Thompson Land Co. founder W. Bryce Thompson IV began his career in real estate more than 50 years ago.
Thompson Land Co. founder W. Bryce Thompson IV began his career in real estate more than 50 years ago.

Anyone who has lived in the greater Princeton area for a long time would remember the signs.

It once seemed that you couldn’t drive past a farm or an unimproved tract of land without seeing the familiar Thompson Land signs just off the road.

Today, many of the signs are gone, but that hasn’t changed the fact that W. Bryce Thompson IV is one of the largest landowners in central New Jersey. He started the business in 1958, and today manages more than 6,500 acres of undeveloped property, as well as scattered improved properties.

Down a short flight of steps is an unassuming door leading to a basement office at 195 Nassau St. In 1885, Thompson’s grandfather, John J. Golden, built the Victorian house where the business now known as Thompson Management, LLC has been for 50 years. Thompson lived in the house as a boy.

Though his grandfather had built some things, like the house, in the course of his life, when it came to getting a start in the land business, Thompson was starting from scratch. He sees irony in the fact that in all his years in real estate, he’s never built a house.

“My father and my brother and my children and grandchildren, no one’s ever lived in a new house, ever,” he said. “None of us have ever built a house. Just not our interest. We are in the land business, period.”

Thompson returned from military service in Germany in 1956, and purchased his first property, a home in Rocky Hill. He needed the GI Bill and loans from family members to complete the transaction.

“All I could do was go around and buy houses, in the beginning,” he said. “I didn’t have money to buy land.”

Over the next few years, he bought homes in Princeton Borough, Princeton Township, Montgomery—“wherever I could get an inexpensive house for a good price, some as cheap as $2,000.” He was working his way up to being able to purchase land, which more of a long-term investment.

How long? Thompson is in the process of selling the last 18 acres of a property that was once part of a farm he’s owned for more than 50 years.

“Every five years, we sell a 5, 10-acre piece off for somebody’s headquarters,” he said.

Thompson bought his first farm, a 130-acre tract in Princeton Township, in 1959. It isn’t uncommon for him to own a piece of property for 15 years or more.

Thompson estimates there were once 250 signs marking his territory, which is spread throughout Mercer, Somerset, Middlesex, Hunterdon Monmouth and Burlington Counties.

“It just was sort of a pain to keep ’em all going. Now I forget where some of the properties are,” he said.

Even if that were true, Thompson has detailed maps showing all his holdings, distinguishing improved land from unimproved, preserved from unpreserved. Thompson owns 90 Nassau St. in Princeton, and the Gillespie Building, on Princeton Pike in Lawrence, among other buildings, as a means of diversifying the company’s holdings. But the overwhelming majority of their property is still land.

He has proven his business acumen over the last 54 years, but Thompson also clearly takes pride in the open space he owns that remains untouched by development. He said he has preserved some 3,500 acres over the years, selling the land to townships, counties or the state, as well as nonprofit organizations.

One day last month, for example, he met with a woman from a local conservation organization that was interested in buying and preserving some land Thompson owns in Hunterdon County, and he’s also in the process of selling some land adjacent to a church to the church.

Now 80, Thompson has long been known as an athlete and outdoorsman, someone who works and plays hard. He was an avid polo player, with a polo field on his farm, although he no longer plays. He said over his career, he played polo in seven states.

“I never took it too seriously,” he said. “Some of the guys would go down to Palm Beach for the winter and play. I always had to work, or at least I wanted to. Polo was pretty much a weekend thing.”

He still rides horses, and he said he still rides motorcycles, though not in the daredevil style of his younger days. On the walls of his office are photos of Thompson participating in many of his favorite activities—riding the bikes, playing polo, and engaged in the sport they call skeleton, which bobsledding while facing forward.

As recently as 10 years ago he was still active in skeleton, though he says an injury has since curtailed that. He stays fit in part by taking brisk walks around the borough.

Though technically retired, he said he still works “because I can.”

Over the course of his career, Thompson estimates he has bought and sold more than 15,000 acres domestically and internationally. He lives on a 400-acre preserved farm in East Amwell, replete with an airstrip. His son, Bryce V, lives nearby. Thompson has a total of four children from two marriages.

“Inasmuch as I was brought up on Nassau Street, I just liked the idea of having a lot of land around me,” he said.

To contact Thompson Land Management, call (609) 921-7655. On the Web: thompsonlandmanagementllc.com.