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Norberg Thompson

CIRCA 1935

Historic Marker number 88 is located between Elizabeth and William Streets.Norberg Thompson was a man of initiative and enterprise who always seemed to be ahead of the times. By shaping much of the economic infrastructure that gave growth to the town in the first half of the 20th century, he significantly influenced the development of Key West.In an early business venture, he was involved in the sponge industry, having taken over for his father as the representative of several New York sponge buyers. At its peak, local spongers held a monopoly on the sponge industry- supplying 60% of the sponge demand nationally. Thompson was responsible for a good portion of that success. Most of Thompson's businesses were located in the Historic Seaport District. His business, Thompson Enterprises engaged in fishing, ice production, cigar box manufacturing, pineapple and guava canning, turtle soup production, sponging, and hardware sales. Over time, business after business would emerge, flourish, decline and be replaced by another. Thompson's various business ventures are a reflection of changes to Key West during the early 20th century.At the peak of his career, Thompson owned most of the Historic Seaport. His greatest achievement was the thousands of local jobs his businesses supported for nearly 50 years. For hundreds of years turtles had been an important food source and economic catalyst for many seafaring communities. In 1910 Thompson purchased the A. Granday Turtle Canning business. A French chef who came to Key West seeking a source for green turtles owned the business. His turtle soup recipe became famous in restaurants in New York City and was shipped all around the world. The cannery was the only factory in the U.S. that exclusively distributed green turtle products. It operated until 1971 when the Endangered Species Act was passed (see Historic Marker # 78).The Thompson Fish Company had a fleet of nearly 125 fishing boats. The company processed the catch from its own and other fleets and then shipped the fish, which was either salted or packed in ice (from his ice factory), to markets throughout the United States.In the 1930s, Thompson opened a pineapple and guava canning factory with fruit shipped from Cuba on Henry Flagler's railroad ferries traveling from Cuba to Key West (For additional information see Historic Marker # 89).With the destruction of Flagler's Over-Sea Railroad during the Labor Day Hurricane in 1935, Thompson provided freight service to Miami by way of a barge line. When the Overseas Highway was completed, he started the Overseas Transportation Company which at one time operated 52 trucks from Miami to Key West. During World War II, almost everything that reached Key West from the mainland was carried on his truck line.During the heyday of the cigar industry Thompson built a cigar box factory that manufactured cigar boxes from cedar logs shipped from Cuba. The factory was capable of producing 7,000 boxes per day. The high quality boxes were a prized commodity for nearly 200 local cigar factories (see Historic Marker #80).Mr. Thompson was at the forefront of a brand new industry that emerged in the 1950's. In 1948 he hired a select group of fishermen to find elusive Florida pink shrimp in the Gulf waters. The shrimp were discovered and kicked off the "Florida Pink Gold Rush" (1949-1970s), which led to the capture of vast amounts of shrimp for decades to come (see Historic Marker # 77). By 1950 there were 500 shrimp trawlers docked at the Historic Seaport. Thompson's ice house, fish packing and transportation lines were a crucial part of the success of what became known as the "Florida pink gold rush".Throughout his career Norberg Thompson was a generous visionary who managed to stay a step ahead of the times. He was a major job creator throughout the cycles of good and bad economic climates. During the Great Depression era he employed 40 % of Key West and left a lasting legacy at the Historic Seaport and throughout the island he loved.