DR. WILLIAM D. THOMPSON, PROGRESSIVE MAYOR IN 1930s
ByJack R. Mays, Charlton County, Ga. Historian
To the Folkston youngsters he looked much like Winston Churchill, Britain’s wartime Prime Minister…the almost regal way he carried his large frame along the three blocks from his home to his Folkston Pharmacy drug store on the corner of First and Main. He was William Daniel Thompson, but almost everyone called him Doctor Thompson.
The nation had been at war since December 7, 1941. It was now Tuesday, June 6, 1944, Thompson always kept his Hallicrafter shortwave radio playing next to him as he filled prescriptions in order to keep up with the progress of the fighting. That June 6, he heard an excited radio announcer proclaim “The Allied invasion of Europe began this morning under the direction of General Dwight Eisenhower, when massive invasion forces landed on the coast of Normandy in France!”
Thompson smiled to himself, remembering that on the previous Saturday afternoon he had heard just such a news bulletin on his radio and relayed the message to Folkston’s mayor, Charlie Passieu. On that Saturday, Passieu dashed to the control switch of the city’s small fire siren which was perched atop an electric light pole on Main Street and personally sounded a three-minute false alarm signifying the invasion two days before the actual D-Day invasion. This day, Thompson would not be caught in that trap again.
But, as it turned out, the invasion was for real that time. Folkston observed it calmly and quietly having had its noisy celebration two days earlier than the rest of the world, on the previous Saturday.
Ward Harrison’s Charlton County Herald that week was sprinkled with news stories about Folkston’s fighting men around the globe…Proctor Prescott was seriously wounded while serving aboard a hospital ship in European waters…Lieutenant Shelton Monroe, with the 8th U.S. Air Force fighter squadrons station in England was credited with shooting down his tenth Nazi warplane and Dr. McCoy announced Folkston’s first supply of the wonder-drug Penicillin at McCoy Hospital.
Thompson, who had long been one of Folkston’s foremost promoters, was keenly aware of the hundreds of local boys who had answered their country’s call to military service. He did everything he could to support those in uniform. He recalled his own days in service during World War One, a war in which he was seriously wounded.
For the Nichols, Ga. native, it was his fifteenth year in Folkston. As a 36 year old in November of 1926, Thompson had moved his family to Folkston from Orlando, Fla. He entered into a partnership agreement with Jack Davis and the two opened Folkston Pharmacy in January of 1927 in a building adjoining Davis’ general merchandise store. Six months later, Thompson bought out Davis’ interest in the partnership and ran it alone until his retirement on March 1, 1966.
Thompson’s parents, William M. and Ester Ann Meeks Thompson, were members of two of South Georgia’s most prominent pioneer families. William Thompson graduated from Nichols High School in 1912 and went on to graduate from the Southern College of Pharmacy in Atlanta in 1914. One of Thompson’s daughters, Mary Jean, graduated from the same school in 1948.
Thompson returned home to Nichols after receiving his pharmaceutical degree in Atlanta to open his own drug store. Later he opened drug stores at Sparks and Brunswick, Ga. While in Brunswick and a member of that city’s National Guard unit, Thompson and his outfit were called into federal service prior to World War One for a Mexican border campaign. When World War One broke out, Thompson entered the military, suffering a crippling foot injury from enemy action.
The political-minded pharmacist operated his Folkston Pharmacy from the original building next to Davis’ store until 1944, when he bought the Rodgers Building on the corner of Main and First Streets and moved his pharmacy business there, just beyond Pete Stroup’s barber shop, which was also in the Rodgers building.
In the drug business in Folkston he was assisted by his daughter Mary Jean and his wife, Vera Lynn Thompson, whom he married in 1919. The Thompsons had two daughters other than Jeanie, Kathryn, who worked with the county’s draft board and welfare programs, and Willette, who became a Registered Nurse. Thompson served many years as chairman of the local welfare board.
The five years Thompson was Folkston’s mayor, the town showed real progress. Thompson is credited with being one of the town’s most ambitious mayors, pushing through an expansion of the city’s three-block-long water system in the face of strong objections from those who wanted to protect the status quo. The existing system, if that is what it can be called, extended only from the courthouse, westward along Main Street, to its intersection with the St. George Highway. The small pipe was inadequate for fighting fires, which was one of Thompson’s chief concerns.
Thompson was first elected mayor in December of 1929. He took into office with him two new council members, Oscar Raynor and George Gowen. Returning council members were V.A. Hodges, C.J. Passieu and Jim Purdom. Right away the progressive Thompson and the council members started talking about expanding the city water system. At that time, each home had its own pitcher pump for a water supply. Thompson’s main concerns was the lack of water to fight fires which yearly destroyed dozens of homes and businesses in the little town, and too, the drinking water had been found unsafe on several occasions.
In September 1930, Thompson and his council proposed an $18,000 bond issue for the town to install its first water system in its most populated areas. They promised a 25% reduction in fire insurance premiums for businesses in the area served, and a 15% reduction in residential insurance rates.
Opponents right away got to work. Instead of arguing that the system was not needed, those against the proposal argued that to bond the city for $18,000 would completely exhaust the city’s ability to borrow money for other purposes, should an emergency arise. The opponents won a delay with their argument when Thompson and the council agreed to “further study” the situation.
In February 1931, Thompson led the council to buy a used 75,000 gallon water tank from a power and light company for $5,000. The city borrowed the money from the bank, pledging its water receipts as collateral.
Thompson and the council then went to Hebardville, near Waycross, looked at some abandoned water mains of the Hebard Cypress Company and bought 4,000 feet of the second-hand eight-inch mains to lay along the town’s main business district. Then they contracted for the drilling of a new artesian well for the city. Thompson and the council then had the system branch off the eight-inch mains with small lines into the most populated area of the city, for domestic purposes.
In July of 1932, the expanded water system is credited with saving the Dean and Gowen building on Main Street after a fire was discovered near midnight by E.B. Stapleton and his son, Junior, in the large building. Damage still amounted to $10,000 but most of the building and contents were saved when volunteer firemen used the new water system for water to put out the flames.
In September of 1931, the tireless Thompson suggested expanding the city limits to include nearly three hundred more people that lived just outside the boundaries. A referendum was held and was approved by the voters. Along with the expanded city limits came a new, updated charter for the city. Thompson’s city administration is still remembered as being among the most progressive in the history of the city.
A Methodist, and member of his church’s Official Board, a Mason and Shriner, Thompsons received his 50-year membership pin from the Folkston Masonic Lodge in December 1968. Thompson was also a member of the Sons of the American Revolution.
On April 4, 1973, William Daniel Thompson died in a Jacksonville, Fla. hospital. Survivors included his wife, Vera, three daughters, Kathryn Wildes, Mary Jean Lancaster and Willette Maddox. His widow, Vera, died five years later, on January 12, 1978. The two are buried in Folkston’s Pineview Cemetery.
Bill Thompson, as he was called by friends his age, resembled Winston Churchill still more in his later years…the way he carried himself became even more regal…his love of the Studebaker automobile and the gentle and courteous manner with which he served his customers…became his trademark. He gave all the energy and talent he possessed toward the development and progress of the City of Folkston and Charlton County. He will be remembered for his contributions for almost fifty years to his chosen home town and county and for the many necessities he instituted, taken for granted today, but which came at a terrible price in the early thirties. He assured for himself a prominent chapter in the history of Folkston and Charlton County.