Wellington R. Burt (August 26, 1831 – March 2, 1919) was an American lumber baron from Saginaw, Michigan. At the time of his death, his wealth was estimated to be between $40 and $90 million ($1.3 billion in 2019 dollars). For a time in the early 1900s, Burt ranked as one of the eight wealthiest men in the United States. He was best known for his lumber mills and timber holdings, but was also involved in iron mining, railroads, salt mines, and finances. Burt was a politician, holding the offices of Mayor of East Saginaw (1867–68) and member of the Michigan Senate (1893–94). In his final years, he lived alone in a mansion with his servants. Estranged from friends and family and nicknamed "The Lone Pine of Michigan", he officially died of "senility" at age 87.
Wellington R. Burt
|Mayor of East Saginaw|
|Preceded by||Dwight G. Holland|
|Succeeded by||James L. Ketcham|
|Member of the Michigan Senate|
from the 22nd district
|Succeeded by||Henry M. Youmans|
|Born||August 26, 1831|
Pike, New York
|Died||March 2, 1919 (aged 87)|
|Resting place||Forest Lawn Cemetery|
|Spouse(s)||1st: Sarah Torrance|
2nd: Mary Amina Richardson
|Children||Hattie May, Jennie, Emma, Gertrude, Charles, George, Marvin|
|Parent(s)||Luther Burt, Florinda Horton|
|Education||Albion College (1yr)|
Michigan Central College (1yr)
|Profession||timber, iron, rail, finance, salt|
Burt had an unusual will, "as bizarre but as finely-wrought as any in U.S. court annals". It contained a "spite clause" conceived by Burt to avenge a family feud. It specified to wait 21 years after his children and grandchildren were dead before the bulk of the fortune could go to any descendants, in effect alienating his children and grandchildren from the estate, beyond some small annuities. The conditions of the will were met in 2010 after the 1989 death of his last grandchild. In May 2011, twelve of Burt's descendants finally received the estate, worth about $100 million.
Burt's legacy today is mixed, seen as a vindictive old man, a generous benefactor of the city of Saginaw and a famously wealthy American entrepreneur.
Burt was born on August 26, 1831 in the town of Pike, near Rochester, New York, the ninth of thirteen siblings and the eldest son. His father was Luther Burt and his mother Florinda Horton Burt. The Burts were poor farmers who came from an old New England line, tracing back to Henry Burt, who had settled from Scotland in 1640. The Burt lineage included William Austin Burt (1792–1858), who was a notable Michigan surveyor described as "the father of the typewriter".
At the age of seven, he moved with his parents to Jackson County, Michigan, where he worked on the family farm. Michigan was then only a few years old and Burt's subsequent life and career as a first generation Michigander was often identified with the growth and progress of the new state. In 1843, when Wellington was 12, his father Luther died. Under the guidance of his mother, he became the farm's manager and "entered into the struggle incident to pioneer life". He attended two years of college one at Albion College and one at Michigan Central College (now Hillsdale College). At the age of 22, he decided to see the world and obtained work as a sailor abroad on freighters in Australia, Central and South America, and New Zealand. He would recall Australia as his favorite foreign country.
When he returned home in 1857 at age 26, he found a burgeoning timber industry in Michigan, the "Green Gold Rush". He took a job earning $13 a month at the Pine River lumber camp near St. Louis, Michigan and within a month was promoted to camp foreman with double wages. He was "tall, strong and knew how to give orders". Using savings, he started his own lumber company in 1858, buying 300 acres in Gratiot County. In 1867, he founded the community of Melbourne on the Saginaw River near Zilwaukee, Michigan, named after his favorite city in Australia. By 1870, Melbourne was among the largest and most complete mills in the world, but in 1876, it was destroyed by a fire of unknown origin. Many at the time thought this would be the end of Burt's fortunes, but he also owned timber land elsewhere, including in St. Louis County, Minnesota, which turned out to be favourable for him, as it was in the heart of the immensely valuable Mesabi iron range. In addition to his various timber and iron mine holdings, Burt made his fortune in the salt industry, in railroads and in foreign bonds and banking investments. He invested in the former CS&M Railroad (running between Durand and Bay City) and for a time, owned most of the Ann Arbor Railroad system. He also bought railways in Russia and China. He had plans to build a sugar beet factory in Owosso, Michigan, but the idea failed to come to fruition.
Burt's political career included time as mayor of East Saginaw in 1867 and 1868, and as unsuccessful Fusion candidate for the position of Governor of Michigan in 1888. He was elected member of the Michigan State Senate 22nd District for 1893–94 again under the Fusion ticket, and as Democratic candidate for U.S. Representative from Michigan 8th District in 1900. "In the capitol at Lansing", one Saginaw News account read, "Sen. Burt was more conspicuous for his political naiveté than for any distinguished act of statesmanship. They said he tried hard, but to him, politics were strange shenanigans. You smiled and joked when you meant to kick a man's shins."
Later in his life, Burt lived alone in a three-story brick mansion at Cherry St. and E. Genesee Ave. It was demolished in 1959 and today is a parking lot. With failing eyesight and hearing he was taken care of by servants. Due to his isolation from his family and social circles in later years, he was known as "The Lone Pine of Michigan". He had radical stomach surgery at the age of 80. His death certificate lists his cause of death as "senility". He is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery, Saginaw County Michigan. (Section 8, Plot 1.)
Burt was married twice and had seven children, three daughters from the first wife and one daughter and three younger sons from the second wife. His first wife was Sarah Torrance (1833–1867), whom he married May 22, 1860; his second was Armine Mary Richardson (1839–1904), whom he married February 10, 1869.
Burt had one of the more bizarre wills in American legal history. It contained a "spite clause" which specified to wait until his children and grandchildren were dead before the estate could be dispersed to any descendants yet unborn in Burt's lifetime. However, his children did receive relatively small annuities of $1,000 to $5,000 each, except for one favorite son who received $30,000 annually, and one unfavored daughter who got nothing. His secretary received $4,000 annually, more than most of his children, while a cook, housekeeper, coachman and chauffeur each received $1,000 annually.
Burt's will stipulated the majority of the estate to be held in a trust until "21 years after [the death of] my last surviving grandchild [who was alive] at the time of my death." This condition was met in 2010, 21 years after the November 1989 death of Burt's last grandchild, Marion Lansill. In May 2011, after time for legal negotiations, the fortune was finally distributed to his descendants. The estate was estimated in total at $100 million to $110 million. It was split between twelve descendants, weighted based on age seniority. They included three great-grandchildren; seven great-great grandchildren; and two great-great-great grandchildren – the youngest beneficiary was 19 and the oldest 94. The biggest beneficiary received between $14.5 to $16 million, with the smallest beneficiary between $2.6 to $2.9 million. In the end thirty of Burt's descendants, including children and grandchildren, missed out on the inheritance because they were ineligible or died before the will's conditions were met.
It is not entirely clear why Burt made such an unusual will, but newspaper records suggest family feuds were likely at the core of his decision. The will was challenged by his children after he died. A legal hole was found in 1920 because part of the estate was composed of iron leases in Minnesota, and Minnesota had a law against trusts of such long standing. This portion of the estate, amounting to $5 million, was distributed to Burt's children and grandchildren (a son, three daughters and four granddaughters). In 1961, an additional $720,000 was taken from the trust in settlement of a suit filed by nine heirs and the estates of three other descendants.
Burt's legacy is mixed. On the one hand he was once a famous and successful business man who contributed to the community in many ways, and was generally well regarded in his lifetime. On the other hand he is best known today for his bizarre will, giving him the reputation of a vindictive old man. Saginaw historian Thomas B. Mudd said "For a while, I took Wellington R. Burt as a selfish rich guy, but the picture that emerges is of someone who also threw himself into the community".
Burt could be tough, and not just with his children. Burt had originally devised millions in his will to the city, but retracted it when Saginaw officials increased his South Jefferson property assessment from $400,000 to $1 million four years before he died in 1919. One well known story recounts how Burt ordered some horses at the lumber mill to be starved and worked to death, "Mr. Callam, the horses are too fat", Burt reportedly said. "Trim them down, sir, and when the logs are out, dispose of them." Mr. Callam refused to starve and kill the horses so Burt fired him, and found someone who would carry it out.
Burt was generous in life and honored after death. His charitable giving to Saginaw during his lifetime was extensive, including funding the City Auditorium, the Burt Manual Training School, a women's hospital, a Salvation Army and a YWCA that later became Jacobson's. The town of Burt, Michigan is named for him, as is Burt Street in Saginaw, which borders the same block as his former home. The Burt Opera House in Taymouth Township carries his name and is still in use today as a community center. Trips on the paddle steamer Wellington R. Burt were once a popular day excursion along the Saginaw River (1876–1891). Burt was inducted into the Saginaw Hall of Fame in 1967.
The popular side-wheeler paddle steamer Wellington R. Burt c. 1887
- Burnham, Roderick H. (1892). Genealogical records of Henry and Ulalia Burt, the emigrants who early settled at Springfield, Mass., and their descendants through nine generations, from 1640 to 1891. Miss Elizabeth Burt. pp. 263–64. Retrieved June 8, 2012.
- Kim, Susanna (May 10, 2011). "$100 Million Finally to Be Split Between Descendants, 92 Years After Rich Relative's Death". ABC News. Retrieved June 15, 2011.
- L. Engel, Justin (May 8, 2011). "Wellington's millions: 92 years after his death, Saginaw lumber baron's vindictive testament nears endgame". The Saginaw News. Saginaw, MI. Retrieved June 8, 2012.
- Orwig, Douglas. "Wellington R. Burt: Remarkable Eccentric". Mid-Michigan Remembers-Stories about Us. Delta College. Archived from the original on September 22, 2006.
- Miller, Ed; Jean R. Beach. "Wellington R. Burt". Biographical Sketches. Saginaw Hall of Fame and Castle Museum of Saginaw County. Retrieved June 15, 2011.. Original URL: http://www.saginawhalloffame.org/hono/Wellington%20R.%20Burt.pdf
- Engel, Justin L. (May 10, 2011). "Wellington's millions: History kinder to Saginaw lumber baron than family's legacy, preservationist says". The Saginaw News. Saginaw, MI. Retrieved June 15, 2011.
- Wellington R. Burt Death Certificate, State of Michigan – Department of State, Division of Vital Statistics. Photographic copy from SeekingMichigan.org, a Michigan historical records archive.
- "Burt, Wellington R. (1831–1919)". Index to Politicians: Burrum to Burtnett. politicalgraveyard.com. Retrieved May 11, 2011.
- Burt, Henry Martyn (1893). Early days in New England: Life and times of Henry Burt of Springfield and some of his descendants. C. W. Bryan Company. p. 295.
- Mahar, Thomas (April 17, 2010). "History of Michigan's Beet Sugar Industry". Retrieved June 15, 2011.
- Maday, Anna Mae (September 2000). "Burt Manual Training School". Saginaw Images. Archived from the original on March 19, 2005. Retrieved June 15, 2011..
- "American tycoon's fortune to be divided up after 92 years". The Daily Telegraph (UK). May 13, 2011. Retrieved May 13, 2011.
- Engel, Justin L. (May 9, 2011). "Wellington's millions: Saginaw judge carries out century-old wishes of unusual lumber tycoon". The Saginaw News. Retrieved June 15, 2011.
- Ed Pilkington (May 14, 2011). "Goose who laid the golden-egg plan finally at peace". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved April 20, 2020.
- Engel, Justin L. (May 9, 2011). "Wellington's millions: Great-great-great granddaughter calls Saginaw lumber legacy a 'curse' on family". The Saginaw News. Saginaw, MI. Retrieved June 15, 2011.
- "Burt Opera House". Michigan Historical Markers. Waymarking.com. Retrieved June 15, 2011.
- Mills, James Cooke (1918). History of Saginaw County, Michigan. Seemann & Peters. pp. 716–17.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Wellington R. Burt.|
- The Burt house location via Google Maps street view. Cherry St. and E. Genesee Ave., Saginaw, MI
- Wellington R. Burt steamer, a popular sidewheel steamboat on the Saginaw River ca. 1876–1891, from History of Saginaw County, Michigan, 1918.
- The Burt Manual Training School, from History of Saginaw County, Michigan, 1918.
- Burt Opera House, Taymouth Township, Michigan (Michigan Historical Markers on Waymarking.com)