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John W. Thomas, educator and politician, was born in Caswell County on June 27, 1800. One of six children of Robert and Margaret Warwick Thomas, young John matured quickly after his father’s death in 1810. In 1817, Thomas moved to Davidson County, where he engaged in mining for precious metals near Silver Hill. While working in the mines, he met his future wife, Polly, the daughter of Moses Lambeth. The couple settled at “Cedar Lodge,” a house Thomas built on a tract of Lambeth’s land near present-day Fair Grove.
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Thomas entered into public affairs initially as a county representative in the 1831 General Assembly. He served as a state senator in 1842, 1848, 1854, and 1860. A strong supporter of internal improvements, Thomas played an instrumental role in the passage of a bill to build the North Carolina Railroad, from Goldsboro to Charlotte via Raleigh, Greensboro, and Salisbury. Thomas lobbied for part of the track to pass three miles north of his house, and subsequently bought the property over the rail’s route. After the completion of the work, Thomas built a railroad depot, as well as a general store and a gristmill. His son Lewis opened a hotel directly across from the depot, and Thomas laid off cabins for workmen as well as a new brick home for his family.
Thomas’s little community became known as Thomas Depot. On October 23, 1852, the Greensborough Patriot reported a gathering would take place on October 30, where citizens would be addressed by six leading North Carolina Whigs promoting the presidential campaign ticket of Winfield Scott and former North Carolina governor William A. Graham. The town of Thomasville claims 1852 as its founding date.
The Thomasville post office opened in 1853, and in 1857 the town was incorporated by order of the General Assembly. Several new businesses moved into the town, including two shoemaking firms from Bush Hill in Randolph County. Thomas purchased the charter of Glen Anna Female Seminary, renamed it Thomas Female College, and moved the academy from its position near Lexington to a three-story brick building near his home in Thomasville in 1857. Thomas also lured furniture manufacturers into the area, principally the Westmoreland and Whitehall families. The individuals provided the foundation for what later became Thomasville Furniture Industries.
Thomas’s allegiances during the Civil War are not fully known, although Governor Jonathan Worth referred to him as a “Holden man,” indicating pro-Union allegiances inline with William W. Holden. In April 1865, he invited many of the Union soldiers passing through to stay at his home. One of them, 2nd Lt. John Thomas Cramer, of the 177th Ohio Infantry, met and eventually married Thomas’s daughter Jenny. Cramer would remain in Thomasville, providing the funding for two of the first furniture factories in the city. Their son, Stuart W. Cramer, pioneered air conditioning advances in textile mills and the town of Cramerton is named for him.
Thomas died of heart disease on May 17, 1871, leaving a widow and nine children. He was buried at Thomasville Cemetery, the land for which he had donated to the city. His house, “Cedar Lodge,” stood until 1959, when it was razed to make room for a housing development. A ten-foot tall sculpture of Thomas constructed in 2002 stands in present-day Thomasville.
J. G. R. Hamilton, ed., The Correspondence of Jonathan Worth, II, 986-987
Greensborough Patriot, October 23, 1852
Thomasville Times, May 6, 1987
High Point Enterprise, May 9, 1959; June 9, 1959; July 6, 1959
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, VI, 22-23—sketch by Mary G. Mathews