June 16 • 01:28 AM

Library named after lumber baron

February 10, 2010
Tom Wearing's visit with Almont's Henry Stephens Memorial Library staff a few weeks ago sent a zillion zaps to my memory file. I have so many fond memories. My first are of standing on my tippy-toes to push a book to Mrs. Mattie Johnson, the librarian. When the old 1884 school building burned on April 18, 1926 or '27, the 4th and 5th grades were placed in the basement of the library. I was one of that group. Today I went to what is now known as the James P. Smith Genealogical and Local History Room to find out more about Henry Stephens and the gift of our library.

Henry Stephens was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1923. He came to America in 1845 and opened a store in Almont but soon moved to Romeo. He later returned and together with John Wright operated a hardware and lumber supply business. Mr. Stephens made a fortune by cornering the supply of iron nails in Michigan during the Civil War and added to his wealth by requiring builders to buy lumber from his Fish Lake Mill in order to obtain the nails. In the early 1870s he had found a good tract of timber eight miles northeast of Lapeer by Fish Lake and with the financial assistance of F.P. Currier, J.S. Johnson and Uriel Townsend of Almont, invested $75,000 to purchase the land and build a lumber mill. It was a vast wilderness of pines. In fact, it was thought that it would require half a century to cut the pine in that area.

Since Fish Lake was not near any river, a branch of the Detroit & Bay City Railroad was built to it. In February, 1873, the village had 26 private residences, a large hotel in process of construction, a store, a shoe shop, a livery stable, a blacksmith shop and a post office which was named Stephens.

For a decade or so the sawmills manufactured large quantities of lumber, staves and shingles, but as so may lumber towns, Stephens became a ghost town.

In 1916, Albert Stephens offered to fund the construction of a library in honor of his father, Henry Stephens, who was one of Almont's earliest and most important settlers. The following year local contractor Al Thayer erected a Georgian Revival building, first opening to the public in 1919. Contents in the library were bought from gracious donations by the townspeople.

In 1987, an addition was erected onto the building. The library is part of the West St. Clair Street National Register Historic District. The West St. Clair Street Historic District contains 13 houses, two outbuildings and the library. All of these buildings were added to the National Register of Historic Places by the U.S. Department of Interior on May 8, 1986.

When word began to spread that the village and township were going to merge and become a city, the Henry Stephens Memorial Library Board agreed to make the library a district library under Act 24 of the Michigan Public Acts of 1877. This agreement established that the district library would be a free public operating library in the township, in the village of Almont and in Lapeer County, Michigan. On August 29, 1994, the Henry Stephens Memorial Library became the Almont District Library.

I am so grateful that our library is still in use and for the staff who are always eager to help. I enjoyed my afternoon in my 4th and 5th grade room. I even felt my teacher's frown, who was also my sister-in-law, when I would forget and call her Bessie instead of Mrs. Park in front of my classmates.

—Country Cousin

Gertie Brooks is a lifelong Almont area resident. A 'farm girl,' Gertie is the premier historian for the Almont area, and frequently offers her memories and first-hand accounts in her 'Country Cousin' columns.
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