While he was in Union County, the land of his forebears, he did much to help preserve historical artifacts. The old courthouse bell was his special project, and for it he received the prestigious "Preservationist of the Year" award in 2005.
He was also quite interested in the Old Souther Mill at Choestoe, a landmark of his forebears. He uncovered a portion of the old mill in the debris where the old mill pond once provided the water power to turn the turbine that ground wheat, rye and corn for the community. That retrieved mechanism now stands proudly on display at the Butt House Annex in Blairsville, a testament to this humble man who appreciates and wants to save for posterity remnants of the past. He worked with his cousin, the late John Paul Souther, to erect a marker at the old mill place on Highway 180 to tell the history of the mill and to mark the spot where the mill once operated.
Ted Thomas's sojourn in Union County was notable by the deeds he left behind him. A few years ago he departed these environs and moved back to the place he grew up, Tahlequah, Oklahoma, wishing to live out his days among the familiar places of his childhood and youth.
Recently, the Tahlequah Daily Press had a feature article by Betty Smith entitled "Coming home." It was about this great, great grandson of the famed Adam Poole Vandiver, "Hunter of Tallulah" of Blue Ridge Mountains fame, and how Ted is now spending his days in Tahlequah.
The reporter, seeking an interview, found the 87-year-young Ted Thomas on a ladder, dressed in his typical bib overalls, carpenter's apron, and repairing a shed. There is little time for an easy chair or rest for this active octogenarian.
Ishmael Theodore Thomas was born May 18, 1920, the eleventh of thirteen children born to Frances (Frankie) Roseanna Vandiver Thomas and John Wesley Thomas. His mother Roseanna claimed deep ties to early Union County settlers. Her mother was Rhoda Lucinda Souther who married John Edward Floyd Vandiver. Earlier through this column, their story of going west was recounted. They stopped awhile in Arkansas and then moved on to Wyoming. But Frankie Roseannah and John Wesley Thomas remained in Arkansas and then went on to Oklahoma where they reared twelve of the thirteen children born to them.
Many of us may not know of the life and career of Ishmael Theodore Thomas, lovingly known as Ted. Born nine years before the Great Depression struck, his education was cut short. But what he did with his six years of schooling received at the old Bald Hill School near Tahlequah (Robbins) would put many of us to shame.
He and his brother farmed to help the family make a living. They bought a hay baler and drove it around the countryside, hiring out to bale neighbors' hay in season. Ted Thomas remembers the first Model A Ford that came into Tahlequah. He also remembers his father going into the First National Bank and borrowing $500 to see his family through a hard depression time. The banker, Mr. Upton, required no signature, but only a handshake from Ted's father. The money was summarily paid back.
Then came World War II. By then, Ted Thomas's father had died and he was helping to care for his ailing mother. He got a temporary deferment, but realized he was going to be drafted so he volunteered for the Navy and entered service August 3, 1942. It was there he distinguished himself as a worker on submarines. The USS Batfish, which is now on display at the military museum in Muskogee, Oklahoma, was one of the 140 submarines for which Theodore Thomas fabricated many of the parts. One of the most effective parts was a successful firing pin for the torpedoes launched from US submarines.
Thomas was on an aircraft carrier somewhere in the Pacific when news came that the war was over. He said he would never forget the lights coming on in various vessels that had been running dark to avoid enemy attack. "Suddenly it looked like a galaxy across the water," he said. Proceeding on to Japan, he and his crew survived a gigantic typhoon.
Upon his honorable discharge from the Navy, he married his sweetheart, Bonnie Lee Watkins. Their lives read like a storybook, rearing a family, being a peppermint farmer in the Columbia River Valley of Oregon; then to Kansas City, Kansas where he was a carpenter and a feed mill maintenance man and builder; and then with Koppers Sprout Waldron, a Fortune 500 Company, where he spent the next eighteen years of his life, until his retirement, traveling the world and troubleshooting in equipment maintenance and plant development.
In his travels, he grew to have an appreciation for old things. He once collected wood cook stoves and had over 200 of them that he had repaired and restored. In Clinton, Missouri, he and his wife bought and restored an old 1896 Queen Anne mansion which made the Register of Historic Places. He said he opened his mouth once too often, and found the house sold in less than thirty minutes. He also restored a number of old cabins and stone houses in the Ava, Missouri area.
After his wife Bonnie Lee died in 1996, Theodore came to Georgia to live for awhile. It was during that period that he actively researched his family genealogy and got involved with the Union County Historical Society, making various contributions to the preservation of local history.
At age 87, still active and alert, Ted Thomas, the great, great grandson of Adam Poole Vandiver (1788-1877), has this to say: "I've always enjoyed life. I'd like to push a button and do it all over again!"
c 2008 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Jan. 17, 2008 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.