I note in the book of yarns that you may want to hold them until you write a book and then use them. It may be that you will want to bring me into your book. I have no objections. If that is the case you may want a short outline of my life. Here goes.
I was born in Virginia City, Montana (year 1875), which is located in Alder Gulch. It was the first big gold strike in Montana and this gold strike was the reason my father [William Thompson, 1838-1900] turned his ox team north instead of going on to California as first planned. A cow that he brought along was, of necessity, made into a part of his ox team. He had lost one wagon and a trailing wagon because of Indians.
It must have been a hell of a trip but he never much talked about it. He never talked much about himself and I suppose I should do the same thing, but as an old man I love to think about the past. I am firing away. My father’s father was a British army officer and lived and died in Canada. I never knew him.
My mother’s father was J.R. Boyce of Kentucky stock. On one of his raids or battles he and some of his troops were cut off from the Southern army. Some were killed, some captured. He got away and crossed into Missouri and headed for the gold rush of California. He also turned north to Montana. The war was soon over and he went back to get his family. He brought them up the Missouri River on a stern wheeler flat boat.
Father was on that boat, having gone down the Yellowstone River in a boat he made with some other men to get the makings of a water power sawmill. The first sawmill in Montana. That was in 1865 or ’66. Father built a home for his bride (you have seen it in back of the Thompson Library in Virginia City). It was well built to be standing and used all these years.
William Boyce Thompson was the first born, then Lula, then James Richard Thompson, then me, then Alvin or Marvin, then Flora, then Mable T. Wilson [Editor’s note: one sibling may be missing]. There were others that died young, ten in all. Five lived to grow up. Now I am the last of those five.
In pioneer days doctors were not so good, drugs poor, many kinds of foods did not exist there, but we had all the diseases there were. It is a wonder children lived to grow up in those days. All grease was saved to make either soap or candles. Some oranges came in and were sold at 25 cts. each. Flour, $1.00 per pound. Think of father’s struggle to feed and clothe a family and mother’s wonderful care of us all. It wore her out and she died in her early forties. Father a few years later.
We moved from Virginia City to a lead and silver mining camp called Glendale. I was about three then, Jim 5 and W.B. 9. He rode a horse all of the 50 or 60 miles and drove stock. Dad and mother sure were proud of him. W.B. was up and doing even then. Father had a contract to furnish lumber for the mine and mill. He kept saw mills running over at Virginia City as well. This caused him to make trips back and forth between Glendale and V. City.
On one of these trips, the mines and his payroll were in a shoe box on the back of his buggy. He won a race to Glendale by 1/4 mile with some outlaws. He was a brave man, a kind man, and one that loved his family and was determined to make good. How many are there today like him?
About the time W.B. was born the first telegraph line was built up from Utah. Cut often by Indians and outlaws. Then the first newspaper, the Madisonian. You have been in the print shop. It still prints at the same old stand.
Great excitement at Glendale when a narrow gauge railroad was being built up from Utah. It finally arrived at Melrose. Father learned that a Pullman car would soon arrive at Melrose, the end of the R.R. He engaged passage for all of us to go to Salt Lake on this northern as it was called back then. Three-day trip, it now takes 8 or 9 hours. Then to California on the U.P. to visit his mother and sister in Sacramento. His mother was buried 4 days before we arrived. Father and all of us returned to Montana. I did not understand then but do now why mother petted him when he sat with his head in his hands, a sad and disappointed man.
In 1879 we (4 years old then) moved to Butte as father’s contract was finished and Butte was the great thing in those days. He moved his sawmills to the timber near Butte, 13 sawmills in all.
We came over by team and the following spring I think the R.R. was completed to Butte. Big celebration. The richest of the copper ore had been hauled to [Corinne], Utah by team to Swanzie England around the horn.
Schools were about the same as now except they are better. They had built a four room brick school house when I started to school. The R.R. brought in more and better supplies.
Butte was for all my teen age about the toughest town in all the world. Men had been brought in from all over to work in the mines. Mostly Irish, very few women. There was a sharp line between the good and the not so good woman. More not so good. The fast houses were all in one district and it was a large district. Saloons were everywhere. The main street had a least one saloon and gambling house for every store.
We were allowed to go everywhere but strange to say all this toughness had only the effect of exceptness. We played at home after school, went to church morning and night on Sunday, also Sunday school twice. We went to the Southern Methodist Church in the mornings after Sunday school and the Northern Methodist Church in the evenings. Two evenings a week at prayer meetings, one night at the Young People’s meeting and Saturday after to a temperance meeting.
Butte was not a place to raise children as I look back at the times there. Every bad influence was present. There was a bad feeling among the American boys, the Irish and Cornish, all had fights. The teachers were not too good. Although we had some exceptional good teachers.
Father had taught us to work and he and mother had great influence for good in all our lives. Mother died when I was about 15 [he was 18]. As I see it now she knew her days were limited and wanted to leave a thought with us and did. She said over and over again that we were raised as gentlemen and wanted us always to remain gentlemen. Many a time I have thought of her last message and it had great power in making me a better man.
Father died when I was 24. Mother was sick a great deal and had to leave Butte for California most winters and I was sent along with her. This broke up my school days much to my detriment as when I went to college I was not prepared. I had to not only do my college work but had to study the things I was supposed to know about. My days in college were to a large extent a waste of time but I got something out of it that is hard to explain and I am not sorry that I had the experience. My work there caused me to understand a lot of things better than I would have.
I always had a pocketful of money. I worked every summer either in the mill, lumber yards or mines. During the winter as well as the summer I collected bills, com. .5% for a blacksmith and a doctor. Before going to college I built my first house. I had the money to buy the material and did all of the work myself.
My college days were uneventful except that I took boxing lessons under the great fighter Jim Cortet. While at Berkeley I got a foot smashed and had at the same time a bad case of poison oak. This put me so far back in my studies that I decided to quit until the next term and go to work. I got a contract from a coal company in Canada to sell coal in Montana.
I put into the job every punch I had. During times when the weather was bad, and coal was hard to get, I would board a freight train at night, make friends with the crew, spot my coal that had been side tracked, and succeed in getting the crew to pull my coal off the side track and onto their destination. I have always had a kind feeling toward these men. They said, “let’s help the kid out.”
On the return from one of my trips the purchasing agent of the East Helena Smelter met me and stated that if they could not get some coal they would have to close down. I let them have a few cars of coal and that night boarded the freight train again. I found at Great Falls a lot of coal I was selling in storage piles, also a manor of different kind of cars. Well I succeeded in getting a train loaded and finally got the Great Northern R.R. to pull it.
I rode back with my coal and when I started on the freight to the smelter I was told that the Northern Pas. was going to confiscate it for their use. The N.P. was blocked with snow. I went to their office. It took some hard talk to change their minds. Well, I delivered the coal. The manager of the smelter sent me back to Helena with his team and sleigh. On that trip I almost froze. I managed to make over $900.00 per month or above contract.
The next summer I took a contract with a coal company owned by father and Sen. W.A. Clark to sell coal there. I also bought a paint and wallpaper stock at a fire sale. Well, your mother arrived in Butte that summer. She was visiting her aunt and uncle Joe Clark and was going with them to Paris that winter. I liked her and we chummed around together.
I had always shied away from girls and their designing mothers. They had no part in my money making life. I went into the chumming arrangement thinking she would be gone in December and that it was safe. Well this boy meets girl business was something I knew nothing much about. I had passed it up before but this time it took and took hard.
Instead of your mother going to Paris with said Uncle and Aunt we were married that Dec. 28th or 29th, 1898 and went to London, Paris and Rome together. Your mother was 20 and I was 23. We got back to N.Y. late that spring and found that your uncle had located there. He wanted me to stay with him and I did until December of that year. I decided that I was too young and did not have enough money to play the kind of life I wanted to. So I decided to go back to Butte for a few years and earn some more money.
I got the bug while in N.Y. that I would own a seat on the N.Y. Stock Exchange. Joe was born in N.Y. Oct. 14th of that year. Back in Butte I started the old grind again selling coal, paint shop, etc. I had a bug for building houses so I sold out the coal and paint business and went in with my brother Jim in the real estate business and building houses to sell on the installment plan.
That next winter, father died and your mother was not doing well and we went to Arizona. That winter and the next year were hard sledding for us. There was not much that I could do to make money except write fire insurance and trade in mining property. I had given my sisters my interest in father’s estate. Money was hard to earn in Clifton and Morenci but when we moved to Bisbee I had a little nest egg. Your mother was feeling fine again. She could ride a horse 50 miles in a day and did.
In Bisbee I started the old game of building and selling houses on the installment plan. One year I built 128 houses. That is better than one a day. My advertisement was good. On a trip to Bisbee before moving I hired a painter to paint 200 of my initials with a ring around them anywhere he could, and that I would pay him double if no one found out what it meant. I paid him double. The following is made from a rubber stamp that I used in those days. J.E.T. It sill makes a print but the rubber is hard after these 40 years. Well I left Bisbee after two years with $63,000. Part of it made in business and part in deals. Consolidated a water company and part in stocks. I had lost a lot of money in a mining venture at Canaria. Anyway I thought I was ready for NY.
Editor’s Note: The proceeding slightly edited story, written by J.E. Thompson (1875-1950), was taken from a collection of letters, the so-called “Deathbed Letters,” written to his son, William Boner Thompson, shortly before J.E.’s death.