Although he never made Hamilton his home, none of the city’s great industrialists had as profound an impact on the character of the city than Peter Gibson Thomson, founder of the paper mill that went under a few different names in its history, but in my family, it was always called simply “the Champion.”
By the time Thomson began setting up shop in a cornfield along the west bank of the Great Miami River in 1893, the value of Kentucky labor was already highly regarded in Hamilton. In a few years, stores in Central Kentucky would advertise their cheap suitcases as “Hamiltons” and Kentucky train riders would ask for a ticket to the Champion. A former Champion physician wrote a book “Horse Sense and Humor in Kentucky” and quoted a Perry County native, “Down there we have a saying, you go from Harlan to Hazard to Hamilton to Hell!”
He also quoted Thomson as saying he would only hire mountain men. They had a strong work ethic, knew how to run a machine, and if it broke, they knew how to make the part to fix it. With resources scarce and families large back home, the migration to the Champion lasted more than four generations and Hamilton’s decidedly German demographic absorbed a new cultural heritage.
That is, Thomson was the man who put the ’tucky in Hamiltucky.
Printing and paper, it seems, were in his genes. His grandfather, also named Peter, came to the United States on a seven-week journey from Greenock, Scotland, to New York City. Although he was working as a distiller when he wrote kin back home in 1826, he talked about helping his brother get a job in printing if he’d come to New York and said he was glad to hear his father was back to work on the press.
Grandfather Peter’s oldest son, Alexander, went back to Scotland for a couple of years in his teens to live with his grandparents after the death of his mother. When he returned to the United States he went to Cincinnati, where he married and had five children, the second son being Peter Gibson Thomson, born in 1851. The other son, Alexander Jr., died when he was a baby in a tragic household accident, leaving Peter to be raised an only son with three sisters.
There was a family tradition of strength training, and Peter grew up around stories of men carrying barrels of flour over fences and other sporting feats. He was thin and sickly as a small child, but at the age of nine enrolled in a gym that would become the Cincinnati Athletic Club. In his early 20s, Peter set the gym record by lifting dead weight of 1,265 pounds. He also was the gym’s Indian club swinging champion.
He attended the public school in downtown Cincinnati, but his education was interrupted by the proximate deaths of his father and grandfather, leaving him the sole male in the family at the age of 14. At age 17 enrolled in a business school, but there is no record of his attendance other than a receipt for the $50 tuition.
At 21, he went to work in a bookstore as a shipping clerk, a job he held for six years. During that time, he met a young lady from Louisville who was visiting his neighbors. He made the trip to Louisville to visit Laura Gamble seven times before he asked her to marry him. He would later claim that he had only $10 on their wedding day, but with the prospect of a family looming, Peter borrowed the money to open his own bookstore in 1877.
The bookstore did a fair business, but he thought he could do better. When he had trouble getting copies of a popular line of cloth books and paper toys for children manufactured by the New York printers McLaughlin and Company, he borrowed some more money to buy the presses to print his own line of toy books and nursery rhymes. Laura proved to be adept at writing jingles and rhymes herself, and Peter would late give his wife credit for coming up with the idea for his business breakthrough: Publishing valentine cards.
“By easy stages we worked up a big business in valentines and children’s books and my wife wrote several series that had a large sale,” he later told a Dayton newspaper. With business booming, he moved his family out of downtown Cincinnati to the suburb College Hill.
The McLaughlin brothers, according to this interview, got wind of Thomson’s success in Cincinnati and tried to freeze him out from retailers by undercutting his prices. McLaughlin already had the reputation of strangling the competition and buying them out. So in 1887, Thomson went to Brooklyn and offered to buy them out.
“Surely you have a price—somewhere in the millions—for your business,” he told them. “I will buy at any reasonable figure.”
The McLaughlins wouldn’t sell but made a counter-offer. “You have a price doubtless way up in the thousands,” one of them chided.
Indeed, he did. $100,000, to be precise, was the cost to purchase his few presses and a promise to get out of the valentine business for good.
The windfall from this deal brought him to Hamilton.
I haven’t yet found a source to explain from whom or how Thomson learned of opportunities in Hamilton, but by then the city had earned its reputation as an industrial powerhouse. The flatter east bank of the Great Miami River was far more developed than the hilly west bank at the time, and Thomson’s first business here was in West Side real estate, not manufacturing.
In 1889, Thomson purchased 200 acres of the Rhea farm and mapped out the subdivisions of Prospect Hill and Grandview, then built the first bridge at Black Street, apparently with the intent of drawing workers from the shops and mills on the East Side, though perhaps he was shrewd enough to see other possibilities.
Hamilton was already home to several paper mills. The McGuire-Klein Mill was the first, and the first business to put a wheel to the Hamilton Hydraulic in 1845. In 1891, the four mills of Louis Snyder’s Sons were rolling out 15 tons of paper a day, mostly book and news stock, and the J.C. Skinner (formerly McGuire-Klein) Mill two and a half tons of wrapping paper. Both of those mills would go out of business during economic downturn known as “the Panic of ’93,” which also put a crimp in the real estate market.
Meanwhile, printing technology had advanced to the point that more sophisticated papers were increasing in demand. The Champion Card and Paper Company of East Pepperill, Mass., was the only company that could coat paper on both sides at the same time and had big contracts with the publishing giant Charles Scribner’s Sons and the trendy, even then, Cosmopolitan magazine.
Thomson knew a lot about printing and a little about negotiating with monopolies. This time, instead of offering up a business, he put up $100,000 in capital and offered the Pepperill firm 50 percent of the stock in the new Champion Coated Paper Company for perpetual rights to their patents and be its western division.
So, Thomson not only owned a cornfield on the west bank of the Great Miami River that would be the perfect spot for a paper mill, but he had at hand experienced workers of two defunct paper mills who were out of work and two subdivisions in development to house them.
On April 24, 1893, the Hamilton Evening Journal contained a modest six-inch column announcing “another big industry for Hamilton,” noting, “It will be a big addition to our city and especially to the west side.”
On May 1, 1894, ten employees began coating paper that was manufactured elsewhere in Hamilton and up river. It only took a year for Thomson to announce the construction of a second mill identical to the first and his purchase of the East Pepperill interest in the plant for $52,000, making the operation entirely locally-owned, holding three-quarters of the shares himself.
By 1897, Thomson purchased the Eagle Paper Company in Franklin so that he could have a steady supply of paper to coat and the migration from Kentucky to Hamilton spread north.
By the time the Great Miami created its first catastrophe at the mill in 1898, the Champion had the wherewithal to quickly mop up and recover. After a fire in 1901, the employees of the mill took to the task of rebuilding the coating mills plus a new paper mill in just five months.
In 1913, the great flood and a fire destroyed the plant a second time. The operation had grown so large that it took a bit longer to recover, but Thomson saw it as an opportunity to update the machinery and within a year, state-of-the-art mills were running again, but it cost him $4 million.
Thomson continued to live in College Hill. In 1901, he made the local news when he purchased a steam-powered automobile, which cut his 18-mile commute to one hour and twenty minutes. He began building his estate Laurel Court in 1902, which became one of Cincinnati’s most ostentatious homes, later owned by Buddy LaRosa and is now open for tours and special occasions.
Still, he was known by his employees as a fair but serious and modest man. Reporters noted as late as 1916 that he did not have a private office but a desk in a crowded room with other office workers, that he called everyone by their first names. It was said he could tell what county in Kentucky a person was from by their accent.
The Champion was one of the first factories in Hamilton to offer automatic wage increases, a free health clinic, and life insurance. He built a company store for his employees and a commissary. He gave $40,000 for the construction of the YMCA while the city was recovering from the great flood.
His real estate holdings in Grandview and Prospect Hill—minus the eleven acres used for the plant—were addition incentive for Kentucky workers to move north. One Champion old-timer named Lon Fitzwater recalled being called to the office of Peter G. and informed that the company had two lots to sell him. Fitzwater said that he had ten kids and couldn’t afford to buy them. Thomson asked him if he could afford fifty cents a week. Fitzwater thought he could. Thomson handed him the deed and told him to get busy building a house for those ten children.
At the time of his death in 1931, the Champion complex included 28 coating machines and 12 paper mills with more than 3,000 employees working three shifts a day.
In addition to a lengthy obituary, the Hamilton Daily News editorialized on his departure: “Thousands of employees knew and liked the man for his real worth and charming manners. His attitude toward subordinates is said to have been one of kindliness and helpfulness. His reputation for fair dealing and honesty in all matters of business placed him in an enviable position of which any man may be proud… His work in this section of Ohio will stand as a lasting memorial to a master mind of the industrial world.”