Four generations have left their mark on a family business that is celebrating its 90th anniversary in Columbus this year.
“Every generation has grown our business and made it better,” said Spencer Thompson, 34, president of Thompson Furniture & Mattress, 2440 Central Ave.
But history show the family has also left their mark in shaping the entire Columbus community.
After serving in the Army during World War I, Hancock County native Oral D. “Buck” Wilson (1891-1980) married Lena Miller Thompson (1894-1980) in Greenfield. Shortly after the wedding, the couple, along with Lena’s 6-year-old son from an earlier marriage, William “Claude” Thompson, moved to Columbus in 1924.
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Although Wilson quickly gained acceptance as an auctioneer, many were left scratching their heads after learning he purchased two corner lots for $500 on what was then the northeast outskirts of Columbus.
Approachable by only two gravel roads, the area that locals called “Wilson’s Corner” were so far off the beaten path that even Buck Wilson’s father openly questioned his son’s judgement.
It would be almost 40 years until Buck Wilson’s vision was fully appreciated. He was proclaimed the “Granddaddy” of the 25th and Central retail shopping area in the Jan. 7, 1964, edition of “The Evening Republican,” forerunner to The Republic.
That vision began in the mid 1920s when Buck Wilson first opened a general store and a gas station where the current furniture store now stands at 25th Street and Central Avenue.
On the second lot, where MainSource Bank now has a branch, Wilson opened a used furniture store in 1927.
“They started the furniture business really to give my grandmother something to do,” Buck Wilson’s grandson, Vic Thompson, said. “(Lena Wilson) kind of ran the business.”
Although many suffered after the stock market collapsed on Oct. 29, 1929, the Wilsons were in the right businesses at the right time. Both used furniture and auctioneers were in big demand during the Great Depression.
To help struggling farmers and businesses, Wilson’s Furniture also began selling kitchen stoves and coal-burning stoves to warm homes, according to Vic Thompson’s wife, Susan Thompson. The family also sold sandwiches and old wood furniture to burn, she said.
“My grandpa was friends with everyone,” Vic Thompson said. “He was one of those local characters who liked everyone.”
In fact, Buck Wilson was popular enough that his neighbors twice elected him Bartholomew County Clerk, an office he held from 1940 to 1948 while his wife ran the furniture store.
After World War II, Buck Wilson’s stepson also achieved political success.
Holding the distinction of being the first Bartholomew County resident to be drafted, Claude Thompson (1918-96) would return to Columbus after World War II and succeed his stepfather as county clerk, serving from 1948 to 1956.
But upon leaving public office, Claude Thompson saw great potential in new furniture sales during the booming post-war economy. He and his wife, Virginia Featherngill Thompson (1916-81) took over the business after Claude Wilson’s retirement in 1956.
In subsequent years, the store’s name was first changed to Thompson-Wilson Furniture — and later to it’s current name, Thompson Furniture & Mattress.
While Virginia Thompson worked there, she also made a mark on the community by taking on leadership roles in a variety of local organizations ranging from 4-H and the United Way to Meals On Wheels and the Bartholomew County Retirement Foundation.
After graduating from Columbus High School in 1966, Victor I. “Vic” Thompson attended Indiana University and eventually earned his master’s degree in business administration from Southern Illinois University.
While rising to the rank of an Air Force captain during the Vietnam War, the son of Claude and Virginia Thompson always intended to return to Columbus and run the family business, he said.
It was an ambition realized after Claude Thompson retired in 1976 to spend more time with his wife after she was diagnosed with cancer, Vic Thompson said.
While wanting to manage the store as his parents did, one change Vic Thompson did implement immediately was to upgrade the lines of new merchandise that the store began offering in 1938, he said.
In July 1980, Vic Thompson announced his engagement to Susan Kay Partin, who would become an integral part of the store’s management team.
Six years after taking over the helm, Vic Thompson moved the furniture business across the street to the other lot where the general store and gas station had once been located.
In November 1985, an open house introduced the community to a completely remodeled facility featuring a contemporary stone and cedar exterior, while over 30 completely accessorized room settings were installed inside.
Initially, neither of the two men representing the fourth generation of owner/managers wanted to work in the furniture business.
Nick Partin, who is Susan Thompson’s son from an earlier marriage, graduated in 1993 from Columbus North High School and received his degree in industrial technology from Purdue University before being hired by Rockwell International in Greenville, South Carolina.
His stepbrother, Spencer Thompson, a 2001 Columbus East High School graduate, earned his degree from Indiana University before accepting a job with AT&T in Atlanta, Georgia.
But eventually, the stepbrothers each had a change of heart about living in their hometown for very similar reasons, they said.
For Partin, it was burnout from constantly finding himself on the road as a Rockwell sale representative, he said. Spencer Thompson explained he became disillusioned with the inefficiencies he encountered while working for a massive corporation in a big city.
Both were welcomed into the family business six years apart. Spencer Thompson, 34, who moved back to Columbus in 2008, is now president of Thompson Furniture & Mattress.
Returning to Bartholomew County just three years ago, Partin, 42, is vice president. Family patriarch Vic Thompson, 69, currently serves as secretary-treasurer.
Thompson Furniture & Mattress has now grown into a regional business that attracts customers from throughout central and southern Indiana, Spencer Thompson said.
Nevertheless, a decision has been made not to open additional locations in other cities, in order to better ensure quality control, he said.
Since most customers want to try out new furniture in the showroom before investing several hundred dollars, the family business isn’t threatened by online sales like many other retailers, Spencer Thompson said.
But low-quality furniture made inexpensively overseas that generates customer dissatisfaction has become a threat to the entire industry, Vic Thompson said.
Besides patriotism, the American flags found throughout the company’s showrooms help symbolize that about 95 percent of all the store’s merchandise is made by U.S. companies known for quality, Spencer Thompson said.
Although Thompson Furniture & Mattress has two trusted employees, Susan Crussel and Mike Watkins, the family stays involved in all aspects of a sale — especially delivery and set up, Partin said.
“Most of the issues that happen in our industry take place during deliveries,” Partin said. “When (the family) does it, we know the job is done right every time.”
Those who visit Thompson Furniture & Mattress – or hear their broadcast commercials – may already be familiar with four young girls who have come to represent the business.
Ella, 11, and Sullivan, 9, are the daughters of Nick and Dana Partin, while Stella, 6, and Piper, 2, are the daughters of Spencer and Heather Thompson.
While the girls are proudly featured in the company’s advertisements, it’s way too early to speculate whether a fifth-generation of owner-managers will step forward, Spencer Thompson said.
“I don’t know if we’ll be around for 90 more years, but it will definitely end with our family,” he said. “That’s important to us.”
Thompson Furniture & Mattress will host “Hoosier Egg Fest” in late May.
The fundraiser for the Columbus Firemen’s Cheer Fund will feature competing chefs serving up culinary specialties prepared on ceramic grills/smokers/ovens. Formally called kamados, the oval-shaped cooking devices are often nicknamed “eggs.”
The winning chef will be determined by how much he or she receives in tips for creating satisfying dishes. Those who purchase tickets will also be eligible for a raffle of merchandise, including recliners from Thompson Furniture & Mattress.
When: Saturday, May 20, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Where: Thompson Furniture & Mattress, 2440 Central Ave.