Great grandfather Joseph Edward Thompson must have wanted future generations to find the homes he built as a young man in Bisbee, Arizona, in 1905-06. Why else would he have paid an architect to brand them with his initials, J.E.T.?
Unfortunately, the J.E.T. brand, which was painted on the homes, was nowhere to be found on a recent trip to the mining town of Bisbee, only 15 miles from the border with Mexico. Some of the homes he built may still be there, but it’s hard to say for sure. A three-hour search of the Cochise County recorder’s office, a visit with the county historian, and a search of the county archives, turned up no hard evidence of the homes’ whereabouts. Mission unaccomplished.
The problem is that J.E., operating under the name J.E. Thompson & Co. (check out his shingle on the left), did most of his work in a section of town called Johnson’s addition, which was converted to a mine in the 1950s. Many of the homes there were moved to two neighborhoods, Bakerville and Saginaw, before they started digging the mine. Unfortunately, no public records indicate the specific lots on which the homes were originally built, much less where they were moved.
Developing the Johnson Addition was J.E.’s big real estate play. He bought, sold, and rented other homes in town, and he sold insurance. But he made headlines in April 1905 when he bought the Johnson tract. The local newspaper was so glowing in its report that one suspects it may have been a minority investor. The paper notes that there were few lots suitable for new home development in Bisbee at the time, particularly in locations close to the mines. “Naturally people desire to live in the neighborhood of their employment,” wrote the newspaper, which later carried a ton of homes-for-sale ads from Thompson.
The Bisbee Daily Review, which had heralded J.E.’s arrival in Bisbee the year before, went so far as to comment favorably on the ease of developing the land. The land is not rough, the newspaper wrote; it is up out of the gulch and could be graded with relative ease. But above all, the paper “reported,” it is centrally located to the mines. “A choicer bunch of ground in this respect could not be secured,” reads an article in the April 23, 1905 edition.
The newspaper, seeming to return to its mission of reporting the news, noted that Thompson bought the land out from under Denn-Arizona, a mining company that had options on three claims that belonged to Johnson. When Denn-Arizona wanted to exercise only one, Johnson decided to sell all the land to Thompson instead. According to the newspaper, Thompson put up a figure that was “more advantageous” to Johnson than what the mining company had offered.
And so started Thompson’s aggressive newspaper advertising campaign to sell homes on the installment plan. J.E. built and sold about 128 homes in one year and probably totaled more than that during his two-year stay. He later boasted that he never foreclosed on a single mortgage. But he ran out of money in late 1906 and had to go back to New York to secure additional financing.
“If you have $200 or $300 in cash and can pay $25 monthly, we can get you a home, new, well-built, and reasonable,” read an ad that was omnipresent in the classified section of the paper during 1905 and 1906. Other ads read, “If you wish to buy, sell, or rent a house, see us. We will drive you to the property.”
In a letter to his son late in life, Thompson recalled that “in Bisbee I started the old game of building and selling houses on the installment plan. One year I built 128 houses. That was better than one a day (?). My advertisement was good.”
Thompson, who attended the University of California for a while, also described his attempt to covertly mark the homes for future generations. “On a trip to Bisbee before moveing (sic) I hired a painter to paint 200 of my initials with a ring around them any where (sic) he could and that I would pay him doulbe (sic) if no one found out what it ment (sic). I paid him double.”
The most promising lead on this trip was produced by a clerk at the Copper Queen Hotel who said he lived in a home that had been moved to make way for the mine. He directed me to the Bakerville neighborhood, where many of the homes looked 100 years old. Most of these humble, one-story homes looked like they could easily be slipped from their foundations. Annie Larken, the curator at the Bisbee Mining & Historical Museum, likes the chances that J.E. built these homes. “The style that you photographed is also prevalent in the Saginaw area, and I would not be surprised if some of the homes were there, too,” she wrote.