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W.K. Thompson - The lost son of the Kelly Family

There’s a slight bit of mystery surrounding W.K. Thompson’s life, and it’s likely due to his unfortunate exit from the axe manufacturing industry, despite being born into a family saturated with axe genes. William Kelly Thompson was born on July 15th, 1873, to Robert Coleman (R.C.) Thompson, Jr., and Lily Thompson. His mother’s full maiden name was Zerilda Albina Kelly, and W.K. was named after her father, William Kelly. R.C. and Lily left the Eddyville, Kentucky area in 1872 and were married in Louisville, where W.K. was born a short time later. In 1874, Lily’s brother, William C. Kelly, would, with the assistance of his father, start Kelly and Company, manufacturers of edged tools. That company would evolve into the Kelly Axe Manufacturing Company in 1887. As W.K. came of age, he would have been exposed regularly to the axe factory life, as his father would play the part of General Manager, Secretary, and Treasurer at varying times, and his uncles, W.C. and James Paul Kelly, would be heavily involved in both the company and his life. His father would also play a part in the marketing of the company, and “R.C. Thompson’s Champion” was an early line associated with him. Another influence from the company would be his cousin, George T. Price, who was noted as being close to W.K. in his childhood. Around 1890 W.K. would become a part of the local military as a reservist, and was noted as rising quickly in is group’s ranks. In 1893, the Kelly Axe Manufacturing Company would relocate to Alexandria, Indiana, and W.K. would follow. That year would also be the first time he would be noted directly as an employee of the company, as he would be listed as a salesman for the business.


In December of 1895, the U.S. Patent Office received an application for a patent for a “Method of Manufacturing Edged Tools”. The description of the method used involved immersion of the axe head in a tannic acid bath during periods of the manufacturing process. The result: a brown, less likely to rust, axe finish that did not need to be polished prior to sale. The application was submitted by W.K. Thompson of Alexandria, and was witnessed by George T. Price of the same. This patent submission may well have been in reaction to the patenting of a chemical process for the tempering and coloring of axes by William J. Sager of Warren, Pennsylvania, shortly before. During the same time, Maximilian T. Christopher, Sager’s son-in-law, had come to be employed with the Kelly Company. Oddly, though, when the patent was granted on August 18th of 1896, there was no mention of assigning the rights to the Kelly company, nor was there any mention of employment of Thompson by the axe business. Notes from 1898 list W.K. Thompson as the Superintendent and General Manager of the Kelly Axe Manufacturing Company of Alexandria, showing some growth in his career. In 1899, Thompson would marry Sarah A. Jarvis, a woman from Louisville. They would move to Indianapolis shortly after the wedding where they would live until November of 1904, at which time the couple would move back to Louisville.




In early 1905, Thompson would become involved with Joseph Adger Stewart. Stewart was the President of the Louisville Forge Company at the time, a company that was profitable but not thriving as much as its investors had hoped. Along with his partner James D. Augustus, Stewart liquidated the assets of the Louisville Forge Company and used the funds, along with an investment from Thompson, to set in motion steps to form the American Tool Company. On June 1st, the group would purchase 9 acres from Highland Park Land Company and start construction on a factory for making axes and other tools. Stewart would preside as President, with Thompson Vice President and General Manager, and Augustus sitting as Secretary and Treasurer. By September it was noted that Stewart and Thompson held equal amounts of stock in the company, with 200 shares each. Augustus was noted as holding 30 shares. However, a portion of Thompson’s stock was held on credit by Stewart (50 shares) and another portion had been purchased through a trade of stock (40 shares) in the Kelly Axe Manufacturing Company of Alexandria that had been owned by Thompson.

With the groundwork set, and W.K. Thompson fully invested, manufacturing began at the American Tool Company. In October of 19005, the company began trademarking marketable images. One of the images was W.K. Thompson’s own name, showing that, at least at that point, he was committed to the company. Unfortunately, things would change as 1906 began to take shape, and in April of that year, Stewart filed suit against Thompson for the sum of $5000. This was the value of the 50 shares of stock that had been sold to Thompson upon the creation of the company. Being unable to repay his debt, Thompson was forced to auction off his assets to recuperate funds. In October he was noted as auctioning 160 shares of stock from the Kelly Axe Manufacturing Company and 100 shares of American Tool Company Stock. This would have left him with a portion of his stock from the current company, and left him with one hand “in the pot” with the American Tool Company. However, the following year would show very little progress for the company. In response, its leadership would auction off the entirety of the business, including all assets, patents, and trademarks, on November 15th of 1907. The purchaser of the company was a group made up of the same people, J.A. Stewart and J.D. Augustus, minus W.K. Thompson. In Thompson’s place were 3 new investors, Benjamin F. Fitch, Maximillian T. Christopher, and William J. Sager. The move effectively cut Thompson from the business. The new company was renamed the Louisville Axe and Tool Company. After being severed from the American Tool Company, and losing his stock in the family business of the Kelly Axe Manufacturing Company, Thompson and his wife (and children) moved to Los Angeles, California. His professional life from there on out would be a mixture of salesmen and broker positions. William Kelly Thompson died on October 1st, 1947, just long enough to see his cousin, George T. Price, who had led the Kelly Axe Manufacturing Company through its profitable merger with the American Fork and Hoe Company, pass away in 1946.

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