William Boyce Thompson: An Enduring Legacy in Yonkers

     Tilliam Boyce Thompson was an adopted son of Yonkers, a mining engineer, a financier, a patriot, and an extraordinary philanthropist who bequeathed to later generations a remarkable and irreplaceable legacy. Rare, indeed, was a self–made millionaire of his time who used his money to accomplish such great things.

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Thompson was born May 13,1869, in Alder Gulch, Virginia City, Montana. He would later use the name of his birthplace for his new, grand home in Yonkers.

His early years were typical of mining towns of that generation. In 1887, at 18, he was sent east to the Phillips Exeter Academy, and upon completion of his studies there enrolled in the Columbia University School of Mines. He later returned to Montana, and was employed by his father in the family's copper and silver mines in Montana and Arizona.

On February 6, 1895, he married Gertrude Hickman in Butte. Encouraged by success, the couple relocated to New York where he joined the Curb Exchange. Exeter classmates and club members soon introduced him to influential New Yorkers. As he was one of the few people on Wall Street with a comprehensive knowledge of the mining business, he became a successful mining promoter and developed mining properties in Canada and the west and southwest of the U.S. Later he acquired diamond mines in Africa. The Guggenheim Brothers, J.P. Morgan and Bernard Baruch were his sometime business partners. He made an astounding fortune.

Through a series of land purchases from 1906—1910, he began to acquire properties in Northwest Yonkers. Around 1910 he commissioned the architectural firm of Carrere and Hastings to draw up the plans for his magnificent estate, which he called the Alders with Alder Manor.

Carrere and Hastings had studied at the Ecole des Beaux–Arts in Paris where they developed a style that adapted neo–classical architecture. Their designs included the New York Public Library, the Carnegie Institute in Washington, Woolsey Memorial Hall at Yale, the Goldwin Smith building at Cornell, and the Arlington War Memorial Amphitheater and Victory Arch. Among their private clients were the Duponts, the Harrimans, and Henry Clay Frick.

Although Thompson was only 43 in 1912 when he built a landmark in Yonkers, his energy and spirit drove him to new challenges.

He began working for the Republican Party, and in 1912 was the Westchester County presidential elector, and a delegate to the national convention of 1916 and 1920. He was the first director of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, holding that position from 1914 until December 1919. His private, international, and humanitarian interests greatly expanded.

In 1917, Herbert Hoover was the Chief of the Belgian Relief Fund, a privately financed organization. With the end of the World War he was confronted with the daunting task of raising $150 million dollars in war relief.

Hoover knew Thompson as a fellow member of the Rocky Mountain Club of New York and his assistance was quickly arranged. At a dinner party on January 30,1917, money which had been raised for a new clubhouse, was pledged to Hoover. A finance committee was established to raise more funds. Thompson became the treasurer, contributed $100,000, and paid all administrative expenses so that all funds could be used for war relief.

The Club also cared for soldiers in France and those traveling there and further assistance was given during demobilization. It has been estimated that Thompson and the club raised at least $5 million dollars for war relief.

Soon after fund raising with the club began, Thompson donated $250 thousand dollars to the Red Cross and in 1917, he led a Red Cross Commission to Russia to determine the need for medical supplies and other relief.

He urged the U.S. to support the Kerensky Government and, when Washington delayed, wired J.P. Morgan requesting $1 million dollars to sustain the provisional government. A check was promptly sent.

At the end of World War I he was the treasurer of the Republican Party, a trustee and million dollar donor to the Phillips Exeter Academy, and the first President of the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Association to which he gave more than $200 thousand dollars.

In 1921 President Harding appointed him the U.S. Envoy Extraordinary to the centennial celebration of Peruvian independence, and a member of the Conference on Arms Limitation.

What more could one man accomplish in a lifetime?

Thompson’s most significant achievement was yet to be realized. He stated at the time: “There will be two hundred million people in this country pretty soon. It’s going to be a question of bread, of primary food supply. That question is beyond politicians and sociologists. I think I will work out some institution to deal with plant physiology, to help protect the basic needs of the 200 million. Not a uplift foundation, but a scientific institution dealing with definite things, like germination, parasites, plant diseases, and plant potentialities.”

And so in 1919, he began to obtain property opposite his Yonkers home to house the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, created with an initial investment of $1 million dollars, an amount to which much more was added over the years.

The Institute was formally dedicated on September 24,1924. The original building had a total floor space of 85,764 sq. ft. There was an arboretum and greenhouse space of over 16,000 sq. ft. The Institute used to own more than 300 acres of rich agricultural land for field plots.

William Boyce Thompson died of pneumonia on June 27, 1930, at the Alders. His health had been declining since 1926, and he had only recently returned to Yonkers from a long convalescence in Arizona. The funeral, on June 29, 1930, drew a virtual who’s who of American Society.

The Boyce Thompson Institute later became a part of Cornell University and was moved to its Ithaca campus in 1978, after 54 years of in Yonkers.

—John D’Agnillo

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