Archive for the ‘William Boyce Thompson’ category

The Magnate Came Up Largely Empty Handed in His Genealogy Research

May 20, 2010

William Boyce Thompson, The Magnate

Stop the digital press–this blogger recently obtained copies of genealogy reports commissioned by William Boyce Thompson that shed light on the family’s distant past. Unfortunately, researchers working for The Magnate ran into the same dead-ends that befuddle family researchers today. That said, The Thompson Reports include some exciting new information.

H.H. Plate, Thompson’s secretary who in 1923 was sent on a fact-finding mission to Cobourg, Ontario, a small shipping town on the shores of Lake Ontario, found several locals who remembered that  William Thompson, Sr., came from Scotland as a youth.  More important, Plate  found a man, William Pratt, who remembered that his father, Thomas, emigrated with Thompson, Sr., from Cupar in Fifeshire, Scotland. Legend has it that the pair were among the lucky passengers rescued from a wrecked vessel.

This was the hottest lead turned up by Plate, who otherwise searched in vain for information that could trace the Thompson lineage back to Scotland. A local attorney first directed her to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, where she hoped to find Thompson, Sr.’s tombstone, death or birth records, or anything listing his place of birth or parents. Plate kept a diary of her movements.

“I called on Mr. Denton, warden, who had keys to safe containing church records. He offered to open up the church for me that evening at 8 p.m. Went through the records from 1830 on. Did not find record of marriage of W.T. and M.M.R. [Margaret Maguire Robinson, his wife] but did find record of baptism of their 2 eldest children and the burial of William Thompson [Sr.] on Dec. 2, 1849.”

Unfortunately, the burial record contained little more than a date. The next day, though, the pair set out to find Thompson’s tombstone, hoping it might reveal his place and date of birth. A family Bible, referenced in the report, indicated that William Thompson, Sr., was born in Scotland in 1806.

Unfortunately, Plate discovered that interments were made some 30 or 40 years before to a new St. Peters cemetery, or in some cases to the Union cemetery. Incredibly, the remaining tombstones were taken and used as targets. Those that were returned were left in piles and eventually put in a shed.

“Mr. Denton secured two men to turn over the tombstones stored in the shed, taking entire morning for the job, but the William Thompson stone was not there. Even if it had been it might not have given his birthplace as only six of the several hundred had that information. Nearly all gave only name, date of death and age, and name of husband, or wife or father.” 

St. Peter's Church in Cobourg

Next Plate tried to find a record in the St. Peters church of a marriage between William Thompson and Margaret Maguire Robinson, who had been married once before, in Ireland, before she left for Canada. Eleven years before, The Magnate had  acquired a copy of the certificate of her first marriage.

 “For 1831, only one marriage is recorded after May 26th-Sept. 4, by a substitute minister from Port Hope, the rector being away. The Thompson marriage may not have been entered through neglect. They doubtless were married in Anglican Church [typically referred to as Espicopalian in the U.S. and Canada] as her children by earlier marriage, as well as Thompson children, were baptized and confirmed in that church.”

Plate surmised that, since the rector had been away, the pair may have been married in the next-closest Anglican church in  Port Hope. Her intuition proved correct. The next day she found a marriage record of William Thompson and Margaret Maguire Robinson and obtained a certified copy. Unfortunately, it, too, listed little more than a date.

Still hoping to find some indication of where Thompson might have been born and to whom, Plate’s next tried fraternal organizations. She dug through records at local Masonic and Orange lodges. But in each case data for the years needed was missing.

Unable to find documented evidence, Plate began interviewing Cobourg residents who knew the Thompson family. Her best lead came from William Pratt, an old resident who as a child used to play with Hannah Thompson (Ough), the daughter of William Thompson, Sr., when she lived on King Street. The family eventually moved to John Street.

“He pointed out the house on John Street in which the Thompsons lived when Hannah was married,” wrote Plate, who had a picture taken of the house. “He thought William Thompson died there.” 

Pratt recalled that his father, Thomas Pratt, had come from the same place as William Thompson, Cupar in the County of Fife, a town that at the time was about the same size as Cobourg. “He thought they came on the same ship which was wrecked on the shore (did not know where) and they had to stay there six weeks (presumably while repairs were made to the ship) before going on to Quebec. He could not tell me the name of the boat but said he would try to remember it.”

Pratt had another productive exchange with Mrs. P. Ewing (Jennie Ough), the sister-in-law of Hannah Thompson Ough. “She told me that the Thompsons rented the house on King Street for several years before selling it; that they then lived in Baltimore or Roseneath, coming to the house on John Street when Hannah T. was a young lady (she was nine when her father died). The house on John Street belonged to her father, Benjamin Ough, and Hannah T. and her mother moved in as soon as it was completed, having occupied a house across the street for a short time.”

Part of this story–the part about moving to Baltimore or Roseneath–was disputed by Plate’s next acquaintance, Mrs. Williams, a “delightful old lady in possession of all her faculties. She said she was an intimate friend of Hannah’s.  She told many little anecdotes, Willie Thompson with cat and canary; Hannah’s little finger.

“She said that she does not remember Wm. T. very distinctly except that he was quite a home-loving man. She said he was not distinguished in any way, but was highly respected. Said the family was poor, as nearly everyone in Cobourg was at that time. Crops were bad and money was scarce. (Mr. Hewsom said Cobourg at that time issued its own scrip.)

Sketch of Cobourg in 1830

“Mrs. Williams says she distinctly remembers that at Mr. Wm. T’s funeral the Orange men carried his casket on their shoulders to the cemetary. She says Mrs. Ewing was mistaken in thinking they lived at Baltimore. Never were out of Cobourg. Went from the little house on King Street to the double house on John and then across the street to the Ough cottage. She said the house on King Street was a little double house also. She said Wm. T. and the Oughs were all carpenters.”

Plate’s next stop, the offices of the “Star” newspaper, was a big disappointment. She hoped to find a death notice in the newspaper’s archives, only to discover that records from 1849 had been stolen. The Star was the only local paper published at the time.

Undaunted, the Magnate sent researchers to Scotland to run down the Cupar, Scotland lead. They spent 10 days in the Registrar-General’s office in Edinburgh, where all parish records prior to 1854 had been gathered, looking through data covering 50 parishes in and around Edinburg and Cupar. They found six William Thompsons born in an around Edinburgh in 1806, though none in Cupar. The information given was complete–it include the father’s name and the father’s business. But without William Thompson’s date of his birth or the name of his parents, it was impossible to determine which record was his.

The researchers then turned their attention to ship records, hoping to find the boat that carried William Thompson to Canada. Unfortunately, none of the shipping lines had passenger records going back to 1828.

Efforts to trace the lineage of Margaret Maguire were more successful. In Canada, Plate found a record of William Thompson’s marriage to Margaret Maguire Robinson in the parish register of the Church of St. John the Evangelist, an Episcopal church in Port Hope, dated December 29, 1831. The couple had four children, including a first Hannah who died early.

According to a September 25, 1923 letter from William Boyce Thompson to Hannah Ough, Margaret Maguire had previously married John Robinson in Belfast, Ireland on March 31, 1815.

Margaret Maguire

“Margaret Maguire’s marriage to John Robinson, a tailor, was objected to by her family and it is supposed that she never wrote to her people after reaching Canada,” the Magnate wrote. Or maybe his secretary wrote. “They had six children, none of whom is living, and the only living grandchild is Ralph Robinson, son of James Campbell Robinson.

“The Maguire family was well-known in Enniskillen, but Margaret is supposed to have been born in Belfast. Her father was a wholesale butcher and operated a tannery while one of her brothers was a wholesale boot and shoe manufacturer. One of her brothers was an officer in the English Army, and an uncle, a retired English officer had a large estate either in Scotland or Ireland, according to information furnished by John C. Slater, who married May Ough, the daughter of Hannah Thompson, William Thompson’s second daughter.”

But efforts to trace the Maguire family in Enniskillen and Belfast proved unsuccessful.

Will Picket Post Remodel Capture the Spirit of Its Creator?

April 11, 2010

After his stroke, a personal assistant would roll an invalid William Boyce Thompson to the window in his bathtub on wheels so that he could watch the sun come up over Apache Leap from his beloved Picket Post house near Superior, Ariz. 

This is just one of several wonderful stories surrounding the Magnate’s Castle on the Hill, which was recently repurchased by the nearby Boyce Thompson Arboretum. After renovations, ironically complicated by handicap access requirements, the mansion will be re-opened for tours. But will the remodeling efforts, which may take several years, capture the soul of the place and its original occupant?  

Probably not. According to press reports, the tub on wheels remains in the house, along with some furnishings and art work left behind by the Magnate, who died in 1930. At last report, volunteers were making an inventory of things that belonged to the Colonel, who collected art and furnishings for the house when he sailed around the Mediterranean on his private yacht, the Alder. An August 25, 1960 article in the Arizona Republic, however, said that few furnishings remained in the house. 

One can only hope that subsequent owners didn’t walk off with the oversized armchair from which Thompson tried to avert the stock market collapse of 1929. They should put a reverential, museum-like rope around the otherwise undistinguished chair, like the kind you see at Monticello, so that no one can ever sully it. 

Dr. Franklin, the second owner of Picket Post, sits in the Magnate's legendary chair

Thompson reportedly spent $50 million from this perch on “Black Thursday,” October 24, 1929. He was on a through line to Los Angeles and New York with other captains of finance and industry trying to avert the stock market’s eventual collapse. When the group finally decided it couldn’t stem the tide, Thompson told the telephone operator to “Let ‘er go,” referring to the phone line, and hung up.

One reason why it will be difficult to capture Thompson’s spirit in the remodel is that by 1960  fire had destroyed half the 26-room, 7,012-square-foot estate. Built for $1 million between 1924 and 1928, the Castle on the Hill originally consisted of four buildings–a square mansion and three towers, each built on a crag. The towers, which were lost in a fire, included personal retreats for Mrs. and Mr. Thompson, along with a tower for water and an elevator. 

Carved out of a crag, the Cliff House unfortunately is no more

Thompson spent most of his time in one of these towers, the Cliff House. According to a letter left behind by his nephew, Joseph Thompson, Jr., who helped design the house gardens and the Arboretum grounds, the Magnate only decided to build the Cliff House in 1927, after a stroke confined him to a wheelchair.  He picked the spot so that his third-story bedroom would look down 200 feet into picturesque Queens Canyon.   

Joe Thompson remembers that the cliff beside the Cliff House was blasted out to make room for second- story rooms that were occupied by Thompson’s nurses. The ground floor housed what was reportedly Westinghouse’s first electric furnace. Designed to keep the invalid Colonel’s suite at a constant 72 degrees, it was powered by Thompson’s Magma Copper Co. mine in Superior.

In the afternoon, Thompson’s French valet, Rochia, would lift him into his wheel chair and the pair would take an Otis elevator down to the Cliff Walk. As Rochia wheeled the chair along the one-eighth-mile, stone-walled trail, one can imagine Thompson checking the progress of his saguaro, inspecting a new plant, or watching Queen Creek jerk along its rocky bed.  

Another common destination was a settler’s cave that Thompson had expanded into a three-bedroom playhouse for his grandchildren. On special occasions, the Colonel’s entire 14-member entourage would descend into the Arboretum or Rose Garden to sing hymns. Thompson traveled to Picket Post in a private railcar–a spur was built from his mine to the house. While in residence, his railroad servants became his house staff. 

Thompson spent weeks working with engineers from his mining company trying to find the ideal site for his house. “Day after day he led his Magma engineers on scrambles over ledges and thorny desert slopes,” writes his biographer Hermann Hagedorn, “seeking, out of a plethora of building sites the one and only which should perfectly combine utility and romantic beauty.”   

Though Thompson at one time boasted that he owned the land here as far as the eye can see, he actually built Picket Post on land owned by the U.S. Forest Service that was originally part of Crook National Forest. He obtained the 400 acres through a land swap, purchasing land in Northern Arizona coveted by the Forest Service.  

Thompson is credited with designing the estate based on a monastery he once saw on a crag in Greece. But the working drawings were drawn by draftsmen at his mine. That’s was probably a good thing, because several detonations were involved. The top of the great rock pinnacle was blasted away to make room for the first story of the mansion. One can only imagine the regulatory hurdles for doing that today. 

Thompson also had a hole blasted through a crag to create the tunnel that connected his tower door to the Cliff Walk, which began fifty feet below the castle, near the gate to the Aboretum. He saw to it that one of his favorite plants, Job’s Tears, was planted next to the tower door. He could touch its berry-shaped petals from his wheelchair before he ascended to his bedroom.   

The walls along Cliff Walk were built by an independent-minded stone mason named Tom Doby. According to Joe Thompson, the Magnate developed a great affection for the Slovakian, who had sailed ships in a previous life. This fondness would manifest itself in merciless teasing that bordered on cruelty, a seemingly genetic Thompson trait. 

Fortunately, Doby learned to play along. Thompson would sometimes bait Doby by asking him to redo wall sections three or four times. After Doby, who was known for the artistry of his stone work, would threaten to quit and walk away, Thompson would say, “Come back here you dumb Pollack.”  Doby would return. This delightfully insensitive play “went on all day,” Joe remembers. 

Joe remembers another incident, which is chronicled in William Boyce Thompson’s biography, when the Magnate made Doby pan for gold in Queen Creek. The sight apparently reminded Thompson–whose health was failing, maybe his mind as well–of his childhood in Montana. “Doby would complain that there was no gold, but he kept him panning for days and would sit and watch from his wheelchair. In his will, he left Doby $80 a month for his lifetime.” 

Joe Thompson, who was charged with designing the gardens, had his work cut out for him, too. Uncle Will, he said, “wanted trees and shrubs and as it was all on rock it was necessary to build a series of walls to hold dirt. It took three months to build the walls and haul in dirt….We had three freight car loads of plants shipped from California.”   

After the Colonel died in 1930, the Castle on the Hill was locked up, art treasures and all. Owned by the Aboretum, it sat unoccupied along the highway for 16 years. Locals invented stories to explain it origins. According to one, it was owned by a king and queen. According to another, it was owned by a tramp who one day wandered into Superior, discovered the Magma mine, and made millions. In 1946, the estate was sold to the Franklin family, which opened it as a bed and breakfast and offered occasional tours.  

Ida Louisa Franklin, a writer, left behind a self-published book, “A Copper King’s Castle and Aboretum” that was still available for sale when I visited the house in April 1999. Franklin, who had a strong imagination, thought the 26-room estate might be haunted when she first moved in. She wrote that her husband turned the front door key to the “ghost castle” for the first time with great trepidation. She later discovered “secret” rooms in the house. She thought she heard animals or ghosts at night, only to find out that the popping and snapping was caused by the building’s copper roof contracting in the evening.  

The castle did contain hidden treasures and priceless architectural features, though. It had been left largely untouched. The Colonel’s clothing still hung in the closets. Italian paintings that Thompson had collected on Mediterranean cruises adorned the walls. The rooms still contained Renaissance furniture, including a set of Boulle furniture suite made for a Cardinal living in Naples. 

The Franklins also discovered a lava cave that was used to store linens; a wood-encased, walk-in refrigerator as big as a small kitchen; and a dumb-waiter to take meals from the first-story kitchen to the second floor. Above the entrance doors they confronted a circular wall plaque with a great knight riding on a horse.   

But that was nothing compared to the art collection in the library. In a study of the Rape of the Sabine Woman, a magnificently helmeted Roman carried a limp woman across his shoulder. In a long horizontal painting, an angel overshadowed by a great black wing bent low to awaken a sleeping bearded man. On another wall hung a small battered painting of the Annunciation, with the virgin receiving news from an angel that she would become the mother of Chris.  Near the sunroom hung a sensual portrait called Lady of the Tear. 

In the sunroom, there was a handsome table which the Colonel was said to have purchased after he watched a young girl dance on its top for bread and red wine for her family’s supper. When the Franklins moved in, the sunroom was empty. But it had once been planted with drifts of white petunias. When the Colonel’s daughter came for her first and only visit, the petunia garden became a ballroom with the finest dance floor in the Southwest.    

The home was filled with curiosities. On the wall above the Colonel’s bed was a bank of electrical call bells, each for a different purpose. The table in the west end of the library was a single slab of lignum-vitaie almost a yard wide and over seven feet long formed with the hardness and brilliance of marble. It was suspended by strong, simple stretchers of wrought iron. 

Joe Thompson, Jr., later told the Arizona Republic that the value of the furnishings in Picket Post was overblown. But William Boyce procured many of them in Italian antique shops, “taking a delight in beating down the dealers,” wrote  Hagedorn. He sent home three hundred tons of Renaissance garden sculpture, a church facade, a small temple, and countless pillars, and stone fragments.  

The Franklins appreciated the estate’s irrigation scheme. Overflow from the water tower would slip into the foundation plantings along Mrs. Thompson’s house. Each garden or terrace drained into a lower one, and the last cleft drained back into the creek, which was crossed by well tunnels.   

As the house looked in 1999

The Franklins sold The Castle on the Rock in 1948 to Willaim and Mabel Steinegger of Phoenix. In January 1963, the 32-acre property was bought by Richard Rose. The Roses kept their costs down by doing the upkeep themselves and allowing resident hosts to park mobile homes on the property, if they paid fees that went to insurance, taxes, and upkeep. 

When we visited the house in 1999, it housed an incredibly tacky personal curio collection. On tours, stories about miniature carousels and brass ducks inexplicably received equal billing with the Colonel’s dumb-waiter. Who knows, maybe the Colonel would have appreciated the lawn jockey in the front yard.

J.R. Boyce Pays Tribute to Dead for Benefit of Living

March 22, 2010

“Perhaps I am the only one living who can from personal knowledge give the history of the grandmothers and mothers of my children, and in that they may in after years know something of the character of their ancestry. I pay this tribute to the memory of the dead for the benefit of the living, and those who may follow them. Hoping that the living as well as the unborn descendents of these noble exemplars of true womanhood, from them they descend, may profit by the perusal of this tribute to their worth.”

That’s how James R. Boyce (1817-1898) begins his personal history of the incredible women in his family, and in his heart. As the letter to his grandchildren (dated October 23, 1893) makes clear, the one-time major in the Confederate Army, who became a merchant in Virginia City, Montana, believed in the nobility of womankind. He wanted to ensure that ensuing generations understood the great stock from which they came.

Boyce’s mother, Mary Child’s Smith (1786-1828), died when he was young, about 11.  She had married Richard Boyce in 1816 in Logan County, Kentucky. That’s where J.R. passed his early years, though the family eventually found their way to Boone County, Missouri.

“Of my own mother I can scarcely write. To me she was and is an angel, a ministering spirit, ever bearing herself as a calm, lofty character of great sweetness of temper and of marked intelligence, honored by all in her neighborhood as a very superior, highly cultivated woman of deep consistent piety and loved by all her children. They loved her to idolatry, and her step children to adoration.

“My mother died in 1818, when I was in my eleventh year, and my recollection of her is limited to that period. But from my aunt, Martha Smith, afterwards Martha B. Fester, I have learned much of the early history of my mother’s family, and from her I have learned to honor the progenitors of my mother. They were the Smiths, Marshalls and Childs, all the best and purest of old Virginia families.”

Boyce’s mother, Mary Child’s Smith, was the daughter of James and Mary Smith. She was born in Hardy County, Virginia, in the year 1780. Both families removed to Kentucky early in the year 1800, though Boyce didn’t know the precise date. After his mother died, Boyce was raised by his grandmother.

“My grandmother, Mary Childs, was well educated and a woman of very lofty character, raised in the best society of her day. She was a woman of marked intelligence, a good manager in her household, and as I recollect her, a lovely old woman, honored and loved by all.” More on Mary Childs later.

J.R.’s father, Richard, was a sheriff, judge, and plantation owner. He didn’t write much about the men in his family, though he said they were all good men. He preferred to write about the women, whom he said were “purer and better.”

J.R. married Maria Louisa Wright in Dec. 8, 1836, when she was 16.  He was 19. The couple lived in Columbia, Missouri, where J.R. worked as a merchant for 20 years. After losing his property after the Civil War, he moved his family to Montana and started over again. J.R. lavishes incredible praise on his wife, who was born in Boone County, Missouri, at the home of her grandparents. Her mother, Jane H. Wright, was on a visit to them when her first child, Maria Louisa, was born.

“Perhaps in her life a more devoted wife and mother never lived. One who more faithfully and conscientiously discharged her every duty as a wife and mother, deeply endowed with a sense of her obligations to God, and a profound reverence for all sacred things, was a living Christian, with her lamp ever-burning and ever reflecting the light of holy and devoted life, an example to her children and family. Patient, cheerful and consistent, ever careful, watchful and enduring, a living witness of the religion of Jesus. She was endowed by nature, cultured and trained to discharge the duties of American motherhood and wifehood. She died at Helena, Montana, June 28, 1875, and was buried in the Masonic burying-ground at that place on June 30th.”

Boyce held his mother-in-law, Jane H. Wright, in particularly high regard. Jane Wright was born in Virginia on November 30th, 1795. She was the daughter of William and Rachael Wright, and was married at Nashville, Tennessee, to her cousin Wm. Wright, in 1819 (who resided at Russellville, Ky.). 

“Jane H. Wright, your great-grandmother, was a beautiful woman with brown, piercing, luminous eyes—gentle as a lamb, loving, cheerful and bright. A splendid housekeeper; order and system reigned in her household, loving to her husband and children, yet firm and consistent, presiding over her household with a steady firm hand. She was a woman of great intelligence and marked integrity. Her daily life was a living comment and exemplification of the teachings of enlightened Christianity.

“Oh, how beautiful her life rises up before me, after a separation by death of nearly sixty years. I see her daily walk, her gentle kindness to her children and servants, and to the lonely boy (myself) whom she had raised from his eleventh year. I see her on her dying bed, calm, bright and happy, shouting her triumph over death, bidding her husband, children, myself, friends and servants adieu, and with a bright exalted smile passing to her bright home in Heaven. Can this be death? No! Oh no. It is just entering into Life. Her life here on earth was only a prelude to a brighter enduring life with Him whom she loved on earth.”

Boyce has fond memories of his mother-in-law’s mother, Rachel Sawyer Wright, who was born in Virginia in 1767 and died in 1852, at the ripe age of 85. But her life was a hard one.

“[She] was the mother of thirteen children, ten of whom grew to manhood and womanhood. She was a woman of inflexibility of character, more noted for her commanding energy and indomitable will power, yet ever just, conscientious and affectionate, commanding the love and veneration of her family. From affection for her, and their implicit and unquestioning obedience, none ever thought of questioning her authority or disregarding her commands, for they were the law of their youth and obeyed in after life with constancy and affection, feeling and believing the she was ‘always right,’ both in name and actions.

“She died as she had lived, calm and collected. When she realized that her dissolution was approaching, she was ready to meet it firm in faith, with a well grounded hope of eternal rest—always calm, firm and consistent in her walk and with a heart and hand ever open to relieve the wants and administer to the afflicted. Her home was always the abiding place of hospitality and the home of the preachers of her church (Methodist) who penetrated the then wilds of Missouri, in the year 1818, when but few houses of any size were erected in Boone County, Mo., and her house being large was for years the preaching place for all the messengers of Christ, who availed themselves of that privilege.”

But Boyce lavishes most of his praise on his grandmother, Mary Childs, whom he says was universally loved.

“I have often heard them say that they loved her better than they did their own mother. Her servants loved her as a mother and to her they ever appealed for sympathy and kindness and never in vain. She was lovely in life, and in death, glorious. Oh, how deeply on my young memory was impressed the scenes of her death. They were marked and peculiar. For months previous she had a presentiment of her death and talked of it to her family with all the calm confidence as of something that she knew, but did not dread, and only regretted because of her children and family. She met it according to her premonition, as calmly and as confidently as if going to sleep. After bidding her servants, friends, and last, her children and my father, a last, long farewell, and singing—

                                           “Jesus can make a dying bed

                                           As soft as downy pillows are

                                           While on His breast I lean my head

                                           And breathe my life out sweetly there.”

“She turned her face to the wall and went to sleep as sweetly as an infant, and opened her eyes in Eternity. These last senses of her saintly life and death are engraved upon my memory never to be afraid. Her dying admonitions, and her calm triumph, will live in my memory until I have passed thru the dark valley. Death was no monster for her. He was but the messenger to loosen the ties of life and introduce her to a higher and better life. Shall I say more? Only this, that your mothers on both sides have been noble women, not a blot to mar the fair pages of their history. Those who have gone were all deeply devoted to God and duty, and I hope, yes, believe, that those who follow the illuminated lives show have gone before will leave as fair and beautiful a record. May the great God grant it, my dear grand children.  

                                                                Your Grand Father, J.R. Boyce

October 2nd, 1893

Annie Maria Boyce Lived a Hard Life

January 31, 2010

Only five of Annie Maria Boyce’s 10 children lived to adulthood, and ill-health forced her to spend summers in California, according to letters left behind by her son, Joseph Edward Thompson. Like many Western pioneers, Annie Maria Boyce lived a hard life, though she was steadfast in her faith and a great inspiration to her children.

Born in August, 15, 1846 in Boone County, Missouri, Annie traveled with her mother and father, Col. James R. Boyce, to Virginia City, Montana after the Civil War. She married William Thompson in 1875 at the age of 29. Thompson, who had come to Montana in 1863, was a prosperous lumber dealer and miner. 

The couple had children in quick succession but many died at an early age. The names of two children remain a mystery. J.E., writing about his childhood  from his death-bed, explained the harsh pioneer conditions in Montana in a series of letters to his son, William Boner Thompson.

“In pioneer days, doctors were not so good, drugs poor, and many kinds of foods did not exist there, but we had all the diseases there were. It is a wonder that children lived to grow up in those days,” J.E. wrote. 

“All grease was saved to make either soap or candles. Some oranges came in and were sold at 25 cts. each. 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.”

“Mother died when I was about 15 [he was actually 19]. 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 wished us to always remain gentlemen. Many a time I have thought of her last message and it had great power in making me a better man.”

One son, Arthur H. Thompson, died in 1887 at a little more than one year of age. He’s buried, along with his parents and some siblings, in the Thompson colonnade at the Mount Moriah Cemetery in Butte. Little is known of second-born Lula, or Alvin, or Marvin. Even less is known of two children for which we don’t have names. Flora, who died in 1925, probably in her early 40s, is buried beside her mom in the colonnade. 

The Thompsons were stout Methodists. Another son, William Boyce Thompson, recalls in his biography, The Magnate, that preachers often came to dinner on Sunday night, sometimes joined by circuit riders holding revival meetings in town. The visitors ate so much at dinner that young William was often left with no more than a chicken neck. Many of his descendants went on to love chicken, too.

Montana winters must have been tough on Annie, who fancied herself a Southern girl. She was born in Missouri to a family that traced its roots back to Virginia. Her father, James R. Boyce, was a major in the confederate Army who lost his property in the war. After the way, he found his way to Virginia City, Montana in 1864 and established a general store.

Annie was 14 and living on a Missouri plantation when the Civil War erupted. She told her children that Southern troops hid in the woods not far from where she lived. After everyone else in the household had gone to bed, Annie and her sisters would cook meat and bake bread. The next morning they would casually wander into the countryside, cut into the woods, and feed the soldiers.

If Virginia City, where Annie and husband William first lived, was no easy place to raise kids, Butte was even worse. When the family moved to the hardscrabble town in 1880, there were hardly any trees. Annie would tell her children and husband that she dreamed of one day living again in a Kentucky cottage with flowers and views of rolling hills.

Instead, from the door of their bare brown house on Granite street, Annie looked out on smelters and roasting ovens that belched sulphur smoke into the sky night and day. The odor of rotten eggs was everywhere, even on lovers’ lips, wrote Herman Hagedorn in The Magnate. But there wasn’t a lot of polite society in Butte at the time.  The eastern labor brought in to work the factories didn’t keep the best company.

J.E. remembers Butte as “the toughest town in the world….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 at least one saloon and gambling house for every store.” 

Annie Marie had 10 children over the course of about 17 years. She lost her eldest daughter, Lula, in Virginia City. Her youngest child, Mabel Maud, was born in 1886 in Butte. Life as a Western pioneer certainly took its toll on Annie Maria, who died on November 17, 1894 in Butte, Montana.

Eponymous Cactus ‘Highlights’ Trip to Boyce Thompson Arboretum

September 8, 2009

The Boyce Thompsoni hedgehog cactus, named after the great benefactor of the Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Superior, Ariz., allegedly grows glorious magenta flowers that emit an irresistibly fragrant aroma. It later sprouts showy red fruits, so tasty that early desert settlers raced to get them before animals could eat them. Unfortunately, repeated visits to the arboretum have yet to provide first-hand confirmation of the luscious gifts of this eponymous species. 

A prickly Boyce Thompsoni Hedgehog cactus, as it appears for most of the year

A prickly Boyce Thompsoni Hedgehog cactus, as it appears for most of the year

That’s because there’s a short window to see Echinocereus fasciculatus in action–March through early April. I actually bought one in the parking lot during a visit in the 1980 but could never get it to bloom in Maryland. After two unproductive seasons, in which it repeatedly stung us and shreaded our clothing, it had to go.  

Situated in the cactus garden along the gravel and stone trail that winds through the 323-acre facility, the Boyce Thompsoni cactus is remarkably squat considering the large stature of the arboretum’s benefactor. It’s prickly cucumber-like appearance, with a short brown stem and an array of thorns somewhat reminiscent of rodent hair, does conjur visions of hedgehogs. The first part of its genus name, Echinocereus, is Greek for hedgehog, while the second part comes from the word for large candle.

No one readily available at the arboretum in the early 80s was able to explain why the cactus bears Boyce Thompson’s name. Scientific literature on the species is likewise mum. Was the naming of this cactus, which can only be found in certain counties of Arizona, an act of patronage? Or did William Boyce discover the variety himself while walking through the 400-acre tract of desert he bequeathed to the state? The exact circumstances may never be known.

Victoria’s Secret Catalog Shot at Alder Manor

September 2, 2009

Our January 2008 trip to Alder Manor, William Boyce Thompson’s Italian Renaissance Revival estate in Yonkers, N.Y., revealed many interesting bits of trivia. Did you know that a Victoria’s Secret catalog was shot there, or that this is the house where Russell Crowe, playing delusional John Nash, makes his secret letter drops? The juxtaposition seems oddly appropriate.

We were treated to an impromtu tour of the house by its caretaker on a day when electrians were trying to re-wire 72-room mansion. Our guide pointed out might be the world’s largest paint chip. He directed us to the great one’s safe, which was unfortunately empty. Sadly, much of the home’s original art was stripped out and sold at auction in the 80s.

Alder Manor was purchased by The Tara Circle in October 2004 with the intent of creating an Irish cultural center. The group is renting the building out for movie and photo shoots, weddings, and other cultural events. It has put together a great slideshow of the home. Other photography of the house can be found on this site , which identifies film locations. Mona Lisa Smiles, staring Julia Roberts, was also shot here, along with The Royal Tanenbaums and Crocodile Dundee.

Kids Largely Bored By Visit to Thompson Museum

August 15, 2009

Museum 897We drove hundred of miles out of our way in the summer of 1997 to visit Virginia City, Montana, the place where my relatives, J.E. and William Boyce Thompson, were born. There’s a museum there that celebrates the history of what used to be called Alder Gulch. My kids had never been so bored in their lives. We had to leave. Unfortunately, when we came out to look for the car, my wife had left in it.

I tried to engage the boys in a game inside the museum: Let’s look for daddy’s name. Unfortunately, there was very little inside the museum that belonged to Boyce Thompson. Most of the items were donated by three other families. The elderly curator inside, who didn’t seem at all interested in the fact that Boyce Thompson was my namesake, couldn’t indentify anything that belonged to him either.

My kids exhibited mild initial interest in the many old rifles inside. The kitschy petrified wedding cake, promoted in road attraction brochures, failed to exite. Since we didn’t know anyone in the faded old photographs…well, there wasn’t much interest in those either. The one thing that did momentarily capture my sons’ imagination was what’s been described as the eponymous limb of “Club Foot” George Lane.

We did learn that William Boyce Thompson provided the money to build this fireproof building in 1916 to 1921. The building was intended to be a tribute to his father, William Thompson, and his wife’s father, Richard O. Hickson, according to the Montana Historical Society. William Thompson built many of the buildings in Alder Gulch. William Boyce Thompson grew up in the small home around back.

There’s a library upstairs that was started by the Virginia City Women’s Club in the early 1900s. Unfortunately, it was closed the day we visited. A carpenter, Jim Elmsie, started the collection of artifacts early in the 1900s. It is currently maintained by the Vigilante Club of Virginia City, which was founded in 1938, when there was a movement to divide up Madison County.


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