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The Bennett Family's SmokeStack Restaurant: Serving Texas-Style Comfort Food Since 1971 in Thurber, Texas.
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Ranger Texas

Bricks, Oil, and the Decline of Thurber

William Knox Gordon started as Texas & Pacific Coal Company engineer in 1889 and rose to become superintendent, then general manager, and eventually took over as head of the company in the early 1920s. He was chairman of the board at his death in 1949. It was through his technical skills and congenial manner that Thurber grew and prospered.

As general manager, Gordan, seeing potential in the shale mud found in Thurber, persuaded company president R.D. Hunter to build a brick plant in 1897. The bricks became popular all over the state, and the orders kept the plant running day and night to produce millions of bricks for many Texas buildings and highways, including Old Bankhead Highway (US 80), Austin's Congress Avenue, Fort Worth's Camp Bowie Boulevard, and the Galveston Seawall. The plant closed in 1931.

Over a period of 38 years of coal production, the company operated 15 mines and mined over 14,260,500 tons. Railroads, however, were finding oil as a more desirable fuel for their engines, and mines all over the country were steadily losing a market for their product.

Miners demanded higher and higher wages, causing steady increases in the cost of coal as fuel. The railroads warned coal companies that they would be forced to change to oil as a cheaper fuel. Realizing the company would one day be without a customer, Gordon (with encouragement of local citizens) began exploring for oil in Eastland County. In October 1917, he brought in the first producing oil well in what was to become the Ranger Oil field.

The well established Gordon as the "Father of the Ranger Field" and changed the direction of the company from coal to oil, from a $3 million company to a $150 million corporation. The discovery of oil also brought about the decline of Thurber. The last coal mine closed in 1921, and the 10,000 or more inhabitants of Thurber began to move away. By 1936, the town had been abandoned, and many of the buildings were dismantled. It had quickly become a ghost town.

Today, only about 6 original buildings still stand in Thurber, including the old Mercantile building (built with solid Thurber brick, of course) that now houses the SmokeStack Restaurant, and the 128-foot-tall smokestack from the second electric power plant built in 1909, which gives the restaurant its name. The Bennett family owns all of the remaining "original" town site and has since 1961.

(Source: H.D. Langham, The Thurber Journal, 1993.)

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