A Brief Biography of Col. William Boyce Thompson
Editor's Note: staff and volunteers are researching a complete history of the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, beginning with the purchase of the land by William Boyce Thompson. The book will be a factual reference guide, but made all the more vivid with anecdotes and incidents which will help readers get a feel for the daily lives and memories of people over the past 75 years who all contributed to building the Arboretum into a world-class botanical garden. Do you have interesting information or personal reminiscences...maybe historical photos from the 30s, 40s, 50s or 60s? Did your parents or grandparents work for "The Colonel" back in the 1920 as the Arboretum and Picketpost House were being built?
Please contact Arboretum Volunteer Sylvia Lee by phone at 602. 740. 5621 if you have historical information, whether a footnote, anecdote or entire chapter of BTA history to share.
Colonel William Boyce Thompson was born May 13, 1869 in Alder Gulch, Montana. At the age of 11 his family moved to Butte, Montana. At the same time in Butte's history the town was experiencing a major mining boom. At 15, William was gambling for major stakes in the local beer halls in the wide-open mining town. He went to public school but displayed little interest. His teachers characterized him as normal, healthy and well intentioned. He disliked study and was thought to be almost dull. He was the least promising of his high spirited buddies. At seventeen, in December 1886, he was sent East to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. His Exeter experiences provided him with social, intellectual, and spiritual maturity. They remained a strong, positive influence all of his life. Although he never graduated from Exeter, in 1889 he matriculated to Columbia University as a student in Engineering. The School of Mines is where he found his greatest interest, but did not return after his Freshman year.
He returned to Montana to a wide variety of mining ventures. In 1895 he married and settled in Helena, then later in Butte. In 1899 he moved to New York City for an initial exposure to the high flying world of mining stock investment. His initial thrust was not successful so he returned to Montana where he secured a producing mine, the Shannon. He returned to Wall Street, and by 1904 had demonstrated his ability to return handsome profits for his investments and move on to other ventures. By 1906, through other investing in Nevada, Arizona and Utah he had made his first million. He continued to pursue Wall Street mining ventures. In 1907, he purchased the Magma Mine, in Superior, Arizona. Meanwhile, he built a grand estate in Yonkers, New York.
People meant much to Thompson, his family first. He was, for all his hard practicality in his business relations, deeply sensitive in matters concerning his family. He began to developed a curious duality of personality. Those who saw him in his home, an indulgent husband, an adoring fathers; or came upon him in the midst of the beautiful surroundings and gardens he was creating on his Yonkers estate; or musing on the mystery of the life and death of vegetable organisms, were hard put to find a common denominator which included the promoter and gambler of Wall Street as he strode ruthlessly toward power.
In 1909 he was forty, a millionaire and art collector. At this period he also began his far reaching philanthropic endeavors, endowing industrial plants, scholarships, fellowships, research establishments, etc. From his activities on Wall Street between 1914 to 1917, the dollars poured in by millions and tens of millions. When there was a big market, Thompson would snatch only a few hours sleep night after night. During such times he remarked, "I get my thrill in taking something that looks hopeless and making a success of it."
At the beginning of World War I, he was beginning to enter into politics, which he saw primarily as a way to enhance his Wall Street Standing. However, the war drove him more into national politics, and in 1917, Thompson was sent by the Wilson administration to Russia. To give him proper "credentials," he was sent as a Lt. Colonel in the American Red Cross. The overriding objective of the Wilson administration was to assure that Russia would stay in the war, and not negotiate a separate peace with Germany. A long struggle to keep the Bolsheviks from power eventually resulted in perhaps a delay of from one month to six weeks and was thought by many after the war to have been a major factor in the winning of World War I.
He returned to politics for a short while after the war but disliked politics. He found his greatest interest in a new home he was building in the Arizona hills, near the town of Superior. This is where he built his Picket Post house. When a friend asked him how much land he owned around Picket Post House, he replied, "I own it all as far as the eye can see, because I love it." The fact was that the first years, he owned none at all. The land was part of the Crook National Forest and the house was built under a permit of the Forest Service. By purchasing land in northern Arizona that the Service wanted he was able to make an exchange that which gave him ownership of over four hundred acres. Thompson is reported to have been happier in his Picket Post home than ever before.
He soon picked Franklin J. Crider, University of Arizona, to establish the Boyce Thompson Southwest Arboretum on a portion of the 400 acres. The initial mission of the Arboretum was to study the plants of desert countries and to make the results available to the public. In 1924 he also established the Boyce Thompson Institute for plant research in Yonkers, New York. After suffering a stroke in October 1925, his left arm and leg were paralyzed. He had driven himself too hard. There were many things he wanted to do. He had dreamed of a rich old age, when he would have time to enjoy his home, his garden, his grandchildren. His strength and vitality never returned. After the Stock Market crash in October 1929, he was convinced it was a prelude to a greater disaster. He sold stocks heavily and from the hundreds of millions he had collected in the three previous decades, he was down to his last 100 million in early 1930. He died from pneumonia in June 1930.
Herman Hagedorn's 356 pages biography (image at right) of William Boyce Thompson,"The Magnate," was originally published in 1935 by Reynal and Hitchcock. The book is currently out of print, and not available for purchase from BTA.