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James Shearer
Born in Albany, N.Y., prominent architect and businessman of Detroit, and Bay City, MI.

1892: Biography. (Added Nov. 2007)

Portrait and Biographical Record of Saginaw and Bay Counties, MI
1892: Portrait Publishing Co., Chicago.


The lumber interests being predominant in the Saginaw Valley, and association for the protection or advancement of those interests cannot but be important to the locality. Our subject has the honor of having been the first President of the Lumberman’s Association of the Saginaw Valley, at a time when the members used to meet at the Bancroft House in the city of Saginaw. He was at that time also a large mill owner, his establishment in Bay City being run under the name of James Shearer & Co. It was built on the site now occupied by the Michigan Central Railroad Freight Office.

The property above spoken of was purchased by Mr. Shearer in 1863, and was then known as the Raymond Mill. It was enlarged from time to time until it was possible for him to turn out ten million feet of lumber annually, which was a very large amount for that time. His interests in that direction continued until about 1873, and he was at the same time largely interested in pine lands. His brother, George H., who is still a resident of Bay City, was one of his principle partners.

Hon. James Shearer, of Bay City, whose portrait appears on the opposite page, was born in Albany, N. Y., July 12, 1823. Many citizens of our country, who have become identified with its growth and prosperity, and have been loyal to its institutions, teachings, and principles, have emigrated hither from other lands, or have been of direct foreign descent. Mr. Shearer’s immediate ancestors came to America, the father in 1817 and the mother in 1820, form Scotland. His father’s name was George, and his mother was Agnes Buchanan. They were honest, intelligent, and industrious people by nature, acquirements, and habits, and gave to their children the same traits of character. The Shearers in Scotland were well-to-do farmers, and the two later generations were master masons. There seems to have been a kind of sturdiness and substantiality about them, derived, perhaps, from their surroundings and fixedness of habits; for they are said to have occupied and cultivate the same land for fourteen generations.

In his earlier mature years George Shearer accumulated property sufficient to place him beyond the reach of want, with the exercise of prudence and economy in the ordinary course of events; but his generous and sympathetic nature led him to render assistance to friends and acquaintances by indorsing their papers, which he finally had to take care of. Added to this, a little later, a disastrous and sweeping fire destroyed nearly all of what remained. This not only rendered him poor, but frustrated many plans which he had intended putting in operation and carrying out for the benefit of his children. But he rightly considered that wealth and the position resulting because of it, often deprived the young of the incentive to self-reliance and education which in this country prepares for usefulness and success. He therefore decided to give his children an education, and thus put them in a position to help themselves to a standing in life.

James Shearer was therefore early sent to school, and impressed with the necessity and importance of making thorough and valuable improvement of time in this direction. It is evident that he did this, for in 1836 he entered a store in Albany, and was found a capable lad. But this occupation, although not entirely distasteful to the young man, was nevertheless not quite congenial. As phrenologists would say, the organs of size, weight, calculation, and the perceptive faculties, seemed to be prominent. In other words, he seemed to have a mechanical head, and to be of a practical turn. Accordingly, after two years’ service in the store, he came to Michigan, feeling that the West, then comparatively new, offered better opportunities for a young man who had his own resources alone to depend upon. He reached Detroit in May, 1838, and at once set himself about carrying out plans in the line of his natural proclivities. The first step to that end was to apprentice himself for six years to a builder. During the last four years of such life he devoted his evenings and such other spare time as he could command to the study of geometry and architecture. All of this exacted and received the most studious and severe application, and called for an exercise of will-power and determination of no common order. But patiently, ploddingly, and thoroughly in love with his course, did the young man proceed.

At the expiration of the six years Mr. Shearer returned to Albany and entered the Albany Academy for the purpose of taking up the higher mathematics and pursuing still further the study of architecture. Completing this course, he returned to Detroit, but did not remain there long. Two things decided him in this – he wanted to see more of this country than he had yet seen, and study its architecture, not as an idle traveler; and during his travels he wanted to make practical use of the knowledge he had acquired from study and apprenticeship. The autumn of 1846 found him in Montgomery, Ala. That State was building its capitol, and the young man’s aptness, affability, and energy gained him ready employment and favor. His thorough knowledge of architecture, and marked ability and skill, here, at the first prominent opportunity of putting them to the test, soon discovered to those people what manner of man he was; and within a short time he was placed in charge and had complete superintendence of the work to its practical completion. For a young man only twenty-three years old, this was a very responsible and proud position, and does not require added words to indicate his merit and ability. This opened abundant opportunity for employment in the South, had he chosen to avail himself of it. But his home, friends, and acquaintances were in the North, and he returned to Detroit in 1848, where he remained until 1862 in business for himself, which became of great proportions, both as an architect and builder. In fact, of such magnitude was it, that for the latter nine years of this period, he found it necessary to confine himself strictly to contracting and erecting buildings. Many of the finest architectural and substantial structures of the time in that city are the work of his genius.

Not alone as a builder, however, was Mr. Shearer regarded with favor, but he also served the city in various capacities with efficiency. He was one the first Board of Sewer Commissioners, and in 1859 was a member of the committee to select a design for the new City Hall. On account of the war the building was delayed until 1866, when the subject was revived, plans made, contracts let, excavations made, and the corner-stone laid, August, 1868. It was finished in June, 1871, at a costs of $600,000. It is a magnificent piece of work, creditable to all connected therewith, and in may respects has no superior as a municipal hall anywhere in the country. Mr. Shearer carried on with great success and profit his business in Detroit until 1862, when he retired. This he did because his health had been somewhat impaired, and also that he might give active attention to matters connected with the war. It is worthy of remark, before dropping Mr. Shearer and his business in Detroit, that his works were of honest construction, and that he was also strictly reliable in character and judgment. Indeed, it is said that many large contracts were taken by him for the erection of buildings simply on mere verbal agreement. He had a warm side for humanity and a just sense of right. During all the financial disquietude and disaster of 1857 he kept large numbers of mechanics employed when work and bread were needed and appreciated.

Mr. Shearer has been rather averse to hold public office, and has persistently refused to do so, except by unsolicited appointment, and in cases where there was little or no salary attached. Much time has been given to the public, but it has been with a view to its benefit, and not for his pecuniary gain. In 1861 he was elected Alderman from the Sixth Ward of the city of Detroit for a two years’ term, when he proved himself one of the most valuable and useful members of that body; and that city owes to him its progress in various ways. It is probably that Mr. Shearer could have had almost any office within the gift of the State, had he but signified his willingness to accept. It is well know that he has been prominently mentioned in connection with its chief magistracy, but he would not allow such candidacy to receive serious consideration.

Mr. Shearer is not only a philanthropist, but a patriot as well. During the late war he did not shoulder his musket and march to the front, but no soldier who wore the blue was even more true and loyal. While he remained at home, he was active night and day in the prosecution of the war, and performed a service as patriotic, as necessary, and more valuable than if he had gone to the front; for without such men as Mr. Shearer, there would soon have been no Union to protect and save. In July, 1853, he was sent by the State as one of its agents to Gettysburg to relieve the Michigan woulded. In this position, as well as in may others during the war, he spent quite large amounts of money, and practically abandoned all his business so long as the State and his country needed his services. He was active in helping to raise the State’s quota, and did much towards securing local bounties and preventing the draft of men.

In 1865 Mr. Shearer removed to Bay City, in which city he had located some interests a year or two previous. From his first becoming a resident of that place and position in prominent business connections and public enterprises. He engage in lumbering, real estate, and banking, and met with success in whatever he undertook. This was due to his excellent judgment and varied experiences in life, his energy, perseverance, and continuity of purpose. Added to all this was strength and solidity of character and a broad, universal fellowship. He was President of the First National Bank of Bay City, from 1867 to 1881, when he resigned because of impaired health. He need rest and relaxation from business cares and responsibilities, and now came the opportunity which he had long sought, viz., extended foreign travel. He first visited the western portions of his own country and then sailed for Europe. Returning with renewed youth and vigor, he resumed his business associations.

Since coming to Bay City Mr. Shearer was chief in organizing the city water-works, and was the first President of its Board; was appointed one of the State Building Commissioners for the capitol in 1871, and served until its completion; was elected one of the Board of Regents of the University of Michigan in 1880, and served a full term of eight years; has been Trustee of the Public Library of Bay City, from its organization in 1874; a member of the Semi-Centennial Commission of Michigan May, 1885; was for fifteen years one of the Trustees of the First Presbyterian Church, and the first President of the Lumberman’s Association for the Saginaw Valley.

The remark of an acquaintance illustrates his active business life; “He has been prominent in most of the enterprises of Detroit from 1850 to 1865, and of Bay City from 1865 to the present time.” In May, 1850, he married Margaret J. Hutchinson, of Detroit, eldest daughter of Henry Hutchinson, of that place. To them have been born four children, three of who are still living. They are by name George Henry, James Buchanan and Chauncy Hurlburt. The eldest son is now a member of the water works and fire commissions, Vice-President of the Bay County Savings Bank, and interested in real estate in company with is younger brother, James B. Chauncy is now employed in the Bay County Savings Bank as Teller. The family attendants at and supporters of the Presbyterian Church.

Our subject has been a member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows for many years, but his private business has exacted so much time and attention that he has had small opportunities to attend lodges. After locating here Mr. Shearer’s first residence was at the corner of Water and Fourth Streets. He later removed to Washington and Center Avenue, and in 1876 he built an elegant mansion at the corner of Monroe and Center Streets on a large and beautifully-located lot. The house is a three-story brick structure with stone trimmings, and is finished and furnished most completely with all the comforts and many of the luxuries of our modern style of living. Bay City justly regards Mr. Shearer as one of its most substantial and useful citizens, public-spirited, liberal, and progressive, and of the highest honor and respectability. His services in its behalf have been invaluable, and his name is inseparably and imperishably connected with its institutions in the hearts of all its people.

1896: Article on his death. (Added Jan. 2005)

The Bay City Tribune - October 15, 1896



Honorable James Shearer, one of Bay City’s most honored citizens laid down the cares of a successful life at 5:05 o’clock yesterday morning.

The cause of death was general debility resulting from advanced age. The deceased was a man who, by force of character, a life of honor, and by days that were spent in bringing forth the capabilities of a master mind, stood high in esteem of his fellow citizens. Nor were his service confined to the city or state, and his name, by reason of his achievements, will be recognized elsewhere than in the circle of these who were his immediate friends.

Born at Albany, N.Y. July 12, 1823, Mr. Shearer at the age of thirteen entered a store at Albany. After two years’ stay he came to Detroit. He apprenticed himself for six years to a builder and applied himself during that period to the study of mathematics and architecture. Returning to Albany he prosecuted studies along the line he had marked out for himself, graduating a few years later.

His first work after leaving college was as superintendent of construction of the new capitol at Montgomery, Alabama, in 1846. Two years later he returned north and in 1872 he was a member of the commission having in charge the construction of the Michigan state capitol at Lansing. The appropriation that was made at the time was found sufficient by Mr. Shearer and his confereres no only to build the capitol but to beautify the grounds. No additional appropriation was asked, a thing remarkable in view of the fact that few if any state capitols in the union have been completed without them.

In 1848 Mr. Shearer went to Detroit and resided there until 1865 when he came to this city. While a resident of Detroit he was elected an alderman from the Sixth ward and made a member of the committee that adopted plans for the Detroit city hall building.

In 1865 he came to Bay City to reside having purchased the Raymond saw mill at the foot of Water street. He became at once a leading businessman, and was successful in lumber, real estate, and banking. He was president of the First National bank from 1867 to 1881. He was instrumental in organizing he city water works and was its first president. Made a member of the board of regents in 1880, he served the state university well for eight years. Other offices and positions of trust were as follows: Trustee of the public library since 1874, member semi-centennial of Michigan, May, 1885, first president of the Lumbermen’s association of the Saginaw valley. In church affairs Mr. Shearer was a Presbyterian and for 15 years was a trustee of the First Presbyterian church.

The deceased leaves a family, comprising a wife and three children, George Henry, James Buchanan and Chauncy Hurlburt. Mrs. Shearer’s maiden name was Margaret J. Hutchinson and she was unified in marriage to Mr. Shearer in May, 1850.

Mr. Shearer built the three story block on the northeastern corner of Water street and Center avenue. He erected the Central block in 1880 and the Shearer Bros.’ block adjoining it in 1883.

The funeral will occur on Saturday afternoon at 2 o’clock. Rev. Otis A. Smith officiating. Internment will be made at Elm Lawn cemetery.

1896: On same pages as death article. (Added Jan. 2005)

The Bay City Tribune - October 15, 1896 (same page)



At a meeting of the board of directors of the First National Bank of Bay City, held yesterday the following was ordered placed upon the records.

The death of James Shearer at his residence this morning at the age of seventy-three years, brought to its close a most honorable and worthy life.

Mr. Shearer was one of the original stockholders of this bank, one of its directors from the time of its original foundation until the expiration of its original charter, and for 14 years from 1867 to 1881 its president; and it is but simple justice to say that the uniform success of the bank has been the result very largely of his care, watch-fullness and sound business judgement.

While always kind and liberal to a degree, considerate of the wishes and feelings of others, sympathizing with the unfortunate and anxious to do anything in his power to assist those worthy of assistance, he was always firm and just and alert to protect the interests of the bank and its stockholders, without reference to his own feelings of sympathy or kindly consideration.

The influence of Mr. Shearer’s life is not confined to this city. Passing the early part of his life in Detroit, he was honored and respected by many of its older citizens; and has left amongst them the record of an honorable and honored man.

He filled several offices of state importance. As regent of the University of Michigan his skill as an architect and builder rendered him on of the most useful members of its board and some of the noble buildings now standing upon its campus are memorials of his interest in the welfare of the University and devotion to its permanent growth and success.

As one of the commissioners to superintend the construction of the state capitol at Lansing, he rendered most important service to the state.

As member of its board of directors, as president and as an officer of this bank, Mr. Shearer endeared himself to all of his associates and his death brings to each of us a sense of personal loss. The city and state have lost a most worthy citizen; and we, his associates in the bank have lost a most honorable friend.

Reference Notes & Pages

James Shearer
Related Bay-Journal Pages
Shearer, Chauncy H. (son)
Shearer, G. Henry (son)
Shearer, Geo. H. (bro.)
Shearer, James W. (bro.)
Shearer & Co. Mill
People Referenced
Buchanan, Agnes (mother)
Hutchinson, Margaret (wife)
Shearer, Chauncy H. (son)
Shearer, George (father)
Shearer, George H. (son)
Shearer, George H. (bro.)
Shearer, James B. (son)
Smith, Otis A. (Rev.)
Subjects Referenced
Alabama State Capitol
Albany, NY
Albany Academy
Bancroft House
Bay City, MI
Bay City water works
Bay Co. Savings Bank
Board of Regents
Capitol blg., AL
Central block
Detroit alderman
Detroit, MI
Detroit City Hall
Elm Lawn cemetery
First National Bank
First Presbyterian Ch.
Gettysburg, PA
James Shearer & Co.
Lansing, MI
Library trustee
Lumberman's Assoc. Sag. Valley
Michigan Central R.R.
Michigan's semi-centennial.
Michigan State Capitol
Mongomery, AL
National Bank of Bay City
Presbyterian Church
Raymond Mill
Saginaw Val. Lumbermen's Assoc.
Shearer block
Shearer Bros.' block
Univ. of Michigan
Oct. 1896: Also On Page
At yesterday morning's session of the board of supervisors John B. Lang was elected county school examiner. A committee was appointed to make an estimate of money required for running expenses for the ensuing year of the county.

The building committee was instructed to obtain bids for fuel and report not later than Saturday next.

At the afternoon session the election of a superintendent of the poor was made a special order of business. At the start there were five contestants but it dwindled down to two, George F. Hood and A. Walther. The friends of both were very anxious to elect their man but on the fourth ballot George F. Hood received the majority of votes and was declared elected.

The next order of business was the electection of three election canvassers and one alternate, the regulars to be chosen from Bay City, West Bay City and one from a township. R.S. Pratt of Bay City, D.A. Patterson of West Bay City and Birdsey Knight were successful. The compensation of such canvassers is to be $8 per day and 10 cents mileage one way.
Marriage license were issued yesterday to August Engelhart of Portsmouth, and Emma Snider of Bay City; John B. Bayes of Bay City, and Clotilda Rivet of West Bay City; Peter Bellor of Lengsville, and Julia Trombley of Bay City; John C. Ross and Margaret A. Keith of Bay City; Edwin E. Hunt of Tuscola and Priscilla Cherry of Beaver.
The opening of the hospital fund course occurs at the opera house next Friday evening, with the Leotta-Hills dramatic and muscial recitals. Course tickets for the sever entertainments $4 to $1.50.
L. P. Smith was yesterday appointed master of the schooner A. Gebhardt.
Capt. C.T. Brown has been appointed master of the steambarge A.A. Turner.
Steamber W.P. Thew cleared for Cleveland with 210,000 feet of lumber shipped by Savage Bros. to Newton & Co.
Steamer A. A. Turner and schooners H.W. Hoag, Mary E. Perew and A. Gebhardt clear for John's Island, Ont., light.
WRITINGS: History As It Was Written Then.