Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Bootlegging in the Thurber Area

By special guest blogger
Gene Rhea Tucker
Doctoral student at University of Texas at Arlington


Thurberites drank beer, wine, and other spirits in great amounts. Miners and other laborers demanded that alcohol be available to slake their thirst and wet their parched throats, dusty from work in the mines and brickyards. Many of Thurber’s laborers hailed from nations and communities where consuming alcohol was a common occurrence and a regular pastime. The town, with many immigrant workers from Italy, Poland, Mexico, and several other countries, sat like a drinking island in a sea of prohibition.

Beginning in the 1890s and continuing until statewide prohibition of alcohol began in 1919, counties and towns across North Texas banned the sale and consumption of alcohol. The Texas and Pacific Coal Company, with its subsidiaries, ensured for several years that Thurber stayed “wet,” because the company made substantial sums of money in its two busy saloons, the Lizard and the Snake. Coal company officials published anti-prohibition pieces in the town newspaper, donated money to pro-wet organizations, and “suggested” that their workers vote for the “right” politicians. For Thurber, alcohol, whether legal or illegal, was an integral part of the culture—even the second president of the coal company, Edgar L. Marston, who was the son of a tee-totaling Baptist minister, accepted this.


Drinking and socializing in Thurber.

The denizens of Thurber made their own alcoholic beverages even before prohibition made the mere consumption of booze illegal. Though other groups probably created their own particular liquid refreshments, it was the Italians that earned the greatest renown as Thurber’s preeminent bootleggers. Thurber’s Italians made a well-remembered array of homemade beers, wines, and grappo, a form of distilled liquor flavored with the grape skins left over from winemaking. Beginning in the 1890s, the company grocery store ordered regular and large shipments of grapes, mainly for the Italian community. Once a year the mercantile would order several boxcars of red and white grapes and park them on a sidetrack in nearby Mingus. Victor Lucadello, who lived in Thurber as a youth, recalled:

The wine makers of Thurber would drive teams of mules or horses to Mingus and buy as many cases of grapes each needed and papa was no exception. It was indeed a be[e]hive of activity, as wagon after wagon would line up waiting to get their wagon loaded, and you know what, you guessed it, the greatest majority were Italians. Papa would dump a few boxes of grapes in a wine barrel he had cut in half and we kids would get in barefooted and stomp the grapes…. He always made at least three barrels of wine…

In 1900 authorities even arrested one Thurber man, Angelo Scalfi, for transporting twenty-six barrels of what he swore was just “grape juice.” Making their own alcohol allowed the Italians of Thurber to celebrate their traditions and earn a little extra cash.

Newspaper clipping from the 28 November 1900, edition of The Fort Worth Register.


When statewide prohibition began in 1919, the area around Thurber became a mecca for people seeking illegal liquor. Italian families built makeshift cellars beneath their homes to store, and hide, their illicit booze (as well as meats and cheeses). The best-seller was the strong, nearly 170 proof, distilled spirit grappo, made in large copper pots like whiskey. Dean Hiatt, who sampled the liquor in the 1920s, thought that it was “about 200 proof,” which would be 100 percent pure alcohol, because it was “smooth as silk” and “it’d just make everybody drunker than everything.” Soon a thriving bootlegging industry grew up in Thurber and the nearby town of Mingus, where many out-of-work Italian miners lived after the coal company became an oil company.

Local Thurber-Mingus bootleggers preferred to use ice from the Thurber Ice Plant for their booze-making, because the water used to make the ice was distilled and pure. Two bootleggers came into Thurber to purchase a dozen or so huge blocks of ice, which ran to a couple of tons. The manager of the ice plant refused to sell such a suspiciously large amount of ice to the two characters, saying: “I know what it’s for. It’s for bootleggers. And bootlegging is against the law.” The two men went to see Thurber’s general manager W. K. Gordon. Gordon called the ice plant manager, telling him: “…please understand that all ice we make is for sale to anybody, and it’s none of our business what it’s used for.”

Law enforcement officials kept up their pressure on the bootleggers in the Thurber area, though the booze makers often had advanced warning of these raids, and illegal alcohol was well-hidden or quickly disposed of by pouring it on the ground. However, authorities arrested several people for bootlegging in the 1920s. In May 1920, officers arrested three Italians after a short gunfight near Thurber’s Mine Number 2 a few miles west of town with thirty gallons of grappo and five hundred gallons of mash. In April 1920, lawmen raided one still, killing two men and arresting eight others, after a fierce battle. Only a year later, two of these eight arrested men were detained for the same offense. In November 1921 the Erath County Sheriff found and destroyed an impressive 2,200 gallons of fruit mash, 1,170 gallons of wine, and 790 gallons of homemade beer in Thurber, making ten arrests.

After the Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company abandoned Thurber in the 1930s, ex-Thurberites and their descendants ensured that Mingus, just north of old Thurber, remained wet territory after national prohibition was repealed in 1933. Today several stores and bars in Mingus serve alcohol and weekends see numerous people from the area patronize local bars with names like the Boar’s Nest and the Mule Lip.

The Spoetzl Brewery is celebrating 100 years of Shiner Beer! Join us this October 18th at the Gordon Center for a book signing by Mike Renfro, author of Shine On: 100 Years of Shiner Beer, and a beer tasting with a brewer from Spoetzl. Admission is free, but reservations are required! Call 254-968-1886 for more information.