.P. Shearer (1868-1943)
    Son of John W. 1890 worked as bookkeeper with residence at 412. N. Jackson. 1931 asst. cashier at Bay City Bank, residence at 1601 Sixth st.
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