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Emily Rupp: The Thompson Family of Centre County

The Thompson Family of Centre County

When people think about Centre County, the first thing that comes to the minds of most is the Pennsylvania State University.  However, years before Penn State even existed, Centre County had much else to offer.  Thriving agriculture was not Centre County’s only asset, as it was also home to a lively iron industry at its peak, with businesses such as Centre Furnace.  It was only after these two great achievements in Centre County that Penn State would become so dominant in the picture.  The common thread running through each of these important aspects of Centre County’s history is the Thompson family.  The Thompsons had a deep effect on the course of history in the county through their involvement in iron making at Centre Furnace, their interests in agriculture, and their involvement in the foundation of the Farmers’ High School that would become Penn State.  

The prominence of the Thompson family can most arguably be traced to Moses Thompson.  He was born March 25, 1810 to General John Thompson and Elizabeth McFarlane Thompson.  His lineage was Scotch-Irish, as his great-grandfather Thompson had emigrated from North Ireland in 1745.  Moses’ ancestors were some of the first settlers in Centre County.  The Scottish influence was from his mother’s side, where his great-grandfather, Matthew Louden, had fled to the United States because of persecution.  1

Moses had very strong impressions of his early life in Centre County.  He started out in a log house, but then in 1814, his father built a stone residence just to the north of it.  Moses recollected soldiers marching by during the War of 1812.  Another aspect of Moses’ childhood was that he was only able to get what education he could from a local country school, which left him wanting more.  2

Moses was not a stranger to hardship, as he lost his mother at the age of twelve.  He described her as “one of the most gentle, loving, Christian women” 3.  He received his strong Christian values from her.  Moses also faced his father’s declining health, which led him to take over the family farm while still in his twenties. Moses would gain leadership skills and dedication from overseeing the farm that would benefit him upon his entrance into the iron industry. 

On January 4, 1838, Moses Thompson married Mary Irvin.  Her father was General John Irvin.  At the time he was a storekeeper, as well as a large landowner, in addition to being a member of the state assembly.  This connection to the Irvin family brought Moses into contact with Centre Furnace, where he would make some of his most important contributions to Centre County.  4

Moses' father-in-law, John Irvin, and his brother-in-law James Irvin had started purchasing interest in Centre Furnace in 1832.  Centre Furnace had been opened in 1791 by Colonel Samuel Miles and Colonel John Patton.  After their deaths, the Irvins purchased it. 5

April 1, 1842, marked Moses’ entry into the industry with a purchase of one-sixth interest in Centre Furnace 6.  Moses was passionate about the iron industry.  His success in this area made him a wealthy man.  Moses used his success in the iron industry to take a prominent role as a “publicly spirited citizen.”

He invested a great deal of money for the creation of a turnpike, the building of a local canal, as well as for the advancement of the local railroad 7

The turnpike was called the Agricultural College and Junction Turnpike and was owned by the Thompsons for several years before it was turned over to the state.  The local canal went from Bellefonte to Lock Haven and was much cheaper than transporting iron over the mountainous terrain.  Other projects in which Moses invested included the Bald Eagle Valley Canal; Bald Eagle Valley Railroad; the Boalsburg and Bellefonte Turnpike; and the Lewisburg, Centre, and Spruce Creek Railroad 8.  Through his investments in these modes of transportation, Moses greatly contributed to the growth of his own iron furnace and to the entire area.  

In 1848, Moses and his brother William purchased an additional one-sixth interest in Centre Furnace.  Soon after he bought his brother’s portion, becoming the owner of a third of the enterprise. By 1865, Moses had become the sole owner of Centre Furnace.  This occurred because his partner, James Irvin, suffered severe financial losses in the Panic of 1857, from which he could not recover.  Moses was not as deeply affected by the panic because of his income from his large number of farms in Centre County. 9

Aside from iron production, Centre Furnace included several other operations for the employees that worked there.  At its peak, Centre Furnace lands included a company store, sawmill, church, post office, school, numerous barns and farms, as well as the ironmaster’s house, which was Centre Furnace and the home of the Thompsons.  Through all of these different buildings one can observe that Centre Furnace’s impact spread beyond simply iron production.   10

While Centre Furnace made Moses Thompson a wealthy man, his regret about his lack of education never faded.  As a result he became involved with the proposal for the Farmers’ High School.  General Irvin and Hugh McAllister joined him.  They promised $10,000 towards the construction of the main building and donated the first two hundred acres of land, as well as promising to sell additional land at a reasonable rate. 11

Another attractive quality of Centre County for such a school was its location, almost equidistant between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.  Also, being “far removed from city life” added to its appeal 12.   

These factors led to Centre County being chosen as the location of the Farmers’ High School.  The papers deeding the land for the school were signed in the Thompson home in the east front parlor.  Mary Irvin Thompson garnered fame for hosting one hundred and fifty people at a dinner at Centre Furnace where the trustees examined this deal. 13  

Another important aspect that drew the Farmers’ High School to Centre County was the area’s agricultural society, called the Pennsylvania State Agricultural Society.  These organizations were very important in the nineteenth century for the spread of agricultural knowledge through publications, lectures, and even fairs. 14 

They were important because before their existence farmers learned the trade from their parents, but ideas were not spread any more broadly than that.  These organizations allowed for a more collaborative spirit in agriculture.  Farmers realized that if they and their sons learned the latest techniques they would prosper; if not, their competitors who did would do so instead.  During the presidency of John Quincy Adams the proposal was even raised for the creation of a national agricultural school in order “to show how to gain the highest clear and permanent profit from agriculture, under any circumstances. 15 

While this did not immediately come to be, in the years that followed agricultural schools in Maine in 1821, New York in 1824, Michigan in 1844, and other states began to form. 16 

Therefore, the creation of the Farmers’ High School in Centre County was a part of the trend during that time to help farmers have more specialized training than they had ever received before. Also important to the foundation of the school was the contribution of ten thousand dollars from the Pennsylvania State Agricultural Society. 17

The name of Farmers’ High School is a little misleading because the school functioned as what we today would consider a college.  It even began offering preparatory high school level courses in the 1860s for those who did not have sufficient education to succeed at the Farmers’ High School. 18 

These beginnings provided for by the land donated from Thompson and his brother-in-law, James Irvin, made way for the expansion of the school in the 1860s through the provisions of the Morrill Land-Grant Act.  The Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 was created to provide land grants to states from the federal government  in order to create colleges that would emphasize agriculture and industrial training, as well as give youths who could not afford private colleges a quality education.  This would give all Americans an opportunity to receive a quality education. 19 

It was during this time that the Farmers’ High School became the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania because President Evan Pugh knew that to receive a land grant from the Morrill Act, the school needed to be a college. 20 

It is arguable that Penn State would have existed somewhere in Pennsylvania without the Thompsons because of the growth of agricultural schools across the country. However, without Moses Thompson’s donation of land and deep involvement in persuading the school’s Board of Trustees to locate their school in Centre County, that location would probably have been one of the other five locations proposed.  State College and Centre County owe a great deal of their growth to Penn State being here, so the fact that the Farmers’ High School was created as part of a national trend should not diminish the importance of Moses’ involvement in its beginnings. 

The involvement of the Thompsons with the school did not end with its establishment. Moses Thompson served as secretary to the Board of the Farmers High School from 1859-1865 and from 1867-1874 as its treasurer.  In time this Farmers’ High School would evolve into the Pennsylvania State College and then University with descendents of the Thompson family remaining deeply involved with the school during the process.  It began with Moses’ service as treasurer and continued with his son-in-law, John Hamilton’s involvement in the expansion of the school’s agricultural program after Moses’ death.

Moses Thompson used the ideas that were promoted by the Farmers’ High School on his own farms.  For example, he quarried limestone in order to produce agricultural lime.  He would then use it experimentally on different fields to see what its effects would be.  Limestone essentially works to neutralize acidity in the soil.  A new piece of technology Moses incorporated on his farms was the seed drill regulator.  This mechanism was designed to make sure that all the seeds were planted at uniform heights within the soil. This machine was invented in part by Moses’ son-in-law, John Hamilton, and will be discussed in more detail later.  22

Mary Irvin Thompson died on August 22, 1890, with Moses following her on June 19, 1891. 23 

During their lives, Moses and Mary Thompson had eight children, six of whom lived into adulthood.  James and Mary died at very young ages.  Sarah, Elizabeth, John, Anna, James Irvin, and William were the other Thompson children. 

At the time of his death, Moses Thompson was the largest landowner in Centre County. 24 

Because of this, he was able to leave each of his children land, although the amounts varied. A highly successful man, Moses Thompson left a total estate of around a half a million dollars. 25

Sarah Irvin, the oldest daughter, married Dr. Theodore Christ in 1871 and had four children: Mary Thompson, Hester, Mary Irvin, and Theodore. 26  In his will, Moses Thompson bequeathed to Sarah and her heirs his farm in College Township that consisted of one hundred and eighty one acres. 

In addition to this, he also provided for her and her family financially at his death by leaving them $29,049.53. 27 

Moses’ first son, John Irvin, went on to marry Elizabeth Boal in 1870.  They had five children: Mary Irvin, Helen, George, Elizabeth Boal, and Charles.  At the request of his father, John Irvin was responsible for the creation of several large maps of all of Moses Thompson’s land in Centre County.28 

Moses Thompson left John I. Thompson two of his farms that were partially in College Township and partially in Patton Township, and  also left the stone house in which Moses’ family had lived when he was a child.  Moses’ financial support provided $28,814.72 for John Irvin.29 

Also of importance is the grain elevator and coal shed built in 1885 for John Irvin Thompson by his father, Moses Thompson.  It is located in Lemont, on what is today Mt. Nittany Road.  This complex was important for the role it played as the main hub of trade for Centre County.  Through this site grain was exported from the area’s farms and coal was imported through the Bellefonte, Nittany, and Lemont Railroad.  This building is also remarkable for its architecture as a rare example of wooden structures built in this time.  This site was given a Pennsylvania Historical Marker in July of 2006. 30

William Thompson married Anna Elliot and had five children: Wayne, Irvin Preston, Edith, Mabel, and John Elliot.31 

Moses left to William Thompson the Centre Furnace Farm, lands, and with that, Centre Furnace Mansion.  William inherited $27,857.58 from his father.32 

His family resided in the Centre Furnace Mansion from 1891 until his death in 1912.33 

He was in New York City in a car with his wife, son Irvin, and two others.  They were driving up 23rd Street when a street car struck them.  Mr. Thompson was in the front seat and was thrown from the car.  This resulted in an injury at the base of his brain, which led to his death at the hospital around 3:00 a.m. that night.  Upon the death of William Thompson, his family moved out of Centre County, possibly to New York or Massachusetts.34

Moses’ youngest daughter was Annie Thompson.  She never married and lived until 1905.  To Annie Thompson Moses bequeathed five adjoining farms, totaling two hundred and forty-five acres. Monetarily, he left her $28,232.86.35

James Irvin Thompson was Moses’ youngest son.  He married Mary Jane Shaw in 1890.  They had three children: Mary Irvin, Hilda Patton, and Alice Irvin.36 

After the death of James’ father, he shared responsibility for several farms that were left jointly to himself and William Thompson, his older brother.  He received $27,857.58 from his father’s estate.37

Two of James’ daughters, Alice and Hilda, would spend time abroad serving in the American Red Cross.  Both had highly illustrious and successful careers.  Hilda Thompson’s national service began during World War I, when she served as an ambulance driver.  She resigned in order to begin her work with the Red Cross.  During her service, Hilda held a variety of positions.  At the end of World War I, she was working in France at a Canteen Service from December 1918 until June of 1919.  The purpose of this station was to provide services to soldiers in the field.38

Her service continued into World War II.  Around 1943 she was stationed in the northern part of Australia for twenty months and was Red Cross Club Director and Supervisor, the first woman ever to fill this position.  Hilda delivered a speech about her work there to the American Red Cross back in the states.  She explained what they did there, such as preparing meals; planning social affairs, such as picnics or boat trips; sending telegrams home; and mending soldiers’ clothes.  Hilda was sure to share numerous accounts of thanks from grateful soldiers, which demonstrated that Red Cross work there was greatly appreciated.  Also included was a slogan that the Red Cross workers hung over their desks, “The impossible we do immediately; miracles take a little longer.”39

After this assignment Hilda would move closer to the action into New Guinea.  Here she supervised 26 Red Cross workers while serving at a mobile canteen service.  Their purpose was to provide care for pilots returning from flying missions over enemy territory. 40 

She was also responsible for preparing for a visit from Eleanor Roosevelt.41 

She provided a speech on this experience in which she detailed the long days, beginning as early as two or three in the morning.42 At the time she left the South Pacific from New Guinea, she’d been farther north than any other Red Cross woman.  During her career, Hilda also worked with a group called the Lithuanian Displaced Persons Group in Rebsdorf, Lithuania.  

She was presented with a scrapbook of appreciation from the people she served because of her work there.43

Alice Thompson was also a highly active member of the Red Cross.  She served in the Philippines during World War II.44 

There is even an account of Alice, a State College native, running into a Penn State graduate during her service. 45

She was awarded the Philippine Liberation Ribbon for her valor and service in Civilian War Aid.  In 1948, she had returned home and was working as the executive secretary of the Lycoming County branch of the Red Cross.46 I

t was a great tragedy when Alice Thompson died on January 18, 1950.47  These two exceptional women provided a great deal to the world through their service in the Red Cross during the two World Wars.  They demonstrated once again the widespread effect that the Thompson family has had not only on Centre County, but places throughout the world. 

Elizabeth married John Hamilton and had three children.  Elizabeth Thompson and her family lived at a property known as the Highlands.  After the Thompson family moved out, the Highlands would become home to Delta Upsilon Fraternity, an organization associated with Penn State.48 

The organization still exists today and resides in a home on Locust Lane in State College.  From her father’s estate she received several farms, including Sunset Farm, where she and John Hamilton would live for a time.  She was left $29,335.94.49

John Hamilton greatly influenced the growth of Penn State, as well as the entire agricultural industry.  He was born February 19, 1843 at Fermaugh Farms to Hugh Hamilton and Sara McDowell, and would spend several years fighting in the Civil War.50 

He was an extremely active member of the Centre County Veterans’ Club.  At their annual reunions, John Hamilton was often among the speakers.  Aside from being an active member, he maintained a collection of newspaper clippings from all of the Club’s functions.51

Upon his return from war Hamilton began his involvement at the Farmers’ High School, which had by this time evolved into the Pennsylvania Agricultural College.  He began his studies there on February 28, 1865.  Later that year, Dr. Allen, the President of the College, asked that John Hamilton take a job as Director of Students’ Labors on the college-owned farm.  He accepted and began this job on January 1, 1866.  Throughout 1867, John Hamilton put his studies on hold and focused solely on developing the college’s farms.  He would resume his studies in January of 1869 and receive his Bachelor’s of Science degree in 1871, at which time he took a job managing the school’s four farms.52

In 1874, while John Hamilton was working at the school, the name of the school was changed from The Agricultural College of Pennsylvania to the Pennsylvania State College.  The other positions he would hold at the school included that of professor from 1871 until 1880, Superintendent of Students’ Labors, and finally several years as Treasurer of the college.  His involvement in agriculture did not diminish as he served on the State Board of Agriculture as a representative of Centre County.  He would work as Institute Expert for the United States Department of Agriculture.  This job entailed traveling across the country to different agricultural institutions and making assessments about what the successes and failures of each particular institution were. It was holding this position at the US Department of Agriculture that led him and his wife to be invited to the White House during the Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt for a reception.53

John Hamilton’s ties with the Pennsylvania Agricultural College showed his deeply rooted interest in agriculture.  After his mother died when he was four, he moved with his father to live on a farm in Erie County.  He helped his father with many agricultural tasks such as growing peas and digging up potatoes.  Jobs also included taking care of horses and milking the cows.  These experiences shed light on why John Hamilton would spend so much of his career in the field of agriculture.54 

His interests in agriculture would lead him to be involved in the invention of what was called the Seed Drill Regulator.  He would spend two years promoting this invention across four states: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan.  However, it never took off and the project was abandoned. 55

In addition to working at the college, John Hamilton was involved with the advancement of agricultural education on a wider scale.  He published several pamphlets on this topic.  One of them was called, “Farmers’ Institutes and Agricultural Extension Work in the United States.”56 All of his writings on the topic of improving agriculture discuss education in some aspect. This fifty-page report from 1912 is essentially a compilation of figures for the various Farmers’ Institutes across the country.  For example, included is the number of lectures given, how many people attended them, how many women’s institutions there were.  The work also addresses education for young people and the number of farmers’ clubs that had been created.  It ends with another list of reports for each state’s agricultural institutions. 

The grandchildren of Elizabeth Thompson and John Hamilton, as well as many other Thompson family descendants, would go on to contribute extensively to the preservation of materials from this historic family through their close work with the Centre County Historical Society.  Many have made sizable donations of Thompson family related materials, without which the amount of knowledge known about this family and the county itself would be much less. 

One cannot begin to discuss the Centre County Historical Society, without first explaining how they came to be situated in the Centre Furnace Mansion and so closely involved with the preservation of Thompson family materials. After William Thompson’s death in the car accident in 1912, the mansion became home to a series of renters, especially during World War I.  In 1920, the mansion was purchased by the Garver family.  It was owned by a man named David Garver, who would have a number of grand exploits over the next forty years at the mansion.  These enterprises included the installation of a public swimming pool, a dance hall, a roller rink, and a barbecue stand.  Upon Garver’s death in 1978, the house was donated to the Centre County Historical Society.57

When the Historical Society took over the house, it was in need of extensive renovations. The Society had to decide how they wanted to restore it.  They chose to interpret the house around the time of the mid-nineteenth century when the Thompson family was living there.  Therefore, it has been recreated to the best available knowledge to look how it might have when the Thompson family resided there.58

One of the most important rooms is called the Founders Room.  It is believed that in this room the deal to create the Farmers’ High School that would become Penn State was signed by Moses Thompson, James Irvin, and the trustees.  In the center of the room is a table with a copy of the actual contract that sealed the deal.59

Across the hall from this, there are two parlors.  One is Moses Thompson’s parlor, with a large portrait of him hanging in the room.  This room would have been for entertaining their male guests.  Directly adjacent is the Mary Irvin Thompson parlor where Mrs. Thompson would have entertained female guests.  Another piece of Thompson history to be seen in the house is the wedding gown of Elizabeth Thompson, who married John Hamilton. 60

Additionally throughout the house visitors can find pieces of furniture that belonged to Thompson family members and were donated by their descendants.  Another piece of Thompson history in the mansion is the signatures of two children.  These were found during the renovations under plaster and belong to Sarah and Elizabeth Thompson.  They were probably around seven and five respectively when they wrote it because shortly after, the brick wall that they wrote on was plastered over.61

Aside from their prominence in the educational mission of the Centre County Historical Society, evidence of the importance of the Thompson family can be seen all over Penn State and Centre County.  Thompson Hall was dedicated in 1950 in honor of the family’s contributions.62 

Willy Brook was renamed Thompson Run.63  In Lemont there is no shortage of homage to the Thompson family.  Many of the streets in this small town bear their name or the names of their descendants because much of this land was once part of the enormous estate of Moses Thompson.  This was also the location of the John I. Thompson Grain Elevator and Coal Sheds. 

The overall impact of the Thompson family on Centre County history was enormous. Moses Thompson’s work at the Centre Furnace greatly contributed to the production of iron coming from this region.  At its peak, Centre Furnace was one of the most profitable furnaces in the area. The iron industry provided jobs for people who moved to Centre County who did not wish to be farmers.  In a sense, iron diversified Centre County a bit from being so highly focused on agriculture.  In addition to the iron industry, the Thompsons were prominent farmers and investors in the internal improvements such as roads, canals, and railroads that connected the county with the outside world.

The impact of the Thompson family on the Pennsylvania State University is also great. They contributed to its founding and then served prominent roles in its early history. John Hamilton greatly improved the agricultural department at what was then the Pennsylvania State College through his work in a variety of positions.  His influence was recognized with a bound black book of thanks presented to him by the college’s trustees around 1911.

Had Moses Thompson never lived in Centre County, State College might be a very different place.  The iron production might not have occurred as it did, so a great deal of emphasis might still be simply on agriculture.  Also without the Thompsons the Farmers’ High School might have been built in one of the four other counties bidding for the contract.   The Pennsylvania State University would not exist here and State College – which of course would have a different name – would probably have around forty thousand less people living and going to school here.

Moses Thompson’s extensive contributions to the area have been officially commemorated by the Pennsylvania State University Alumni Association through the placement of a Penn State Historical Marker in his honor.  The marker is located at the Centre Furnace Mansion and details his contributions to the foundation of Penn State, as well as accomplishments in land ownership.  Lastly, it informs that much of the land that the university is built on was land that at one time belonged to Moses Thompson. 64

On a broader scale, many members of the Thompson family have served not just Pennsylvania, but the entire country through their service.  John Hamilton was a proud Civil War veteran who remained active in the Centre County Veterans’ Club after his return from fighting.  Almost three quarters of a century later, Hilda and Alice Thompson bravely served their country through the Red Cross in both World Wars.  Hilda accomplished many feats never before completed by a woman and opened new doors for women in the nursing service.  Her extremely dedicated service earned her positions at a higher level than any woman had ever seen before.  Additionally, she was brave enough to hold positions at canteens very near to the front lines and drive ambulances in the thick of the action.  Few, if any women, were doing such tasks at this time and her service led the way for women to begin to narrow the gender gap.  Alice’s service at home and abroad also demands a great deal of respect.  From just these three examples one can see the impact outside of Centre County that members of the Thompson family have had.

The Thompson family is still around and thriving today.  They held a family reunion at Centre Furnace Mansion in 1989.  Relatives gathered from places as far as Maine, Texas, Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.  Over one hundred members attended this reunion.  This number is just half of the living descendants of Moses Thompson as at this time there were two hundred thirty.  The reunion was sponsored by the Centre County Historical Society, who hosted the gathering as well as doing much of the planning.  Family members brought any old photographs they might have had to contribute to the historical society’s collection.  Members in attendance include the Henszeys.  The Henszeys married into the Thompson family through children of Anne and John Hamilton.  They have and still do make substantial contributions to the mansion’s collection, including a sofa and a table.  This family makes up one of the largest familial groups of alumni in Penn State history.65

Since the mid nineteenth century, the Thompson family has affected the way that Centre County and Penn State have developed.  From their start in the iron industry, up through their involvement with the foundation and growth of Penn State through the years, to their family members’ service in the Civil War and later in World Wars I and II, the Thompsons have been extremely influential in shaping the area.  To return to Hilda Thompson’s Red Cross motto, “The impossible we do immediately; miracles take a little longer.”  Moses Thompson began what might have seemed impossible before his time when he became the largest sole land owner in Centre County and began a family that would directly affect the course of history for this region of Pennsylvania.