The monument to the memory of Ezra Rust is a huge and seasonally verdant one—spacious Rust Park, which comprises more than half the city’s park system. Its creation was possible because of Rust’s generosity in bequeathing land to the City of Saginaw for public good.
Rust made millions in the lumber industry and in Minnesota iron mine holdings. He guided several lumber and salt firms from 1865 to 1907.
Rust was born in Wells, Vermont. He worked on his father’s farm in Marine City, Michigan, until he was 13 and managed to get in some schooling. When he was 14 he began working for his older brothers, Amasa and David, who had a sawmill in Marine City. After a while he began working on lake freighters. Later, with his brothers, he acquired timber lands along the Tittabawassee River. In 1859 he went into partnership with James Hay. The firm prospered in the lumber and salt business.
But Rust’s greatest wealth came from a lavish stroke of good luck which rather supports the saying, “them as has, gets.” Rust had a land-looker named Gilbert B. Goff. On a land inspection trip to northern Minnesota for Rust and George L. Burrows, Goff ran across “ten forties” (400 acres) of moderately good timber. He convinced Rust it was a good buy at the government price of $1.25, or $500 for the whole package. The timber ran mostly to hardwoods but there was some choice pine. Goff figured it would be a good idea to buy the land and hold it until logging companies wanted to clean up that section. As his commission, Goff was given a one-third interest in the land. The other two-thirds was split evenly between Rust and Burrows. The timber land overlaid the heart of the famous Mesabi iron range, after its development called the largest open pit iron ore mine in the world. Goff, who hadn’t invested a cent, pulled down $2.4 million. Rust and Burrows shared $7.2 million.
There is an interesting sidelight to this story. Several years after Rust and Burrows had bought the Mesabi property, Goff was hard up for cash. At that time the iron ore riches in the Minnesota land still were unknown. Pine was up in value, so Goff expected he could borrow on his one-third share of land. He walked from his farm home near Edenville, Michigan, to Saginaw and presented himself at Ezra Rust’s office. Rust wasn’t in so Goff asked C. E. Wheeler, then a partner of Rust, to lend him $500 with the one-third land share as security. Wheeler agreed to this if Goff would deed over his share as security. Some years later Goff heard rumors about iron ore deposits in the Mesabi region. He checked them out to both his satisfaction and consternation. Goff scouted around, borrowed $500 and came to Saginaw again to see Wheeler. Goff remarked casually, managing to conceal his excitement: “Mr. Wheeler, I’ve got a little cash now and I’d like to repay that $500 I borrowed from you for my share of those ten forties and pay the interest.” Wheeler walked to the office safe, removed the deed and handed Goff the note, Goff tore it up and walked out gleefully.
Rust might never have donated the parkland property to the City of Saginaw, had it not been for the persuasion of Rust’s good friend and contemporary, William S. Linton. Linton then was president of the Saginaw Board of Trade. Among the dozen or so elections conducted on the questions of a new city water plant, was a balloting March 15, 1915. The proposal was for a $675,000 bond issue, with its location in part of Rust Park. One of the west side Ezra Rust’s bitter rivals was east side Wellington R. Burt, who became the wealthiest man in Saginaw history, and also earned many millions from Mesabi iron mine holdings. Burt couldn’t bear the thought of a city water plant on property Rust had given the city, but lost in his efforts to defeat it.
Still another facet of the story of Rust’s wealth is said to have occurred long after his lumbering and iron magnate days. This was when he loaned his friend, George Eastman, $50,000 to develop the Kodak camera. Eastman was successful, and in return, paid Rust enormous dividends for his faith in him.
Rust was among the organizers of the Saginaw Board of Trade. During World War I, he determinedly fought to eliminate the teaching of German from Saginaw public schools and rejoiced, in what he deemed patriotic fervor, when this was done.
Rust and his first wife, the former Emma Mather, had two children who died in infancy. He and his second wife, Stella, had a daughter, Maxine. After Rust’s retirement, he and his wife travelled extensively. Their stately mansion was a west side showplace. In his lifetime, Rust, a well-met, friendly fellow, became a public figure personage in Saginaw. He died when he was 85.
Rust once described the Saginaw to which he came in 1859 as a stripling in the lumber business: “When I first came to Saginaw in the fall of 1859 there were about 3,200 inhabitants in East Saginaw and 1,700 in Saginaw City. “There was no railroad nearer than Holly, there were no bridges across the Saginaw River, no paved streets except for an occasional strip of plank road. Sidewalks were few and poor and in no respect, save water supply, was there any similarity to our present flourishing city. Three rope ferries at Mackinaw, Bristol and Genesee Streets gave transport for teams of horses. Foot passengers were taken across the river in row boats.”
Rust contributed much to the change of Saginaw from that primitive picture.