Thompson Timber Interests

By: Thomas D. Isern

Type: General Entry

Published: July 1, 1995

Three generations of Thompsons active in the lumber industry in Texas included Benjamin Franklin Thompson, the first of the clan in Texas; his sons, John Martin and William Wirt Thompson; and John Martin Thompson's sons, James A., Benjamin F., William P., J. Lewis, Alexander, and Hoxie H. Thompson. The Thompson enterprises began in 1852, when B. F. Thompson and his two sons erected a sash mill near Kilgore. They built two circular sawmills before the Civil War and another immediately after the war. After the death of W. W. Thompson in 1874, J. M. Thompson took in a partner, Henry Tucker, and carried on the business with the aim of gradually bringing in his sons. Of his sons the most active in the business were J. Lewis, Alexander, and Hoxie. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the Thompsons built their empire in timber through a series of sound business decisions. In 1881 they moved their operations to Willard in order to market lumber via the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway. They facilitated their marketing with connections by partnership to retail lumberyards. They organized a collection of corporate vehicles-including the Thompson and Tucker Lumber Company, the J. M. Thompson Lumber Company, the Thompson Brothers Lumber Company, and the Thompson and Ford Lumber Company-to hold their interests. Most important, they acquired timberland and built mills, and their interests sprawled across East Texas. By 1907 their companies owned 149,736 acres of land and operated mills at Willard, Doucette, and Grayburg. From 1906 on, they managed their interests from corporate offices in Houston.

The panic of 1907 struck the expanding company hard. With reorganization of management, deferment of expansion, and infusions of capital from a retail lumberman named Ben Foster in Kansas City, the Thompsons survived the panic, retrenched, and resumed expansion by building new mills at New Willard and Trinity. The panic caused them, however, to rethink their operations and to make provision for future exigencies. They fenced thousands of acres of cut-over lands, set up a cattle company to use them, and established a demonstration farm on them, in order to facilitate sales of such lands to ranchers and farmers. The Thompsons also, in calculated fashion, separated the functions of ownership of lands and cutting of lumber. They turned lumbering operations over to two new companies in which they held interests, the Texas Long Leaf Lumber Company and the Rock Creek Lumber Company, and converted their older companies into land companies. In keeping with these policies, when the Thompsons bought 89,000 additional acres of timberland in Houston and Trinity counties in 1914, they cut none of the timber themselves but organized the Houston County Timber Company to hold the lands. In short, the Thompsons withdrew from lumbering and pursued other interests. J. Lewis and Alexander embarked upon careers in banking, and Hoxie took care of the brothers' land interests. In managing the land interests of the Thompsons, Hoxie Thompson pursued a twofold plan. First he sought to sell off cut-over lands as expeditiously as possible. The outstanding example of this occurred in 1936, when he sold 94,126 acres to the United States Forest Service for $12.50 an acre; these lands subsequently formed a large part of the Davy Crockett National Forest. His second concern was to keep mineral interests in land where he was disposing of surface rights. Consequently, during the 1930s and thereafter, despite the depression in the lumber business, the Thompsons remained prosperous through oil and gas leases. Meanwhile, by 1950 Hoxie had sold nearly all the Thompson lands.

The Thompsons had the reputation of being more humane and conservation-minded than other pioneer lumbermen of East Texas. Their policies toward employees, however, were largely typical of those in the regional lumber industry. Their companies paid average wages, and employees lived in typical company towns. The Thompsons did, however, make a greater effort than other companies to pay wages in cash instead of scrip. Nor did the Thompson companies exhibit particularly enlightened policies in conservation. They practiced selective cutting at a time when few others in the industry did because they owned their own timberlands and wanted to handle them prudently. They never reforested their cut-over lands but disposed of them. However, as president of the Texas Forestry Association from 1942 to 1944, Hoxie Thompson did speak out for reforestation and other conservation practices, to the long-term good of the industry.

Thomas D. Isern and Raymond Wilson, "Lone Star: The Thompson Timber Interests of Texas," Red River Valley Historical Review 7 (Fall 1981). Robert S. Maxwell, "The Thompsons, Lumbering Clan," Texas Forestry, January-February 1966. Robert S. Maxwell and Robert D. Baker, Sawdust Empire: The Texas Lumber Industry, 1830–1940 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1983).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Thomas D. Isern, “Thompson Timber Interests,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed November 29, 2021,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

July 1, 1995