With the end of the Civil War and restoration of communications and travel, investors identified and then developed many of the resources of the South. A land agent for the Stearns Salt and Lumber Company of Ludington, Michigan, traveling through virgin timber stands of eastern Kentucky and Tennessee in the late nineteenth century was impressed with the navigable, northward flowing Big South Fork of the Cumberland River and the north and south running Cincinnati Southern Railway. By 1899 agents for the company of Justus S. Stearns, a Michigan timber industrialist, had negotiated large purchases of land like the “Big Survey” which included thirty thousand acres of land in Scott, Pickett, and Fentress Counties, Tennessee, and Wayne County, Kentucky. The Stearns Coal and Lumber Company was formed and papers of incorporation drawn up in 1902. At the same time, the lumber industry was being established in the region, and coal mining operations began. The first Stearns Company coal mine opened in 1902, and the first coal shipments rolled out of the area in 1903.
The Stearns Company employed area residents and established a bond of mutual respect that made the company relatively immune from the labor strife that characterized much of the mining industry during the 1920s and 1930s. The Stearns Coal and Lumber Company was the oldest continuous mining operation in Kentucky when the company sold out in 1975.