MISC, TP 9/11/1903

The Birmingham Ledger
Saturday Evening, July 11, 1903
Major Thomas Peters
A Man of the Early Days
   Major Thomas M. Owen requested Major Thomas S. Tate to write a sketch of the late Major Thomas Peters for the department of history. The following is the result. Few men are so well qualified as Major Tate to write the article and thousands of the friends of Major Peters will read it with pleasure, because of its facts and its memories:
   Having been requested by the department of archives and history of Alabama to prepare for preservation therein short sketches of some of the men who were most prominent in the early development of the mineral resources of this district, and whose efforts in that line laid the foundation upon which their successors built the Birmingham of today and placed this section at the head of the list for the production of iron and coal of any portion of our whole country, I shall devote the first of the series to giving a short sketch of the life of Major Thomas Peters and of his efforts in aid of this section at a time when it was comparatively unknown. Major Peters was born in Wake county, North Carolina, October 23, 1812; moved with his parents to Maury county, Tennessee, when he was 15 years old, and a few years thereafter settled in Henry county, West Tennessee, where he made his home for many years. He moved to Memphis some years before the beginning of the civil war in 1861. When was was declared he at once tendered his services to the governor of Tennessee for any duty to which he might be assigned. Governor Harris, who knew him well, at once appointed him a quartermaster, with the rank of major, and assigned him to duty as chief quartermaster of the Army of the Mississippi, then under the commando f Lieut. Gen. Leonidas Polk, who resigned his bishopric in the Episcopal church to give his services and later on his live to his country. Major Peters brought to his new position a very large amount of energy and sound business training. The task he had before him was a herculean one. He had to equip a large army without any reserve depots or factories to draw upon, and that, too, for a government whose credit was never first class. How well he succeeded those of us yet living who served in that army during the first year can and will cheerfully testify. Major Peters had long been noticed for his honesty and fair dealing, and every one who knew him felt sure that Governor Harris had put the right man in the right place. One of his bondsmen, a wealthy Irish banker in Memphis, said to him after signing the bond: "Tom, you have a hard task ahead of you. No matter how conscientiously you perform your duties you will be criticized. You will have the handling of millions of money and property, and will have many opportunities of speculation. If you should, however, not take advantage of them and come out of the war poor, you will be pointed out as a fool, who handled millions of government money and did not have sense enough to fix himself. If you come out of it rich they will say, "There goes a scoundrel, who fastened upon the necessities of the ??lers and made a fortune." The war found him with a large private fortune and left him with all that gone and a very heavy debt hanging over him. He was ??? all over the western army as one honest quartermaster. After the surrender he settled and lived for some years in Selma, but in 1868 he came to this county, and at once began his efforts to attract men from all over the country who had capital to develop the minerals which nature had so lavishly deposited in this section. He was comparatively without means, but had a very extensive acquaintance among the prominent men of the south and knew quite a number of the iron masters of the north. He spent his entire time in this work, writing thousands of letters and making many visits at his own expense to various sections and pointing out in his most dramatic way the advantages of this section and showing what a golden field it was going to prove to the early investor. It will be remembered that this was a most inopportune time to try to induce capital to invest here. Values of all kinds were falling. The state government was in the hands of the carpetbaggers, who were increasing the state debt at an alarming rate, and there was little or no security for life of property, and last, but not least, there was no railroad connection with the outer world, Calera being then the nearest railroad station. No obstacle, however serious, could dampen the enthusiastic ardor of Tom Peters and he kept up his good work unceasingly. In the early part of 1869 his ??latent work began to bear fruit. He persuaded his lifelong friends, Col. Sam Tate of Memphis, to come over here and see for himself that what the potential he had been writing him was the fact. Colonel Tate came and was so impressed with what he saw and with the description given him by Major Peters of the remainder of the country that he bought for himself and associates the now famous Green Springs ore property, fronting three-quarters of a mile on Red mountain; also the Ware Gap ore property, upon which is now located all the upper Smith mines of the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company, as well as 6,000 acres of the Warrior coal field, this latter property being located just north of the now famous Dolomite coal mines of the Woodward Iron Company. These purchases may truly said to have been the entering wedge in the heroic efforts of Major Tom Peters in attracting outside capital to this section. Ex-Governor R. M. Patton, who was at this time (1869) the president of the North & South Alabama Railroad, and who had been associated for many years with Colonel Tate in the management of the Memphis & Charleston Railroad, had been trying for months to let the contract to some one to build the South & North Alabama road from Montgomery to Decatur, but had found no one who would undertake it. Colonel Tate, knowing that his mineral properties here were valueless without a railroad and seeing the great possibilities of the district, went to see Governor Patton and closed a contract to build and equip the road, which was practically done by him when he sold out his contract to the Louisville & Nashville Railroad Company, and who now own and operate it as a part of the great Louisville & Nashville system. About this time the persistent and unceasing efforts of Tom Peters brought the elder Woodward (father of the present owners of the Woodward Iron Company) to this county, and he bought through Tom Peters several lots of both iron and coal property, which were afterward assembled and made the nucleus for the formation of the Woodward Iron Company. Mr. Samuel Thomas, one of the prominent iron masters of Pennsylvania, was also induced to pay this section a visit through the efforts of Major Peters, and he was so impressed with the possibilities of the district as a manufacturing point that he made heavy investments in mineral lands. The first purchase he made, which was made through Peters, was the old Grace place, in Grace's Gap. The famous Spaulding ore mine of the Republic Company is on this place. Continuing his good work, Major Peters succeeded in attracting the attention of the Hillmans, for many years prominent iron men in Tennessee and Kentucky, who came here, were shown around by Peters and made extensive purchases, out of which, in connection with Colonel Tate's properties, afterward became the Allen furnace, the first furnace built in Birmingham.
   Later on Capt. Mark L. Potter, a large capitalist of Brooklyn, N. Y., having met Major Peters on one of his many trips to the north and east in search of capital for this section, and, being impressed by the major's graphic descriptions of this section, came down and made many heavy purchases, some of which have turned out to be the best properties in this district. H (Peters) was largely instrumental in getting such men as Col. J. W. Sloss and T. H. Aldrich, Sr., to investigate this section, which resulted in both of them becoming citizens of Birmingham and very prominent factors in the upbuilding of this section. In all these years Major Peters had never faltered. His faith in the district was sublime and his energy unlimited. He wrote letters everywhere, made3 trips innumerable, and when capitalists, attracted by his letters or personal descriptions came here to see for themselves he gave his time and paid no small share of the expense required to show them over  the district.
   It must be remembered, too, that during the labor of this period he was practically without means of his own and was burdened with a heavy debt, which he had steadfastly refused to relieve himself from through the medium of the bankrupt court, but kept on paying it in full, with interest, up to the day of his death. The writer has known him to borrow the money required to pay the expenses of a party he was showing around over the country when he knew that he would not derive a cent of benefit personally from the trip. In 1882 he made the crowning trade of his life. Mr. H. F. DeBardeleben, Colonel Sloss and Mr. T. H. Aldrich had organized the Pratt Coal and Coke Company, which fact settled forever the question of our ability to make pig iron here cheaper than in any part of the United States, by reason of the fact that the operations of this company guaranteed a first class manufacturing fuel at a price which was entirely satisfactory to the iron makers. Its success in a financial way was so phenomenal that it had rapidly increased in value. Mr. DeBardeleben had purchased all the stock and was sole owner of the property. Major Peters went to DeBardeleben and asked him what he would take for the property. As Mr. DeBardeleben did not want to sell it he fixed the price at $1,000,000, which he thought Peters would not entertain. Peters, very much to the surprise of DeBardeleben, told him he would give him $10,000 for an option on it for six months. This DeBardeleben accepted, and Peters sold it to Enoch Ensley and associates of Memphis, thus consummating the first million dollar trade ever made in this district. The price was considered out of all reason, but it is said that Mr. DeBardoleben offered more than double the selling price for the property within less than six months after he had sold it, thus demonstrating the wisdom of Major Peters in making the purchase.
   He was for some years the land agent of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, and it was largely through his efforts that the large German colony was induced to settle in Cullman county, then a wilderness, but which, under the splendid system of farming and fruit growing of our German cousins, has become one of the most valuable portions of this matchless district.
   In the fall of 1883 Major Peters was sent to the Louisville Exposition to represent the Birmingham district, and while there, devoting his whole time to the matters entrusted to him, he was taken sick, and died on the 9th of September, 1883, having lived a little more than the allotted time of man -- three score and ten years. Major Peters was an ardent member of the Methodist church and was foremost in building the first church of Birmingham, and in all the walks of life showed himself to be a conscientious Christian gentleman. He was twice married, but had but one child, Miss Meta who became the wife of Hon. Robert H. Henley the first mayor of Birmingham. Both daughter and son-in-law preceded him to the grave, and the three are buried side by side in our beautiful Oak Hill. He was ever charitable beyond his means, and his heart went out in tender sympathy and in a more substantial way to the widow and orphan. He raised and educated more orphans than any man I ever knew. I remember meeting him on the train once, when he pointed out some little child he had with him and told me that was the twenty-third he had raised and was educating. He left a grandson, Tom Peters Henley, who is living over in East Alabama, and a niece, Miss Mary Irion, who many of our older citizens will remember as a sunny, fair haired and complexioned little girl who lived with him at the old Grace homestead in the gap, and who grew into beautiful girlhood under the shadow of Red mountain and in her early womanhood became the wife of Hon. George McElderry of Talladega, where she still lives, surrounded by her interesting family of children.
   In writing this tribute to Major Tom Peters I have no desire or intention to detract from the credit due any one man or set of men for what they have done toward the upbuilding of this section, but to show that Major Peters did more to attract attention to our resources when we were comparatively unknown than any other man; that he labored for years at his own expense, traveled thousands of miles and spent very much more money of his own than any one else who did not have a much larger share of this world's goods than he possessed, and that his efforts resulted in bringing more capital into the district than any one else in his day. The dead are so soon forgotten by all those except the immediate family that in many instances we are prone to overlook and forget the services, no matter how valuable, of those who have passed away, and do homage to the hero of the hour. I sincerely hope this sketch may serve to recall the subject of it to many of our older residents and cause them to remember that Major Peters was one of the best and most valued friends the Birmingham district ever had. Communities, like republics, are said not to be ungrateful, but are willing to reward true merit. If so, the planting by the citizens of this city (Birmingham) of a monument fashioned out of the ores of Red mountain (which he loved so well and worked so hard and intelligently to bring to the notice of the commercial world) in memory of this grand old man would be one of the best deserved tributes of respect and affection that could be bestowed upon one of the most industrious citizens the district has ever had. That in future years the citizen or visitor in delving into the old documents in the department of archives and history at Montgomery in quest of information of value in regard to the early upbuilding of the mineral district may come across this hurriedly written sketch, and from it learn something that may interest the people then living is the sincere wish of the writer. 
Thos. S. Tate
Birmingham, Ala. July 6, 1903