James Thompson arrived in California in 1869 and bought some farmland near Merced. The native of Scotland worked that property for nearly two years before he gave up the farm and moved to Oregon. When he returned to California, he settled in Modesto, where he and his family would become participants in the early development of the area. Some of their efforts still can be seen today.
Born in 1839, Thompson came to New York with his parents 10 years later. He worked as an engineer for some years until his move to California with his wife, Agnes, and their children. Though the Merced farm failed, Thompson still believed he would make his fortune in farming and later bought land in the Modesto area. He named his property Lanark Park, after his hometown in Scotland.
Years of hard work eventually led to the farm's success, and over time Thompson began to take part in many local activities. He was director of the McKenzie Seminary of Oakdale, which later became Oakdale High School. He was one of the first to invest in the Oakdale Irrigation District and later became an advocate of what would become the Modesto Irrigation District.
Thompson was a strong supporter of the Grand Army of the Republic, the veterans group of Union soldiers from the Civil War. Working with then-Rep. J.C. Needham, they were able to obtain headstones for the graves of 26 Union soldiers. The two also succeeded in getting cannons for the Modesto GAR post, which can be seen in the GAR section of Modesto Cemetery.
In 1909, Thompson and his wife moved to San Jose after selling Lanark Park. Two of their 10 children continued to contribute to the Modesto area.
Walter Oregon Thompson served as Modesto's city clerk until 1920. Dr. Irving Boyd Thompson worked as a surgeon in Oakdale and, during that city's early years, was head of the board of directors -- a position that eventually came to be called mayor.
James Thompson lived in San Jose until his death in October 1914. "As a special mark of the esteem in which he was held by his fellow townsmen, all public buildings of Modesto were closed during the funeral services and the flags were hung at half-mast," wrote George H. Tinkham in his book "History of Stanislaus County."
The Scottish immigrant and failed farmer in Merced eventually found great success in Modesto. He and his family played important roles in the development of Modesto and Oakdale.
On June 6, the 28th annual Modesto Scottish Highland Games will be held at Tuolumne River Regional Park. Gates open at 9 a.m and close at 5 p.m.
McAndrews is a docent and board member of the Great Valley Museum. Tinkham's 1921 "History of Stanislaus County" was the primary source for this article. McAndrews can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.