A review of the lives of some men indicates that they have succeeded in the face of almost insurmountable obstacles placed in their way by unkind fate. Be they pioneers or men of a later generation, whose path has been partly cleared for them, they have progressed by sheer weight of ability and power to overcome. Among such men is John Martin Thompson, of Sherman, Texas.
John M. Thompson was born June 9, 1829, in what is now Bartow County, Georgia, about twenty miles from Cartersville. At that time portions of the states of Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina formed the Cherokee Nation. His mother was of Cherokee descent, and a great-uncle, Gen. Buck Thompson, was a soldier under Washington in the War of Independence. His father, B. F. Thompson, moved to Indian Territory in 1838, and in the spring of 1844 bought a block of ten thousand acres of land, situated in the northern part of Rusk County, Texas, on the waters of Rabbit Creek. A large portion of this land was covered with a fine quality of shortleaf pine timber as well as white oak, gum, ash and some walnut. In the early winter of the same year he moved most of his negroes to Texas and started a cotton plantation. The family followed to the new location in the fall of 1848. It was in the Territory and in Texas that young Thompson spent his early days and secured his primary education. The next year, 1849, John and his brother, Wirt W., were sent to the Western Military College, then located at Georgetown, Kentucky, where at that time the afterward illustrious James G. Elaine was an instructor.
After two years spent at this institution, young Thompson returned to the plantation and was made overseer by his father. This position carried with it a salary of only $25 a month, and the contract called for the overseer and all his hands to be in the field every morning at sunrise and continue their labors until sunset. With the development of that section of the country came a demand for lumber, and Mr. Thompson, Senior, decided to put in a sawmill, giving his sons, John and Wirt W., a third interest in the business. In the spring of 1852 the mill was shipped from New Orleans to Shreveport, from which point it was hauled eighty miles by wagon, and put up. This was the second sawmill built in Rusk County. It was the original intention of Mr. Thompson to purchase a circular sawmill, but when his broker told him that this type of mill had to be operated so fast that it was dangerous and would be liable to injure the operator, he contracted for a sash mill. The machinery and boiler were of an antiquated pattern, but by working fourteen to sixteen hours about 2,000 feet of lumber a day was sawed. For five years the mill was run and operation ceased only when fire destroyed the plant.
This event really was the beginning of John M. Thompson's lumber career. His father, being dissatisfied with the profits of the enterprise, agreed with his sons to take the damaged machinery as his part of the investment and to give John and Wirt W. all the money on hand, the notes and the pine timber from about 10,000 acres as their share of the business. With their small capital the sons bought a circular sawmill which was more to their liking and with which they began operations again. This circular mill was one of the first, if not the first, set up in eastern Texas. At the opening of the Civil War the sawmill was converted into a flour and grist mill, the owners furnishing the land and two negro boys to run it, while they themselves entered the Confederate army. The superintendent of the mill was instructed to furnish to the families of all soldiers, whether they had money or not, whatever amount of flour was required for their needs.
Organizing Company F, Fourteenth Texas Regiment, Mr. Thompson served throughout the war under the colors of the Army of Gray. Of the 128 men in the company who crossed the Mississippi River only seven returned unwounded. After being in service east of the river for along period, Mr. Thompson was discharged on account of sickness, but upon his return home he raised a second company and continued in service. He was almost incapacitated in one of the later battles in which he fought in northern Louisiana.
At the conclusion of the war Mr. Thompson found his family destitute of the real necessities of life, all his negroes gone and nothing to fall back upon but a small farm and some worn out machinery. In addition to this were old debts, amounting to $3,500, contracted before the war. The odds and ends of the sawmill machinery were collected and a mill put up in a fresh tract of timber. It took three years to cancel the obligations of the mill and the estate of the senior Thompson, who died in 1863. The mill, which was started in November, 1865, cut from 4,000 to 6,000 feet of lumber a day, for which $15 a thousand was obtained as it came from the saw. In 1875 Mr. Thompson took as his partner Henry Tucker, and they continued to run the mill in Rusk County until 1882, when the machinery was moved to Trinity County and located at its present site Willard.
The business of the partners was incorporated in January, 1887, as the Thompson & Tucker Lumber Company. Those originally interested were Mr. Thompson and his two sons, J. A., and B. F. Thompson, and Henry Tucker and his son, J. E. Tucker. Two years later Mr. Thompson bought the interest of Henry Tucker and sold it to his son, W. P. Thompson. Subsequently, the interest of J. E. Tucker was bought also. B. F. Thompson was the general manager of the sawmill and sales department, J. A.Thompson looked after the different yards, W. P.Thompson took charge of the office and commissary department, while the father financed the operations and bought timber property. A conservative estimate of the timber now owned by the company is 5 15, 000,000 feet of longleaf pine. The company has one of the best mills in the country, with a daily capacity of 75,000 feet. Mr. Thompson, in August, 1904, organized the J. M. Thompson Lumber Company, with a capital of $300,000, all paid in. The entire issue of stock is owned by members of the Thompson family. The property holdings include 60,000 acres of shortleaf pine timber and fifteen miles of frontage on the Trinity River. It is estimated that the stumpage will yield 300,000,000 feet of pine and that large quantities of oak, gum and ash, the latter amounting to 50,000,000 feet, will be secured when the pine shall have been cut. Mr. Thompson closed out his interest in the Thompson & Tucker Lumber Company January 2, 1902.
Mr. Thompson has been married twice. He wedded Miss Lou McCard in 1853, and of this marriage two of the six children born to the couple survive J. A. Thompson and Lou Delia Thompson, now Mrs. W. R. Crim, of Kilgore, Texas. The mother of these children died in 1870. Mr. Thompson afterward married Miss Emma Holt and six children have been born to them. They are Cherokee Adaline, now Mrs. J. C. Kelly, of Waco, Texas; John Lewis, Ligett Nicholas, Harry Hoxie, Alexander and Anna Mae.
Mr. Thompson is a stockholder in the Grayson County National Bank, of Sherman, and the Merchants' National Bank, of Houston, Texas. He is a member of the Masonic order and of the Knights of Honor. He has large real estate holdings, and several of the farms he owns are run by his former slaves, for whom he has provided. He has been largely interested in charity, to which he has given freely. He is a trustee of Austin County College, Sherman, to whose support he has contributed.