Curtis Emerson

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1810 - 1880

One of Saginaw’s favorite fables involves Curt Emerson and the Bancroft Hotel. According to the story, Curt was a lumberjack who had come into a fortune without losing the crude ways of the lumber camps. 


In 1859, the elite of Saginaw gathered to celebrate the opening of the grand new Bancroft House. The ladies were elegantly dressed in gowns from New York and Paris and the men were equally elegant in white tie. They were just sitting down at tables set with the finest crystal, china and silver when Curt roared in, drunk and spoiling for a fight. He had been conspicuously not invited. Dressed in his lumberjack mackinaw, red sash and calk boots, he jumped up on the head table, kicking the place settings into the satin-clad laps. His little dog, Caesar, followed him, adding to the melee with a special trick Curt had taught him. When he got to the end of the table, Curt jumped down, turned to the astonished manager and said, “Send me the bill.” 


It’s a great story. 


Trouble is, it’s not true. Actually, Curt was a well-educated dandy from New England, said to be “always dressed in the pink of fashion.” He was one of the earliest lumber barons but he was never a lumberjack—and he wouldn’t have been caught dead in a red sash. He was not only invited to the party, he was on the planning committee for the event and gave one of the toasts. 


The party lasted until dawn and everyone had a wonderful time. 


But what about the real Curt Emerson? What was he really like? Curtis Emerson was born in February of 1810 in Norwich, Vermont. His father was a leading merchant and banker and Curt was educated in the finest schools. Historian James Mills wrote of him, “…he was diminutive and slight, being not more than five feet two inches and weighing about one hundred pounds; with complexion midway between sallow and swarthy; keen, fierce gray eyes which glared with resentment or twinkled with fun, according to his ever-changing moods. 


“He was a plucky little fellow, full of energy and vitality, and when engaged in an altercation would tackle a man twice his size, but was not vindictive and, when worsted in wordy debates or fisticuffs, would promptly extend his hand to his antagonist and invite him and all the bystanders to liquid refreshments…Emerson was a contradictory combination of profanity, wit and command of the language.” Curt’s big problem was the “liquid refreshments.” 


After an explosive argument with his father, Emerson headed west and started the first brewery in Detroit. In the summers, he acted as the agent of a large land company and travelled throughout Michigan, where he invested in the copper and iron mines of the Upper Peninsula. His travels also took him through Wisconsin and in areas west of the Mississippi. 


In 1846, he bought a piece of land on the east side of the Saginaw River from a John A. Rockwell of Connecticut. On it was a small store, a boarding house, a barn and a blacksmith shop and sawmill that had belonged to “Uncle Harvey” Williams. In 1848, in partnership with Charles Grant, Emerson sent out the first full cargo of clear lumber ever shipped from Michigan. He established Saginaw’s first real lumber camp, not far from Caro and built the first ferryboat in the area. 


He reopened the store and organized a settlement which soon became a town he named Buena Vista. In its first election, Emerson was elected supervisor by five votes—all that were cast. In 1850, he built a handsome, two story house he called, “The Halls of Montezuma” in honor of General Zachary Scott’s recent victory over Santa Ana. He was a generous and convivial leader among the early settlers, who were a hearty and hard-drinking lot who thoroughly enjoyed the wild parties he was famous for. He was also a leader in promoting Saginaw’s prosperity. 


During the Civil War, he was known as a Copperhead, or Southern sympathizer and in politics was a strong Democrat, despising the “damned black Republicans” as he called the opposition. 


The old sawmill was dismantled in 1854 and, several years later, Emerson burned it as a celebration of the Fourth of July. He went out of the lumber business and into real estate where he was very successful. 


A lifelong bachelor, his closest companion was the dog, Caesar, a mutt, that like Emerson, was short and had an explosive temper. Caesar did have a special trick Curt had taught him which we won’t explain here. 


In later years, Curt lost most of his money but when he died in 1880, his bed was surrounded by friends. The newspaper obituary was written by one of those friends who said, “Full of quick, baleful, uncontrolled desires, eccentricities and faults, he fairly overflowed with charity, kindness and warm-hearted affection for his friends. No one who ever knew him could find in their inmost being a single trace of unforgiving hate; yet he was shunned, dreaded, despised and in turn, petted, honored and loved by all. His character was pencilled in finer shades of light and shade than any other we have seen or known.” 


Saginaw’s Emerson School is named for him.  



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