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Jasper Thompson


Posted By: Gordon Felland (email)
Date: 1/2/2006 at 22:29:50

Jasper Thompson, of Forest City, banker, merchant, railroad builder and landowner, is now practically living retired but gives his supervision to his investments and business interests. The story of his life is a most interesting one, as it is the story of persistent endeavor under circumstances which ofttimes would have utterly discouraged and disheartened a man of less resolute spirit. There is no phase of pioneer life in Iowa with which he is not familiar. He came to the state sixty years ago with his father, mother and the other members of the family. They traveled westward from Ohio with an ox team and were fifty days en route. Upon Jasper Thompson devolved the support of his parents and in large measure of the family. Like many other pioneers, had they known the kind of country into which they were coming, they would never have undertaken the trip, but once here, the native adaptability, laudable ambition and progressiveness of Jasper Thompson were asserted in the struggle to subdue the western Wilderness, and as the years went on he wrested fortune from the hand of fate, becoming one of the most successful and the most prominent citizens of his section of the state.

Mr. Thompson was born at Norton, Delaware county, Ohio, February 10, 1837, and is descended from the Spaulding and Chase families, prominent in Vermont and actively connected with New England history. His maternal grandfather, Abel Spaulding, joined the American troops under Captain Charles Nelson, in Colonel Benjamin Wright's regiment, in September, 1781, and remained a valiant soldier of his community throughout the Revolutionary war. He was afterward a pensioner of the government owing to his service with the colonial troops, and he died January 16, 1845, at the age of eighty-one years. His wife, Hannah Chase, was an aunt of Salmon Portland Chase, one of America's distinguished statesmen, who rose to the high position of secretary of the treasury under President Lincoln.

Jasper Thompson attended the country schools for a short time. He owes much to the educational training of his mother, a lady of culture and the old time puritan philosophy who did everything in their power to stimulate his desire for learning. In the school of experience, too, he has mastered many valuable lessons, so that he now gives out of the rich store of his wisdom for the benefit of others. On the 1st of November, 1857, he arrived in Iowa. As previously stated, the family started from Ohio, having with them forty dollars in Ohio scrip, and when their money was exchanged they got little out of it. The entire sum was gone long before they had reached the Mississippi river. Meeting a man who, accompanied by his two children, was driving oxen and horses to Iowa, Mr. Thompson made a bargain to drive the oxen and take the younger child with them, meeting the father near Eldora. For this service the man paid him in advance. Mr. Thompson's father and mother and their other children left him at Davenport and went on to Clayton county, Iowa, to join an older brother. He found himself alone and with no finances. Returning to Eldora, he obtained a three days' job at plastering on the little wooden courthouse of Hardin county, for which he received three dollars per day. It was necessary that he secure further employment immediately and he started out in the country. At the first house, which was three miles out, he found work and made himself generally useful. While there he was asked if he could teach school and he promptly replied that he could without divulging the fact that he could barely read and write. From Mr. Edgerton, who became a colonel in the Civil war, he secured a sort of certificate to teach, which stated only, "If you are satisfied, I am." However, Mr. Thompson did not show his certificate. He received an appointment and proved a successful teacher. He arranged to teach for three months at twenty dollars per month and board and gave such satisfaction that the directors insisted that he should remain another month at thirty dollars and board. This was undoubtedly the turning point in his career. He had come to know himself and his power to overcome all obstacles to success. His indomitable spirit, his self-confidence and his willingness to work have rendered him a natural leader and have transformed him from a boy without education or money, and even without sufficient clothing to keep him warm, to a man of great influence who is a recognized leader of thought and action. Twenty-five years later he entered Eldora under very different circumstances. The people held a series of meetings in different towns to discuss the building of a railroad and Mr. Thompson was always made speaker. When the Eldora meeting was held, the chairman was Colonel Edgerton, who a quarter of a century before, when Mr. Thompson had applied to him for a school certificate and told him he could not pass the examination but could teach school, had written the exceptional certificate, "If you are satisfied, I am." In 1858 Mr. Thompson became a resident of McGregor, where he worked at the mason's trade until 1871, when be took up his abode in Forest City and became identified with its affairs as a general merchant, conducting his store with growing success until 1883. In that year Mr. Thompson turned his attention to banking.. He had no business training whatever outside of the farm until he had passed the age of thirty. His initial step in the commercial field was made as a peddler in carrying a pack from house to house in the sale of such notions as he could obtain on credit. It was not long, however, before he had saved from his earnings enough to enable him to purchase a horse and wagon and from that time on his success was assured because it was based upon indefatigable industry, laudable ambition, firm purpose and sound judgment. As his Financial resources increased he established stores in various towns and became recognized as one of the representative merchants of his part of the state. He turned to railroad interests in 1879, when he organized and became treasurer of the Minnesota & Iowa Southern Railroad Company, which built the Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad from Albert Lea to Angus. In 1883 be became connected with the banking business as a partner of his brother, J. F. Thompson, Hon. William Larrabee and others under the firm name of Thompson Brothers. He also became interested in the Winnebago County Bank, with which he was associated until July 1, 1896, when he organized the Winnebago County State Bank, of which he became the president, with J. F. Thompson as vice president and B. J. Thompson as cashier. In 1886 this firm organized the Citizens National Bank of Britt, with Jasper Thompson, J. F. Thompson and Rodney Hill as general partners and ex-Governor Larrabee and others as special partners. In 1892 these gentlemen organized the Bank of Thompson, entering into a partnership similar to the one at Britt. In the same year they broadened the scope of their business activities by the organization of the Iowa Investment Company, and also established a bank at Buffalo Center. Their next important undertaking was the organization of the Chicago & Iowa Western Railroad Company, which built the Forest City extension of the Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Northern Railway from Forest City to Estherville. Of this company Mr. Thompson became president and general manager and conducted its interests along the lines of continued prosperity and success.

In 1892 Mr. Thompson was elected president of the Winnebago County Agricultural Society and it was he who conceived the idea and caused to be erected the flax palace at Forest City. In 1893 be organized the Chicago & Iowa Western Land and Town Lot Company, becoming associated in this undertaking with President Ives of the Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Northern Railroad, the Hon. S. L. Dows and others. This company owned many thousands of acres of land in Winnebago and adjoining counties. The town of Thompson was so named in honor of him as a recognition of his untiring and resultant efforts for the development of that section of the country. In all his labors he has looked beyond the exigencies of the moment to the possibilities and opportunities of the future, has carefully studied conditions and has so directed his efforts that the results achieved have been of great public benefit as well as a source of individual success.

On April 15, 1860, Mr. Thompson was united in marriage to Miss Clara King, of McGregor, and they became the parents, of five children, as follows: Frank, a fruit grower near Baker City, Oregon; Will, who died at the age of thirty years; Harry F., a physician of Forest City; Burt J., an attorney of Forest City; and May, the wife of Dr. E. D. Tompkins, of Clarion, Iowa. Burt J. Thompson completed a trip around the world in 1899. He was present at the military engagement at Manila from February 4th until February 23rd, being attached to a South Dakota regiment. He was with his brother, Dr. H. F. Thompson, who was serving as surgeon of that regiment with the rank of captain. He went to Manila with the regiment in August, 1898, and served throughout the campaign. They were in the hottest of the fight around Manila for several weeks and both brothers had their full share of fighting during that time.

Mr. Thompson has always given great credit to the pioneer women, and especially to his wife, for his own success. On March 29, 1917, be was called upon to mourn her loss, after they had long traveled life's journey together. She had indeed been a helpmate to him. Soon after his marriage he built a one room stone house on a squatter's lot. This was their first home and there their first child was born. Afterward Mr. Thompson engaged to build cellars for a barn and a house, in exchange for which he was to receive forty acres of land and board for himself and wife while the work was being carried on. This he accomplished with the help of Mrs. Thompson, who mixed and brought to him the plaster. This was their first landed possession and their united and intelligently directed efforts enabled them to add to their holdings from time to time until their landed interests were extensive. Mr. Thompson believed in planting trees for protection, and at a conservative estimate he has been instrumental in the planting of a million trees in Iowa. In all things he had the sympathy and encouragement of his wife, who never murmured at the hardships and privations of pioneer life but assisted her husband in every possible way and made valuable contribution to his success.

The home of Mr. Thompson is one of the most beautiful residences of Iowa and contains a most wonderful museum with a very interesting collection of relics. In it is to be found a tusk from a prehistoric mammoth from Alaska, a turtle from the islands along the equator, a buffalo head from Montana and a large collection of ancient coins and money issued by the United States government and by the Confederacy. His collection of ancient coins embraces specimens of almost every coin issued and also of the earliest stamped from metal, some of them thousands of years old. His collection is probably as rare and as valuable as any in the United States, Mr. Thompson being assisted in getting it together by one of the best experts and authorities in this country, Henry Miller, of New York, and also by Sir John Evans, of England, the foremost publisher and authority on coins on the globe.

In 1904 Mr. Thompson retired from active business and the following year sailed from New York to the Azores and through the straits of Gibraltar to Italy. He visited Genoa, Naples, Corsica and other points and then proceeded to Alexandria, Egypt, and up the Nile for a distance of one thousand miles, taking numerous side trips as well. He visited various points in Greece and Smyrna and passed through the Dardanelles to Constantinople and on to the Black Sea and Odessa. He cruised among the Ionian islands and sailed to Brindisi, thence went to Naples and on to Rome, Florence, Milan, Venice and into France, where he visited various cities and points of interest, thence across the channel to England, and after visiting London and other points in that country sailed from Liverpool for America. During his travels he picked up many curios now to be seen in his museum, including a bulrush which he found near the spot where Moses was said to have been placed by his mother, among the bulrushes, in his infancy. He secured fine Oriental rugs with Arabic inscriptions, tapestries from India, a metal shawl from the interior of Africa, a beautiful copy of Van Dyke's Repose in Egypt, a terra cotta copy of Diana at the Bath and a French bronze of Diana the Huntress. Mr. Thompson has traveled as well all over North America and has picked up many interesting relics in this country. He has a most complete library and an interesting feature of his home is a park in the rear of the house with a sun dial in the center and an Alaskan Indian totem pole at the entrance.

While success has brought to him leisure for the enjoyment of those things in which he takes an interest, even since his retirement from business Mr. Thompson has concentrated his efforts by no means solely upon following out his inclinations for recreation and pleasure. He is given to the serious consideration of significant problems affecting the individual and the community at large. He has thought with those who study the signs of the times in regard to the desertion of the farms for the city by the young people and has sought the reason and the remedy therefor. It was in watching a young Swedish girl who was in his employ that he came to a conclusion that seemed to him the solution for the difficulty. He noted her loneliness and felt that she wanted to meet and talk with other young people, that she wanted entertainment, education, culture and the idealistic things in life. He felt he had here found the key to the situation which he had been studying and immediately sought to bring about different conditions with the result that he has today invested seventy-five thousand dollars in a plan to promote the social life of the community. That sum represents his investment in a farm and clubhouse which he erected thereon at a cost of fifteen thousand dollars. He employed an architect, who is also an artist, and the result was the erection of a building sixty-eight feet long and thirty-two feet wide, two stories in height, built of load-bearing tile with white stucco finish and cement slab porches. It was dedicated September 11, 1915. it is a building which in line carries out the wide sweep of the prairies and suggests in the gradual slope of the roof the gently undulating fields. The art of landscape gardening has been utilized in the adornment of the lawn and beautiful flowers add to the attractiveness of Community Hall, by which name Mr. Thompson has called the place. The institution is to be essentially a big farmers' club, to which all within traveling distance will belong. The farmers can meet there to hear a lecture on soil fertility and the wives and daughters may meet for social affairs. The building can also be used for a church and Sunday school, and the library has been equipped to suit the tastes of varied ages and dispositions. In the laboratory the farmer can make simple tests of his soil, his feeds and his seeds, and he can turn to enjoy the sports of the swimming pool, the tennis courts and baseball diamond. It is the plan to have moving pictures and good entertainment from time to time, besides lectures by experts from the State College on problems of farming and household work, and there will be every opportunity for the discussion of any question to which the members may wish to turn their attention.

One of the Des Moines papers, writing of this subject, said: "One can hardly learn of this experiment and become interested in it without finding interest also in its author. Jasper Thompson is a powerful, charming gentleman. At nearly eighty years of age he is strong and vigorous and keenly intellectual. He is the finished product of a long life spent on the land, planning and executing of big projects, world-wide travel, and constant thoughtfulness. His life experiences have given him a delightful philosophy which looks always toward the best there is in civilization. He regards his attempt at socializing rural life as one of the most important things he has ever done. To him it is a purely philanthropic enterprise. He is too old to care for the reputation he might gain personally by being the first to inaugurate such an effort. 'I feel that the people are waiting for this movement,' he said in the first interview he has consented to about his enterprise. 'The people do not know what it is they want but they want something. I feel that the real call to the land is the call of better social relations. Our civilization is based in the land. Our prosperity must emanate from out there in the fields. Build a great strong manhood and womanhood on the prairies and your villages, cities and towns will be great. We have tried to get at the right solution by putting our social center out in the country, where the farmers will feel that it really belongs to them and where they will make use of it. They don't like to go to social gatherings in town because they feel out of place. Whatever you may say, there is no getting around the fact that there is no close union in feeling between town and country. But once you start social gatherings in the country you will see a change. The farm people will naturally feel at home out there, and town people who visit them there will feel at home because their daily social intercourse makes them freer and easier. By and by they will begin to see the advantages of farm life and you will have the current flowing back to the land. I don't know what will come of our experiment. I hope it will prove a success and that it will not be long till these country houses are scattered broadcast throughout the rural districts, furnishing the people that opportunity for social life and culture that they need."' Such is the crowning effort of the life of Mr. Thompson, whose efforts, intense and determined, have brought him success - a success which he is thus sharing with others.

Source: History of Winnebago and Hancock Counties, Iowa, 1917, pages 11-16.


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