Wellington R. Burt was a forward-thinking Saginaw business and civic leader—a man of philanthropy and public benevolence.
Wellington R. Burt was an irascible, tough old curmudgeon—niggardly and tight-fisted with his many millions.
Fellow Saginawians of his time either liked and respected him or disliked and even despised him. There was little middle-of-the-road opinion about W. R. Burt, as he was generally known.
Burt became the wealthiest man in Saginaw history, his fortune grounded in the lumber industry. At the time of his death here in 1919 at the age of 87, his wealth was estimated at up to $90 million. It was said the only man in Michigan who could write a bigger check than Burt was the elder Henry Ford. For a time in the early 1900s, Burt ranked as one of the eight wealthiest men in America. Burt matched his wits and millions against some of the greatest tycoons of his era, including John D. Rockefeller. Burt shouldered his way to a seat with big business giants in the day of Jay Gould and Commodore Vanderbilt, when the man who hit hardest in the clinches usually won. Litigation and controversy trailed him throughout his long business career. He never looked back over his shoulder because he knew both were there.
By terms of a will as bizarre but as finely-wrought as any in United States court annals, W. R. Burt perhaps came as close as mortal man can come to disproving the adage, “you can’t take it with you.” What generally was considered a family “spite clause” conceived by Burt to avenge past family differences specified that all his personal property should remain in trust “for 21 years after my last surviving grandchild that shall be living at the time of my death.”
In 1920, two Saginaw attorneys—the late George W. Weadock and his son, Vincent—led a battalion of lawyers who found a chink in the armor-clad terms of the will. Burt had made millions in the lumber business in Saginaw Valley and elsewhere in Michigan. But because of a lucky purchase of cut-over timberland in Minnesota, much of his wealth came from iron mining leases in St. Louis County, Minnesota, heart of the immensely valuable Mesabi iron range. Because Minnesota had a statute of perpetuity outlawing trusts of such long standing as provided in W. R. Burt’s will, the Weadocks and associates succeeded in suing to settle the iron lease earnings of the estate. Millions tumbled into the laps of Burt’s children and grandchildren. But other portions of the will resisted legal attacks, although heirs spent hundreds of thousands in attorney fees.
In 2011, the remaining fortune was distributed to 12 heirs, none of whom were living in Saginaw.
Burt, ninth in a family of 13 children, was born August 26, 1831, in New York state. When he was seven years old his parents moved with belongings and brood to Jackson County in Michigan. He worked on the farm as a boy. He attended a district school in Jackson County and later spent two years in college.
He left the farm as a young man of 22, determined to see the world. He worked aboard freighters. Among the countries he visited and liked was Australia.
When 26, Burt returned to Michigan to learn something about Saginaw Valley’s budding lumber industry. In 1857 he got a job in a Pine River lumber camp near St. Louis. A woodman’s starting pay then was $13 a month and keep. The woods boss liked what he saw in the tall, strong, young W. R. Burt, who knew how to give orders. After a month on the job Burt’s pay was doubled and he was made camp foreman. In 1858, with money he had saved and what he could borrow, Burt struck out on his own as a lumber operator. His success was rapid.
In 1864 Burt built the sawmill community of Melbourne, named after his favorite Australian city, on the Saginaw River near Zilwaukee. By 1870 the Melbourne sawmill was among the largest and most complete in the world. It had carpenter and blacksmith shops and a gas works to illuminate the milltown community of 45 houses occupied by married men and families, two boarding houses for unmarried millhands, a store, library and a school open seven months of the year. In 1876 fire of unexplained cause destroyed Melbourne.
In addition to his lumber and iron mine holdings, Burt made vast sums in the salt industry, in railroads and in foreign bonds and banking investments. Once he personally bailed the Bank of Montreal out of financial trouble with a $5 million loan at an undisclosed rate of interest.
In 1867 he served as mayor of East Saginaw. Later he served for a time in the state Senate.
In his lifetime Burt paid most of the cost of the former Saginaw High School Manual Training Building and the City Auditorium, once at Janes and Washington. He also gave liberally to the YWCA, Home for the Aged and the former Women’s Hospital on the east side.
Because of a court battle with the late City Assessor Charles Spindler, who hiked Burt’s personal property assessments from a modest several thousand dollars to $1 million—and made it stick legally—Burt amended his will to strike out a variety of City of Saginaw bequests he had planned.
Burt built a huge, three-story brick mansion which once stood on the west side of Genesee near Cherry. In his last years, frail of health and with dim eyesight and little hearing, he lived alone and was attended by a retinue of faithful servants. He remembered each in his will with $1000 annuities the rest of their lives.
When he was in his 80s, Burt withstood radical stomach surgery.
Burt may remain Saginaw’s most controversial business figure of all time. Some of his former business contemporaries who regarded him in friendly fashion thought him also one of the most misunderstood Saginawians of his time.
Burt, twice married, fathered seven children.