THE HISTORY OF
The Beginning of Thurber, Texas
Thurber's history begins in the latter half of the 19th century after brothers William W. and Harvey E. Johnson "discovered" coal in the northeast corner of Erath County and formed a company, digging 2 producing mine shafts and starting a small mining camp in 1886-87. In May 1887, they signed a contract with the Texas & Pacific Railway - which was rapidly expanding its railroad network westward - agreeing to sell the company all the coal it could use. But after Harvey's sudden death in early 1888, William was faced with mounting debt and striking miners and sold the company to the newly incorporated Texas & Pacific Coal Company headed by millionaire cattle broker Robert D. Hunter. T&P Coal Company provided fuel for the Texas & Pacific Railroad but was independently owned.
Growth of a Company Town
Named for H.K. Thurber, an investor in the Texas & Pacific Coal Company, Thurber, Texas started to grow under the leadership of Robert D. Hunter, who developed 7 of 15 mines. More than 200 houses, a large general store, drugstore, hardware store, boarding houses, offices, stables, schools, and churches were built in the first year to accommodate the workers from all over the world who came to the new town for jobs in the mines.
The T&P Coal Company owned the mines where the men worked; the houses in which they lived; the saloons where they drank beer, wine, and whiskey; the stores where their families shopped, and the churches and schools that they attended.
Thurber was never incorporated; there was no mayor or city council, no school or city taxes, and workers rode in railway coach cars to their jobs before the turn of the century. Utopia? Many considered Hunter a tyrant who set up his own serfdom to rule every aspect of workers' lives. No one moved to Thurber or even stayed there, except by consent of the company.
Hunter opposed labor unions, telling employees, "I'll run my business or will run it to Hell!" It was only after his death in 1902 that unions were organized in Thurber.
Lives of Miners
Eventually, there would be people from 20 different countries working for the Texas & Pacific Coal Company, most coming from Italy or Poland. Families of similar nationalities congregated together, and soon areas of Thurber where known as Italian Hill, Stump Hill, Polander Hill, and New York Hill, where company executives and clerks lived.
In 1905, the average miner earned $54 per month. Houses rented for $6 to $9 per month, medical care by company doctors and nurses cost from $1 to $2, water was $2, electricity (from the first electric plant built in 1895 that made Thurber the first city in Texas to be completely electrified with amenities including refrigeration and running water) was $.25 per drop, and the weekly newspaper cost $1 per year, delivered. Miners resented the $1 per month the company withheld from their pay for riding the train to work.
At one time it was estimated that 65 percent of the miners were single men, most living in the homes of other miners. As many as 6 individuals lived in a room, sleeping on cots and paying the housewife $28 to $30 per month for their room, meals, and laundry.
The company allowed employees to draw a portion of their wages before payday in the form of a checkbook, or scrip, made up of coupons ranging in value from 5 to 50 cents. Once an employee began using scrip, it was difficult for him to get out of debt to the company. As you can imagine, the scrip system was beneficial to the company because the coupons were only redeemable in company-owned stores. Over a period of 20 years, 50 percent of company store receipts were in the form of coupons.
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 the 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 the 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" townsite and has since 1961.