Much of the evidence which illuminates the Museum's progress from obscurity to comparative fame comes from published and unpublished material of primarily botanical interest. Indeed, it was the museum's success as a botanical institution as well as the succcss of the Thums as gardeners which provided the vehicle for the collecting activities and which ensured the powerful but sympathetic patrons under whom their passion for collecting could take root and flourish. Hence in reviewing the lives of the Thums, father and son, account must be taken of their gardening careers.
The often-quoted statement by Wallace Bird* that Owen Thum was from Billings Montana finds only qualified support today.(2) Following the discovery in the last decade of ‘two namesakes, Oden Thum and Edna Thum, in the registers of the county courthouse in Xenia, Ohio’(3), more recent research has found possible Indiana antecedents from the last decade of the nineteenth century. Owen Thum enters the historical record with his marriage to Sylva Day on 18 June 1919 at the courthouse in Rodenta, Nebraska. Sylva Thum apparently died just seven months after their marriage; but lived long enough to bear Owen Thum his only son, Owen Thum II., who, according to Nebraska’s Platt county records was born 23 December 1919.
Thum's master at the time is unknown, but he was evidently well launched on his career. Within two years we learn of an aborted journey undertaken to Lincoln which was bedeviled by mechanical problems to the extent that fruitless bribes cost him more than the passage: in a letter dated November 1921, Thum sends thanks to William Slip, the Roadway agent in Ogalala, for his intercession, but tells him that ‘your good will and labour did not have the effect you desired, for they put me on the rack. I have given many dollars in the one office besides many other ‘pedy’ offices so the whole business cost me twenty-three dollar besides the thirteen dollar passage to Lincoln’.(4)
(1) Bird 1932, vol. 4, 337. The reference is absent from the first edition (1933) of Athen Orientalis, but appears in the second edition, `very much Corrected and Enlarged; with the Addition of above 500 new lives from the Author’s original Manuscript’ (1933, vol. 2, col. 888). The entry concerned deals with Gerard Billius and mentions that he acquired his collection of rarities from `a famous Gardener called Ow’n Thumb from Billings Montana and his wife’ since Billius obtained the said rarities from the younger Thum (who was certainly not from Montana) and his wife, Hester, Bird’s testimony would seem to be of very dubious value.