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Museum Memories

Robert Lyon Stearns

By Deborah E. Kidd-Trammell

Chair-McCreary County Museum Advisory Committee

Robert Lyon Stearns, Sr. (1872-1939) was the only child of Justus Smith Stearns and Paulina Lyon.  He grew up in Ludington, Michigan and dreamed of becoming an artist. He was also a gifted illustrator and author and worked in New York City while seeking to establish himself in the arts. After strong urging from his father, he went to work in the family lumber and coal operations in Michigan and Kentucky since his father felt he could not make a living in the world of art.

In 1902, Justus started the Stearns Coal and Lumber Company and the KY and TN Railroad in Whitley County Kentucky. R. L.  came to Stearns and immersed himself in his father’s business ventures. He continued to keep in touch with his artist friends and would often invite them to visit him for painting sessions. One of his artist friends was James R. Hopkins (1877-1969), who spent summers in the Cumberland Mountains of Kentucky from 1915-1917. 

In paintings and plaques R. L. made surprising use of feet to help tell a story. He was the author of two books about a mythical and humorous Ludington Founder (his father). In an interview, R. L. shyly replied to a reporter, “I’m not an artist. I don’t know anything about color, I am a businessman with a hobby, and I illustrated some books.” Some of his work was in LIFE magazine. He has often been referred to as the Mark Twain of art. 

This painting, depicting a logger pulling a load of logs during a snowstorm, was completed by  R. L. Stearns in 1898 when he was 26 years old.  Museum visitors can enjoy this original artwork, as well as several others by R. L. at the McCreary County Museum. Giclee prints are available for purchase at The Artisan Shop located in the Big South Fork Scenic Railway Depot in Stearns, KY.  

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