Elmer Thomas served a distinguished career in the U.S. Congress – 2 terms in the House of Representatives and 4 terms in the Senate, all representing the state of Oklahoma. But long before his political career, Thomas was a farm boy growing up in rural Indiana; like many other rural Hoosiers, Thomas used education to work his way off the farm and into the wider world beyond his home.
Elmer Thomas was born in September 1876, the seventh child of twelve. His father farmed near the Putnam and Parke County lines. Elmer completed 8 grades of school in the one-room Brunerstown School but never wanted to join his father in farming: “Being one of a large family, without wealthy parents and not having access to a high school, my problem of getting away from the farm was one which at times seemed impossible of solution. I knew that I had to secure an education in order to be able to do anything other than to work on a farm”.
Thomas carefully calculated the cost of a term at the nearby Normal school in Danville: $3 for a railway ticket, $8 for one term’s tuition, $16 for room and board, $8 for books and laundry costs, and with a few incidentals added on a total of $40 – a large sum for a young man whose parents could not afford to support one child in favor of the others.
Elmer proved resourceful – the winter of his 15th year, he trapped opossum, skunk, mink , and raccoon and sold their pelts. With his $4 profit, he bought two runt piglets, raised them, and sold them for the needed $40.
After one eight-week term at the normal school, Thomas was able to take and pass the state teachers’ exam and began teaching school at age 17. Through continued work as a teacher—and a prize of one term’s schooling for winning an oratorical contest—Thomas was able to obtain a degree from the Normal School and continue on to DePauw University. There, he began a lifelong interest in politics and honed his skills as an orator.
Graduating with a law degree, Thomas paid off his educational debts (working five months hauling gravel for a road-grading team) and again pondered his future: “Teaching school had lost its appeal because of the short terms and low salaries paid. Entering the practice of law in our county seat town likewise offered little to look forward to . . . . The younger lawyers were not meeting with success and the older attorneys were barely getting by”.
At age 24, with his education completed and with enough funds to purchase a one-way “homeseekers” excursion ticket to the newly-opened Oklahoma Territory, Elmer Thomas left Indiana in search of his future and his fortune. During his career in the U.S. Congress, Thomas became known as an advocate for farmers, veterans, and working men and women—his understanding of and sympathy for the ordinary working folk of the country no doubt rooted in his own Indiana boyhood.
A Moment of Indiana History is a production of WFIU Public Radio in partnership with the Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations. Research support comes from Indiana Magazine of History published by the Indiana University Department of History.
Source: Elmer Thomas, “Forty Years a Legislator: Memoir of a Hoosier Boyhood,” Indiana Magazine of History 103 (December 2007), 384-410.