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Why Industrial History?

1. Agricultural Beginnings

2. The Thomas Family Busines

3. Central Chemical and the Fertilizer Industry

The Thomas Family Business

Around 1890 a former school teacher and farmer named Daniel A. Thomas entered this rather unsophisticated fertilizer market in Hagerstown. One source indicates that Thomas established a fertilizing plant for the manufacture of fertilizers from bones in 1892. Livestock bones were shipped in from meat-packing centers; bison bones came in from western plains. The location of Thomas’s operation prior to 1904 is not known, but at some time between 1904 and 1910 the Thomas firm located operations in the old Huyett/Simmons fertilizer complex on the Cumberland Railroad. Thomas bought raw materials and compounded them into fertilizers. From 1000 to 1200 tons of fertilizer were manufactured annually. By 1913 one of Thomas’s specialties was the “celebrated” Thomas’ Dissolved Bone. This name suggests that Thomas had some means of acidulating the bone to produce superphosphates. The 1910 Sanborn maps, however, only show rooms for storage and mixing and do not show areas for steaming, grinding, or acidulating .

At the same time, Thomas bought, and may have traded fertilizer for, livestock in Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Chicago. Thomas had stock yards complete with a cattle scale on the other side of the Cumberland Valley Railroad from his fertilizer plant. In the fall, Thomas sold this livestock on commission to Hagerstown residents. In the spring Thomas bought stock in Hagerstown and sold mostly to large cities, such as Baltimore, Chicago, and New York. In this sense, Thomas took advantage of Hagerstown’s “gateway” function; he took advantage of the “resources of the South,” but also enjoyed the “advantageous freight rates” to the large cities of the North. The business handled about 8000 cattle and 5000 hens annually as well as sheep and other livestock.

The Thomas family had operated the DA Thomas Fertilizer Company in Hagerstown since approximately 1890, providing ground bone and other animal byproducts to farmers, as well as acting as livestock brokers. Thomas Fertilizer products included “the celebrated ‘Thomas Dissolved Bone’ ” as well as some early mixed or compound fertilizers. Although their principal business appears to have been buying and selling livestock, the fertilizer component of the business was moving between one and two thousand tons of material annually by 1904. The plant was located fairly close to town on Virginia Avenue, adjacent to the railroad and appears to have been in operation at least until 1918. Central Chemical was established in 1911 by Daniel Thomas’ son Franklin, on a large plot of land at Mitchell Avenue on the outskirts of town.

In 1910 Thomas constructed a large office building on West Jonathan street. Thomas located his own offices in the Thomas building, but also rented suites to other firms. In 1913 D.A. Thomas & Co. was listed as “Manufacturers of and Dealers in Fertilizer.”

A close relation between father and son extended into the business as they were both variously listed as president and/or vice-president of Central Chemical for the first twenty years of its existence. By the mid-1920s, Franklin Thomas and Central Chemical have a discreet but prominent profile in the local trade organizations. In 1927, Thomas was a member of District Committee #3, which included Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia, of the American Fertilizer Association and in 1929 Central Chemical participated in an industry survey prepared the National Fertilizer Association. Thomas also appears active in the industry on the national level, attending and speaking at a Special Convention called in 1927 to respond to trade practice codes proposed by the federal government. Devastating fires in 1943, 1961, and 1965 may have subsequently impacted the companies profile in the industry.

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