Thomas Evans Brittingham (1860-1924) was born to Dr. Irvin Baird and Mary J. League Brittingham on May 18, 1860 in Hannibal, Missouri. Though photographs of his birthplace seem to imply the proverbial humble beginnings, both his father and grandfather were doctors. Thomas attended private school before matriculating at Hannibal College, which is no longer in existence.
After brief stays in Colorado and California, Thomas relocated to Wisconsin in 1885, where he eventually founded the Brittingham and Hixon Lumber Company with Joseph Morris Hixon. Joseph was the son of Gideon C. Hixon of La Crosse, who controlled a sizable commercial empire. Thomas served as the company’s president, guiding its expansion into a chain of twenty-four lumber yards in several states.
Thomas Brittingham was a shrewd businessman, and his financial empire grew quickly. The parent company he operated from his offices on the corner of Washington and Carroll streets in downtown Madison became one of the largest retail lumber yard chains in the country. He was a natural salesman, as an anecdote about his first job with a lumber firm in Wisconsin reveals: “He was anxious for salary, but was put on commission. At the end of a month, they called him in and wanted to put him on a salary. His commission had cost them three times what his salary would.”
That anecdote was part of a Wisconsin Journal series entitled “X-Ray Portraits.” The human interest piece offers an interesting perspective on the lives of the Brittinghams, particularly concerning Thomas’s business practices.
Building and running large lumber mills in those days often required the creation of towns to serve the needs of the workers and their families. These mill towns were often entirely built, owned, and operated by the parent company. Thomas’s attitude concerning the management of one aspect of such towns was illuminated by the writer of the “X-Ray Portrait,” who praised him for securing “librarian expert Hutchins to name a library of books for the darkies at work [in Alabama]. Most business men would have selected the books themselves.”
Frank A. Hutchins was a pioneer in the development of Wisconsin’s library system and the main impetus behind the creation of traveling libraries in the state. Given Hutchins’ stance regarding access to literature, it is tempting to imagine the library he created was quite different from other such corporate libraries, which have been criticized for fostering a sedative mind set rather than serving the needs of their patrons.
Thomas’s civic involvements included stints as Chairman of the Forest Hills Cemetery Commission, member of the Wisconsin State Historical Society’s Board of Curators, and chairman of the State Park Board. Though Thomas Brittingham did not attend Wisconsin, he forged his own connections to the university, eventually netting the title of honorary alumnus. He was a member of the Board of Regents and chairman of its Executive Committee from 1910 to 1912.
News of his rather abrupt resignation from the board, delivered without explanation, hit the city while he was away on a trip. He had been involved in a protracted debate with President Van Hise regarding the fitness of the first business director of the university, Hermon C. Bumpus. On April 26, 1912, Thomas made his position clear in a letter to Van Hise: “With you back of him Dr. Bumpus will be there many years but I will not, for I cannot acquiesce in such work.” Van Hise did not block the director’s reappointment, and Bumpus held the position until he left to become President of Tufts College in 1915. Thomas, however, resigned from the board a few months later.
Thomas “succumbed suddenly” during the Santa Luisa’s return voyage from a trip to South America, on May 2, 1924. Reputed to be Madison’s wealthiest resident at the time of his death, Thomas’s will stipulated sizable endowments to both the city and the university. Madison Mayor Milo Kittleson ordered the flag at City Hall lowered to half-mast to mark his passing.