If Edward Hulbert Thompson had possessed better eyesight, the history of the grocery industry in Watertown would have been a completely different landscape.
Mr. Thompson, the founder of E. H. Thompson & Company, moved to Watertown in 1859 at the age of 23, after he had to abandon his first passion of portrait painting due to “defective eyesight,” according to a Watertown Daily Times article from February 1919. Once he got settled in the city, he entered into a partnership with J. B. Tyler that lasted seven years. Mr. Thompson had barely any money of his own to invest, starting into business with Mr. Tyler with only $1,200 of borrowed capital.
The partnership opened for business in October 1859, with Mr. Tyler’s feed business on one side of the building at 59 Washington Hall building, and Mr. Thompson’s grocery on the other, according to a Watertown Daily Times article from 1943. The original name of Mr. Thompson’s store was ‘The Sign of the Live Yankee,’ and his company became known as E. H. Thompson & Company.
During the initial years, the company did large wholesale and retail business in maple sugar and syrup, along with the regular line of groceries, shipping to nearly every state in the nation, according to a Watertown Daily Times article from December 1919.
In 1866, Mr. Thompson purchased his partner’s interest and Mr. Tyler retired. Mr. Thompson then ran the company on his own until 1892, when he began a partnership with two of his clerks, J. W. Van Camp and L. J. McDonald.
This marked the expansion of the company was well. As reported in a Times article from that year, the company bought the store of Charles A. Hungerford. E. H. Thompson & Company then moved their store into Mr. Hungerford’s old space, using the adjoining store as well, which had previously been Charles E. Palmiter’s jewelry store. Mr. Palmiter then moved to E. H. Thompson & Company’s previous location. The exact addresses of these stores are not listed. According to the article, this arrangement was carried out mostly by Messrs. Van Camp and McDonald, as Mr. Thompson had been confined to his home by illness.
In 1898, Mr. Thompson sold his interest to his partners and retired from active business.
The two partners ran the business together until May of 1901, when it was announced Mr. Van Camp would retire after nearly a quarter century in the grocery business. It was reported by the Times that Mr. McDonald consented to the dissolution of the firm and became the sole proprietor.
The company switched hands again in 1908, this time back to Mr. Van Camp. After the death of Mr. McDonald, Mr. Van Camp came back to the business, this time taking sole control of the company. He later added his sons, Charles and Edward, into his partnership.
In 1913, the store moved to 200-202 Franklin St. in the Solar building to make way for the Y.M.C.A. building in Washington Hall.
The original owner, Mr. Thompson, passed away in February 1919, and the name of the company was changed to E. H. Thompson Company. According to the Times obituary honoring his life, he was “one of the pioneer grocery merchants.” After he had retired, he continued to live at his home on Winthrop Street, and brought his focus back to portrait painting. He left no immediate relatives after his death. When the Times article was published in 1919, the staff of E.H. Thompson Company was comprised of large corps of clerks and up until shortly before that time, the company was known for having one of the largest delivery organizations in Northern New York.
The eventual demise of E. H. Thompson Company came in late 1943, when Charles Van Camp was president. At this time, the store employed six people, a small number compared to the upwards of 14 people the company had employed in the past. A Watertown Daily Times piece from December of that year reported that Mr. Van Camp announced the closing was due to war conditions. The article reads that “among its problems have been the inability to purchase stock and to make deliveries, a policy of long-standing.” The store – named by the Times as “a landmark … [which] has written a long and valuable interesting chapter in the business life of the community” – had been open in one form or another for over 84 years.
By Lorna Oppedisano, NNY Magazines staff writer