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Memorial Gift to UW Supports Century-Old Tradition

December 16, 2021
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Tom Thorson

A $1 million gift in memory of Tom Thorson, president of the Wyoming company Black Hills Bentonite LLC, supports the University of Wyoming’s Summer Field Camp, which has been training geologists for almost a century.

“Tom loved his experience going to the Summer Field Camp, and it fostered a lifelong love of the outdoors and for Wyoming,” says Tom’s sister, Mary Thorson Gullikson.

The Tom A. Thorson Geology Field Camp Fund is an endowed excellence fund that was established by Don Thorson and Mary Thorson Gullikson on behalf of the Harry T. Thorson Foundation. Family and friends also contributed to the fund.

The fund supports the Tom A. Thorson Geology Field Camp -- formerly the UW Field Course in Geology or the Summer Field Camp.

“Our department’s field camp boasts a long and esteemed tradition of providing top-notch field training for students interested in pursuing a career in the geosciences,” says Mark Clementz, head of the Department of Geology and Geophysics. “With this donation, we can not only ensure that this tradition continues, but also that the content of this course is able to evolve as new methods and technologies are developed for field research.

“Our goal is to provide the best training possible for our students, and the commitment from the Thorson family, along with friends and colleagues of Tom in his honor, will help to ensure we are able to do this for years to come,” Clementz continues.

The camp is a six-credit-hour, six-week summer course -- a comprehensive and nationally recognized professional experiential learning opportunity that provides a broad introduction to geologic field techniques.

The camp is the culmination of a student’s geological education and is required for geologists to graduate with their bachelor’s degrees in geology. It is sanctioned by the Wyoming Geological Association. Students travel all over Wyoming and the American West, and visiting professors supplement the knowledge of returning professors.

The camp consists of field trips and projects. Prerequisites include stratigraphy and sedimentation, structural geology and mineralogy. Petrology also is recommended. The course develops skills of observation and interpretation while teaching the technical aspects of field mapping, stratigraphic interpretation and structural analysis.

It reviews field observation of geologic phenomena, stratigraphy, sedimentation, tectonics, volcanology, weathering, groundwater aquifers, magnetics and gravity, methods of geologic mapping, geologic and geophysical field studies, interpretation of data collected and presentation.

The use of computers in modeling and the preparation of maps, stratigraphic charts, geologic cross sections and reports are critical parts of the course.

In the final week of the field course, students are challenged with a final mapping project. The goal is to map an area where the geologic relationships vary from simple to complex and exposures range from good to poor. Students are required to work independently to observe, map and interpret the geology, and ample opportunity is given to demonstrate skills learned previously.

While this course is vital for students, it also is expensive, though UW does its best to keep costs low. The course fee is currently $3,250. Total cost covers tuition, transportation during fieldwork, course supplies, some instructional costs, meals and lodging while away from Laramie. Students participating in this required course also are not able to work during this time.

The camp celebrates 100 years in 2023, and many of the nation’s geologists have experienced this rite of passage. It was created by the legendary professor S.H. “Doc” Knight, who recognized early in his teaching career that field experience was necessary for a comprehensive education in geology, and the terrain around Laramie was ideal for that purpose.

In the summer of 1923, Knight, Professor James Kemp, of Columbia University, and two students established a temporary field camp at the head of Long Canyon in the Medicine Bow Mountains. The following summer, a similar camp was set up in the southern Laramie Basin, with 25 students enrolled.

Knight also persuaded UW Professor Aven Nelson to add a course in botany to the camp’s curriculum. A year later, zoology was added. This location, called the UW Science Camp, was the base of operations for many years -- until the 1970s. The camp has since transitioned to a more mobile approach, thanks to technology and transportation.

The Tom A. Thorson Geology Field Camp is a worthy tribute to its namesake -- Wyoming geologist Tom Thorson.

Thorson was the president of Black Hills Bentonite, the family business, for six decades until his death from cancer in December 2020. He earned a degree in geology at UW, attended Summer Field Camp and served as president of the Wyoming Mining Association.

An able leader of the company, Thorson is said to have “tenaciously navigated advancements in the business as market demand for bentonite evolved” and “had a knack for hiring talented people and giving them as much responsibility as possible.”

Thorson also served in Leadership Wyoming, Rotary International, the Wyoming Business Alliance and I-Reach 2 and many other organizations. He was a member of the Wyoming National Guard and loved the outdoors. Tom and his wife, Kathleen, traveled the world and worked together on many charitable endeavors, including 19 group Rotary trips to Delicias, Chihuahua, Mexico, to donate much-needed community vehicles such as school buses, ambulances and fire trucks.

It was Tom’s father, Harry, who founded Black Hills Bentonite. The elder Thorson grew up in North Dakota and taught business classes, but then moved to Casper for health reasons.

Once in Wyoming, Harry Thorson worked several jobs in the oil industry before he began hauling bentonite and then established his own company. Black Hills Bentonite began as a partnership between the elder Thorson and his friend, Albert Harding, a former manager of a bentonite processing operation owned by Baroid Sales Division and a state senator.

Bentonite is an absorbent clay that has the ability to swell and retain large volumes of water. It is used as a binder, purifier, absorbent, carrier, sealant, filler, catalyst, purifier, desiccant and laxative. It is now used principally in cat litter and in the foundry industry, as well as in drilling mud, fertilizers, pesticides, wastewater treatment, groundwater sealants and cosmetics.

Bentonite forms from the weathering of volcanic ash in seawater. It was first found in Cretaceous Benton shale near Rock River, and Wyoming contains as much as 70 percent of the world’s supply.

Harry owned several deposits of bentonite and needed a method of developing them, so he enlisted Harding to join him in building a new company. The first plant was built in Moorcroft in 1947 with used equipment. The business developed slowly and then prospered when bentonite began to be used in the mining of iron ore. The company then partnered with Bethlehem Steel, and a new plant was built in Casper.

Harry and his wife, Inga, had two sons, Tom and Don, and a daughter, Mary. The family helped in the business and became an integral part of it. Harry also was one of the organizers of the Wyoming Mining Association and was inducted into the National Mining Hall of Fame in 1992.

Following his graduation from UW, Tom joined the family business in 1961. The younger Thorson focused on developing reserves for the company. Harding retired in the late 1960s, and Harry died in a car accident in 1976.

The Thorson family bought the Harding interest in 1977, when it became a family-owned company with Tom as president and Larry Madsen as vice president. The company interest outside the family changed hands several times and is now owned by The Clorox Co. and a Japanese mineral company. 

Black Hills Bentonite was one of the first to ship crushed bentonite in open-top hopper cars, which helped develop overseas markets. Harry Thorson also introduced field-drying techniques to the industry that he had learned growing up on the farm in North Dakota.

Seventy-five years later, Black Hills Bentonite now is headquartered in Casper and has plants in Casper, Worland and Upton. The company employs 100 people, and it mines and hauls from locations across the state. It continues to be owned by the family today.

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