Our thanks to Richard Robbins for helping to prepare this biographical sketch of Josiah VanKirk Thompson. Robbins first wrote about Thompson for Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine in an article entitled Uniontown’s Prince of the Gilded Age. Robbins also devotes a chapter in his book “Our People” to Thompson.
Josiah VanKirk Thompson was born February 15, 1854 in Menallen Township, Fayette County, the son of Jasper Markle and Eliza Caruthers Thompson. Jasper Thompson had many business, civic, and political interests, one of which was serving as president of First National Bank in Uniontown. He was also a trustee of Washington and Jefferson College, which J. V. attended. Following his graduation, the younger Thompson went to work at the bank. After his father died in 1889, J.V. became bank president. He also entered the lucrative coal and coke business, principally buying and selling coal lands and mineral rights.
At the turn of the century, J. V. Thompson began keeping a journal. In 1911, he discontinued the practice. He took it up again in 1919 and continued with it until his death some 14 years later.
J.V.’s primary interest for the journal was family genealogy, though he frequently recorded events of his daily life. Business topics were not infrequent.
One of his favorite practices was to arrive in a strange town, in Nebraska for instance, reserve a hotel room, and then race through the telephone directory in search of Thompsons or Markles, Jacks or Finleys, Andersons or Redbums, Elliotts or Carouthers. Finding one such name he would telephone or, more likely, hail a taxi, arriving at the house just at suppertime. Inevitably, he would be welcomed in and the family would bring down the family Bible containing all the birth and death dates of their relatives. J. V. would transcribe these, plus record information about the current generation. He stayed hours or minutes, depending on the amount of material his “cousins” could offer him. No one was too slight or too distant a relative to talk to. He once spent forty-five minutes with a family of African-American Carouthers.
In Wooster, Ohio, in 1923, he bested illness, freezing temperatures and a biting wind to gather names from a Presbyterian cemetery. It was a stellar performance. Chilled to the bone, he returned again and again to a fire of burning leaves tended by cemetery workmen. Still, he persevered, walking six hours over a thirty-acre expanse, pencil and notebook in hand all the way.
Robbins, Richard. “Uniontown’s Prince of the Gilded Age.” Pennsylvania Heritage Spring 1989.