Buena Vista County, IA
USGenWeb Project

Extracted from:  Wegerslev, C. H. and Thomas Walpole. 
 Past and Present of Buena Vista County, Iowa
Chicago:  S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1909, p. 193-96.

Transcribed by Paul Nagy

Biography of  Judge Lot Thomas

No history of Buena Vista county would be complete without extended and prominent reference to Judge Lot Thomas, for the public life of no other man of the community has been more varied in service. more constant in honor or more fearless and upright in action.  His name adorns the pages of Iowa's judicial history as one who stood as the embodiment of the ideal in the administration of justice, neither partisan prejudice nor personal bias deflecting him in the slightest degree from the straight path of the law.


Judge Thomas was born in Fayette county, Pennsylvania, October 17, 1843, and was reared to farm life, remaining on the old homestead until twenty years of age.  He had previously mastered the elementary branches of learning in the public schools and at that time he entered the Vermillion Institute at Hayesville, Ohio, where he pursued his studies from 1864 until 1868.  He was ever an apt and earnest student and the same thoroughness characterized him in his preparation of legal cases in later years.  He remained at home long enough to cast his first presidential vote for General Grant in the fall of 1868 and the same day started for Warren county, Iowa, thinking that the new and growing west offered better opportunities.  For two years he devoted his time to teaching school and to the study of law in that county, and in 1S70 matriculated in the law department of the state university of Iowa, where in two years he completed the full course.  He then located for practice at Storm Lake in the fall of 1871, but as Sioux Rapids was then the county  seat, he removed thither that year and was a practitioner at the bar there until Storm Lake was chosen as the county seat in 1877, and he returned to this city.


In his profession no dreary novitiate awaited him.  On the contrary his practice steadily increased from the beginning both in volume and importance, for he easily demonstrated his power and ability in coping with the intricate and complex problems of the law.  His mind was analytical, logical and inductive in its trend, and he determined with remarkable rapidity what were the salient points in his case and so presented them before the court that he seldom failed to win the verdict desired.  His recognized ability led to his selection for county attorney and he also served as mayor of the town.  In 1884 he was chosen judge of the fourteenth district, taking to the bench the same qualifications that had characterized him as a man and citizen—lofty patriotism, high ideals and the faithful performance of every duty.  His decisions were marvels of judicial soundness and it was seldom that the higher tribunals had occasion to reverse an opinion that came from his court.  The opinion of no judge in the state was received with greater respect.  His keenness and judicial turn of mind, his strict sense of justice, his entire freedom from influence of any kind and his thorough understanding of the law won him recognition in his judicial capacity which was state wide.  He had the full confidence of the entire bar, the entire respect of the other representatives of the bench in Iowa and that his course received the endorsement of the general public is indicated by the fact that he was four times elected to the office. 


At length, on the 26th of August, 1898. Judge Thomas resigned in order to accept the republican nomination for congress from the eleventh district.  He was elected after one of the most interesting political contests in the state and was afterward reelected to the fifty-seventh and fifty-eighth congresses, closing his career March 4, 1905.  He proved an able working member in the national halls of legislation, being connected with many important constructive measures, while his efforts in the committee rooms were of a most valuable character.  He served with distinction on the judiciary and claims committees, where his opinions were always received with respect and were carefully considered.  He never took part in the debates which won the plaudits of the multitude but wielded great influence among legislators, who had the highest regard for his opinions.  At no time was the honesty of his purpose or the soundness of his judgment called into question, and while some differed from him as to a political policy, they ever entertained for him the highest personal respect.


In 1873 Judge Thomas was united in marriage to Miss Oma E. Barton, of Ashland, Ohio, and they became the parents of two sons and a daughter:  Clarence L., now an able lawyer of Muskogee, Oklahoma; Frank, who died in

February, 1907; and Cora.


Judge Thomas was devoted to his family, being always a man of domestic tastes who found his greatest happiness at his own fireside.  He was never a robust man and often sheer will power kept him at his professional and official duties when his health demanded rest and quiet.  At the close of his third term in congress, on the 4th of March, 1905, he decided to go to California, hoping that a stay in that sunny clime would prove beneficial, but whilee enroute to the coast he passed away at Yuma, Arizona, on the 17th of March.  No death in Storm Lake has been more deeply regretted, for the entire community recognized in his passing the loss of one of its most distinguished and honored citizens—a man whose record was no less commendable in his social and community interests than it was in his professional career.  He had displayed sound judgment in business matters and had made judicious investment in real estate, so that he left his family well provided for.  He built one of the finest homes in the city of Storm Lake and aided in developing the county in many material ways.  He was a thorough student of sociological and economic problems, was interested in social reform and was a stalwart and uncompromising champion of civic purity, his leadership in this direction proving an element in municipal honesty.  He attained a high degree in Masonry, was a member of the Mystic Shrine, and from the age of twenty-three years was connected with the Presbyterian church.


In a review of his life a local writer said of Judge Thomas: ''It requires the discriminating mind, the enlightened conscience, the even temper, patience, profound knowledge of legal principles and of men; inflexible devotion to the eternal principles of justice and a disregard of self, to make the great judge, and all of these essentials Judge Thomas possessed to an unusual degree. They made him one of the best and strongest judges who ever sat on the district bench in this state.  He presided at the trial of many cases of great importance and rendered many decisions involving large interests, in which great knowledge of the law was required, and as to facts and law he was nearly always right.  The records of our state court of last resort show that there are few, if any, of his contemporaries on the bench who committed fewer errors.


"He was sympathetic as other men, but he never permitted his sympathies to cloud his judgment.  He did not leap to the conclusion of his cases, but formed his opinion only when he had examined the law and the evidence with painstaking care and felt that so far as he was able, by thought and study, he knew what the decision should be and he then rendered it.  And he possessed the rare faculty of so announcing a ruling or decision as not to give offense to the losing party.  The good faith of his conclusions was never questioned.


"The physical strength of Judge Thomas was not equal to the duties which fell to him and which he attempted to perform.  During the last winter of his life he attended the sessions of the House when so weak he was compelled to recline on a couch, being unable to be absent when important questions were decided.  He held out to the end, discharging, so far as he could, every duty of his office; and when all had been done and the speaker's gavel had fallen for the last time, he gave attention to his own welfare.  It was thought that he might be helped by the mild air and the balmy sea breezes of the Pacific coast, and thither it was decided to go and the journey was commenced.  But just before it was ended, and less than two weeks from the close of his official duties, the end came and the worn out body was at rest.


"The life thus ended was a useful one, although the mind was always stronger than the body.  Indeed, it is marvelous that one with so weak a physique should have accomplished more than did most of his contemporaries.  Of the thirteen attorneys whose chief employment was the practice of the law in the year 1870, in the counties of the judicial district over which Judge Thomas afterward presided, five died before him and but seven are believed to be living.  Of the seven, three moved from the state many years ago and others from the district; and one has but a nominal residence within it.  Of the original thirteen but four are known to be practicing law, and of these but two are practicing in the state.  Of the three hundred inhabitants of Storm Lake who were here when Lot Thomas first came to the town, fewer than a dozen remain, and the proportion of the settlers of that year in the entire county who are still here is small.  These facts are suggestive of the power of will which sustained Judge Thomas in his life struggles when most men would have given up in despair.


"But however well he filled his part as citizen attorney and law-maker, we turn to his record on the bench with most satisfaction.  There he did his best work and won his greatest triumphs.  He did this, not through fortuitous opportunity, but by the force of natural powers guided by training and experience.  His judicial career merits the highest praise and may well be emulated by generations of judges yet to be.  Rarely will it be excelled."