History & Genealogy
Judge Joseph H.
When the list of individuals who have been instrumental in the development of the Sault is read, Judge Joseph Hall Steere is sure to be on it. A circuit and state supreme court justice, a staunch advocate of preserving history and a lover of the outdoors, Steere left his mark on many aspects of the area, though his work may not always be readily identified. Steere had much to do with the foundation of the Chippewa County Historical Society, and with the construction of the current Chippewa County Courthouse. He owned the island that still bears his name east of Rotary Island in the Little Rapids archipelago near the Sault Country Club; and he tried many cases during his active years of 1881 to 1926 as a judge.
Born at Addison, Mich. May 19, 1852, Steere was a son of Isaac and Elizabeth (Comstock) Steere. Chase Osborn, the editor and publisher of The Evening News, said they were Quakers. Steere's father, Isaac, had been born in Ohio after his family moved from Virginia to that state. The younger Steere attended public schools in Addison, and then Raisin Valley Seminary, graduating with the class of 1871. He completed high school in six months at Adrian and then began law studies at the office of Geddes and Miller in Adrian. He was admitted to the Michigan Bar Association in 1878.
At the insistence of industrialist William Chandler, with whom he had attended school in Adrian, Steere came to the Sault in 1878 to begin the practice of law. Steere also became associated with Chandler in the Sault Ste. Marie News, a precursor of The Evening News. That same year, he was appointed prosecuting attorney for the county, and a year later he was formally elected to the office, serving until 1881. That year, he became the Republican nominee for, and eventual winner of, the post of judge of the 11th State Circuit. The district, at that time, included Chippewa, Schoolcraft, Luce, Alger, Mackinac and Manitou counties. Manitou was composed of the islands in Lake Michigan, including the Fox and Manitou islands, and Beaver Island. Most of the people in the county were Irish, and they were governed by their priest, Father Gallagher. Some of Steere's rounds had to be made on snowshoes in the winter and by sailboats in the summer. Court was convened in stores, hotel offices and so on in most places. The only courthouses at the time existed in Chippewa and Mackinac counties. The Saginaw Courier-Herald, in its July 27, 1904 issue, said of Steere: "He knows no friend while on the bench. A young or strange attorney is received the same courtesy that his best friend would receive."
To say he was a student of the history of the Lake Superior region is an understatement. Every person who undertakes a study of U.P. history owes much to Steere, who had an extensive library of volumes related to the region. This collection went to the Carnegie Public Library, later the Bayliss, upon his death, and is still available for use. Steere was an unofficial tour guide of the Chippewa County Courthouse for many years, showing the building to all manner of interested people, from the famous to the common.
In the summer of 1889, he traveled in Eruope and later extensively in America. In 1890, he made a canoe trip of more than 1,000 miles to Hudson's Bay in the company of John Boucher, a Native American guide who it is said was his best friend. "When Justice Steere wished a rest, he would take his most intimate friend, John Boucher," Osborn said. "They would go into Lake Superior, and their route was wherever the wind listeth. Steere was not a particularly good boatman, but he was unafraid. He would let Boucher have his own way."
The Hudson's Bay trip, an undated Evening News article (possibly Aug. 1, 1932) in the Steere biographical file at the Bayliss Library said, "was an outstanding feat at that time... It occupied the larger part of a summer for the two friends, with many a laborious hike and portage between stream and lakes and around many rapids." One of Boucher's paddles from the expedition was at one time displayed at the Carnegie/Bayliss Library and may belong to the Chippewa County Historical Society.
Once, Osborn said, everyone was disturbed because the pair was two weeks late in returning. "While everyone was searching, he just went back to work, unaware," Osborn said.
Later in life, Steere made annual fishing trips to Gargantua Bay, now a part of Lake Superior Provincial Park, north of the Sault. These were recounted in an undated Sault Star article found by an author of a book on the area, though he estimated it was published in about 1930. At that time, he had returned to Gargantua for twenty years.
Steere was a principal stockholder in two of the Sault's three early banks, Sault Savings and First National. An honorary member of the Kiwanis Club, he owned considerable property in and near the city, including the aforementioned Steere Island and land near the Cadillac-Soo Lumber Company in Algonquin.
Despite his parents' strict religion, Osborn said, Steere was known to chew tobacco and take the occasional drink. He enjoyed theological discussions with the Rev. Arthur Lord of St. James Episcopal Church.
Steere never married, though Osborn told a story of a near encounter with those bonds. The late Mrs. Corydon Ainsworth (her husband was a lumber baron) brought a beautiful and fascinating young woman to the Osborn hunting camp, Deerfoot Lodge. The girl fell in love with Steere, "though he did not use any wiles upon her," Osborn said. "She baited him - knew of his wealth and influence - and they became engaged. When Judge Steere came to, he saw he had made a mistake." He settled with the woman for $10,000, and never had a similar "adventure" again!
Steere was proud of his relationship to Joseph Beal Steere of the University of Michigan, who made a rare excursion in the early days to the Philippines and other areas of the Orient. The trip led to valuable discoveries in the field of ornithology. He wrote many important documents on birds.
In 1911, Steere was elected to the Supreme Court bench for the state. He served for sixteen years, retiring in 1926.
While early in life, he had boarded with Joseph Ripley for a time. He alternated between an apartment on Court Street and winters in the South in the last years of his life. He died Dec. 16, 1936 at War Memorial Hospital, of what The Evening News said was believed to be "dropsy and kidney condition, coupled with advancing age." He would have been 85 years old the following May.
This is an excerpt from Faces of Chippewa County by Deidre Stevens Tomaszewski. The entire book may be viewed in the Judge Joseph H. Steere Room.