Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Tying Us Together: A Thurber Friendship Quilt

By special guest blogger Bethany Kolter Dodson

Texas has a long-practiced tradition of quilt making. Young girls routinely learned the skill because patchwork became a common style of bedding during the westward expansion. Patchwork provided a colorful and practical way to use old clothing and small scraps of material both artfully and economically in a time when practicality was the rule.

In the 1800s, women began forming quilting groups, turning work into a social and communal activity. Album quilts, along with other variations known as signature and friendship quilts which included embroidered autographs, served as family trees or town records to mark events like weddings or deaths. They evolved into keepsakes given to pastors, friends, or family members who were about to move away. While the common sentiment was one of remembrance, the quilts themselves varied stylistically. There was no one specific pattern. Any design with room for an embroidered autograph, such as Nine Patch, Star, Mariner’s Compass, Chimney Sweep, and Snowflake, was used. An abundant number of patterns bear the name Album or Friendship.

From the 1920s onward, flour, sugar, salt, grains, seeds, and feed were sold in large, cotton muslin bags. Considering the frugality needed to survive during the Depression, it is not surprising that women cleverly used the sack material to create dresses, quilts, and many other household textiles. Soon grain dealers caught on to this growing trend and began selling bags made of printed cottons to encourage brand loyalty. Patterns of all kinds emerged in every color imaginable. It took three to four one hundred-pound sacks to make a dress, so women carefully bought and traded brands to get the matching prints they wanted. As a result, women gained power in the marketplace by exerting substantial influence over the brands of foodstuffs and animal feed purchased by their family members. Leftover scraps were perfect for creating a distinctive square for a friendship quilt.



Many of the quilt blocks in this collection use fabric from feed sacks. This photograph of the underside of Mrs. Etta Lane’s quilt block reveals a stubborn, stamped, blue logo at the top edge. It was difficult and at times impossible to remove the stamped ink logo of the grain company from the fabric. If the label could not be removed by washing, these creative women painted it, embroidered over it, or simply placed it where it could not be seen.


As aesthetically pleasing as these works of art are, the stories of community behind them gives them special significance. The quilts speak of the deep friendship and camaraderie that surrounded their creation. A collection of squares acquired by the Gordon Center in 2007 demonstrates how Thurber women participated in this tradition. Mrs. Etta Lane embroidered “Thurber, Tex.” and “January 30, 1932” along with her own signature on her square tying the work and herself to the community. Sarah Etta Lawson married Samuel Lane in Erath County, Texas, about 1899 when she was sixteen. The Lanes were long time residents of Thurber, where Sam worked at the brick yard. Sadly, Mr. Lane died from internal injuries as a result of a fall from a boxcar on May 2, 1932, only months after Etta dated her quilt square.

Etta Lane pictured in her later years.


Almost all the names that appear in this collection of blocks were found in the 1930 census, along with other clues to their daily lives. Many lived with their families on the east side of town in the vicinity of the brick yard. The census highlights that Mrs. Etta Lane was a close neighbor to fellow quilter, Mrs. Louise “Lou” Kim. Some were homemakers, while others, like Ms. Sue Martin worked outside the home as a telephone operator.

All of the blocks in the Thurber collection share the same pattern of appliqué creating a stylized white cross.

The historic quilts of this style hold the stories and secrets of relationships past. While many of the people who created them are gone, the memories of good times, close friends, and tightly-knit communities that cared and leaned on each other are passed down for the present generation to remember and recognize. Today quilting guilds across America work to preserve the tradition and celebrate their own special experiences together by creating new friendship quilts to pass down.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Who was Homer G. Harris?

By Matt Stephenson

The call to arms prompted by the entry of the United States into World War I was answered by many young men in the nation. In the community of Thurber, Texas, Homer G. Harris was one such young man. Homer was born January 3, 1896, in Bell County, Texas, to Leonidas Signor Harris and Nancy Elizabeth Harris and was reportedly killed in action on June 2, 1918, in the fighting around Chateau-Thierry during the famous Belleau Wood offensive in France. He was the youngest son among five brothers and sisters and one of three children born in Texas.

The United States Census of 1910 reported Homer’s father worked as a teamster and his two older brothers were employed in the mines in and around Thurber. Homer’s draft registration card from June 5, 1917, revealed that he joined his brothers in the mines prior to entering the military. Contemporary newspaper accounts note that Homer was the first man from Thurber to fall in the Great War. Homer’s family was rather well-known in the community and his death was mourned by many Thurber residents.

The Tuscania as it looked at its launching in February 7, 1915

Homer G. Harris completed military basic training in late 1917 and was immediately shipped to New York, then to Europe aboard the American troopship Tuscania. His first brush with death came on February 5, 1918. On that fateful day, a German U-Boat (submarine) torpedoed the Tuscania in the Irish Sea en route to Liverpool, England, with 2,179 American soldiers. Homer G. Harris was among the 1,832 survivors reported in the February 11, 1918, edition of the Dallas Morning News. Tuscania was the first ship carrying American troops to be sunk and the populace was outraged. In 1920 a monument was erected by the American Red Cross on the Isle of Islay where many of the victims were buried before their transfer that year to the American War Cemetery at Brookwood, England, or back to the United States.

The Tuscania Disaster sparked outrage among the American people, as it was the first time a ship carrying American soldiers had been sunk by enemy forces

Private Harris was originally deployed to Europe along with the 32nd “Red Arrow” Infantry Division, a National Guard unit with volunteers primarily from Michigan and Wisconsin, because he had trained with them at Camp Bowie in Ft. Worth, Texas, and was with them aboard the Tuscania. After his rescue, however, Private Harris was transferred to the U.S. Army’s 9th Infantry Regiment of the 2nd “Indian Head” Division and sent to the front lines at the Belleau Wood sector. When the first elements of Homer’s division arrived in April of 1917, the embattled armies there had been locked in a stalemate for four years. They moved to Chateau-Thierry where they combined with U. S. Marines to conduct a long series of daring and reckless night raids and skirmishes into the German lines around Belval Forest.

By November 5, 1918, they finally broke the stalemate and halted the German advance on Paris which resulted in the signing of the armistice on November 11, 1918. Unfortunately Homer G. Harris was not allowed to bask in the glory of his unit’s victory because he was killed in the fighting around Chateau-Thierry on June 2, 1918.

The U.S. Army’s official casualty report from June 21, 1918, states that Private Harris was killed in action like many other brave, young American soldiers in one of the bloodiest battles in American military history. As with many World War I casualties, most likely he was interred on the battlefield in France. Later his body was exhumed and shipped home for burial at the end of the American occupation of Germany after the signing of the armistice. His body arrived by train at the railway station at Mingus and was buried with full military honors in the Thurber Cemetery on September 8, 1921, according to a story in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram the following day. The paper reported that a procession almost two miles long accompanied his remains from the railhead in Mingus to the Harris family home in Thurber.

Homer G. Harris’s Grave at its current location in Mount Marion Cemetery in Strawn, Texas

Because Homer was the first Thurber native to fall in World War I, local veterans named the Homer G. Harris American Legion Post No. 14 in his honor. During the time after Homer G. Harris’s burial, the post was an important community organization and held many popular social events, most notably the Water Carnival at Thurber Lake (Big Lake) on July 22, 1922, boxing bouts, and Armistice Day dances and athletic contests, such as football and baseball games. The post was disbanded about 1933 when the Texas & Pacific Coal & Oil Company closed the town of Thurber and moved their offices to Fort Worth.

Friday, October 29, 2010

From the Curator's Desk: A Simple Start for your Thurber Genealogy

By special guest blogger LeAnna Schooley

When the descendant of a former Thurber resident contacts the Gordon Center looking for information, the request always makes its way to me. As curator, I use research to identify artifacts, develop exhibits, and dig out the true tales of life in our company town, but I also help people uncover their personal Thurber stories. Let me suggest several easy steps to get you started on your family history journey.

Talk to your parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles and write down or tape record their memories about family births, deaths, burials, marriages, and stories. Note as many specific dates, names, and locations as possible. With this information about the most recent past, you can work backward through time. Because details are often forgotten over the years, you will want to track down the documents that support and enhance the remembrances you have collected. Genealogy software such as the Personal Ancestral File, available free from FamilySearch can help you organize your research.

Become familiar with the history of Thurber. The W. K. Gordon Center website offers timelines, research tips, and photographs that can help you understand the connection between your family and Thurber. Additional background information is available in published histories such as The Birth of a Texas Ghost Town, by former Thurber resident Mary Jane Gentry, and in A Way of Work and a Way of Life, by Marilyn Rhinehart. Along the way, ask yourself if part of your family story could have taken place in Thurber.

James Elzie and Kate Ready Marrs


Let’s say that your family believes your ancestor, Kate Petty Ready Marrs, lived in Thurber. They remember that her father, Walter Ready, lived in Missouri when she was born in 1875, but the entire family moved to Thurber before she married Mr. James E. Marrs. Kate Marrs’s death certificate could confirm the facts of her birth, death, marriage, and burial. Thanks to the website FamilySearch.org, digital images of many Texas death certificates are available online. The database turns up a 1946 death certificate in Ranger, Eastland County, Texas, for a Kate Petty Marrs born October 30, 1875, in Missouri to W. C. Ready and Lucy Lane. Since Kate’s husband, J. E. Marrs, who knew Kate and her parents, supplied the information for the certificate, it is a reliable source. Not only do these facts agree with the family story, but it places Kate Marrs in Ranger, a nearby town where many former Thurber residents settled when the company moved its offices to Fort Worth in 1933.

Eastland County, Texas, death certificate of former Thurber resident, Kate Petty Ready Marrs (click image to enlarge)


One way to determine where a family lived is through the United States Census, which has been conducted every ten years since 1790. Of the surviving census records, the years 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930 list the people living in Thurber by name. You can use census databases at your local library or in some cases you can sign up to access selected resources from home. A search of the 1930 census reveals that a Kate Marrs, whose age, birthplace and parent’s name matches the known facts of our subject, did live in Thurber, Erath County, Texas, that year. Her husband’s name was given incorrectly as John instead of James, an example of the common problems in the census that researchers must evaluate and reconcile.

1930 Erath County, Texas, census enumeration of persons in Thurber. The Marrs household (line 67) was located in the vicinity of the Thurber Mingus Road and included John [sic] E., a carpenter, Kate P., five of their children, and Kate’s mother, Lucy Ready (click image to enlarge)

Having confirmed your Thurber connection, there are many possibilities for further research. Explore other census records to determine the length of time the family lived in town and which individuals might have worked for the Texas and Pacific Coal Company. Collect additional birth and death certificates of siblings and parents in order to carry the lineage into the past. Make appointments to visit archives and libraries to dig deeper into company documents that provide insight into the lives of individual employees. For more resource suggestions, visit the Gordon Center's genealogy page. Your Thurber story is waiting to be discovered.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Take two Dover’s and call me in the morning…

By special guest blogger, Stephanie Winnett

Indigestion? Nausea? Hypertension? Fever? Headache? Today, you would drive to the local pharmacy for an over-the-counter medication to cure what ails you. However, at the turn-of-the-century, in rural areas like those around Mingus and Thurber, people relied on country doctors. Dr. John T. Spratt travelled far and wide by horse (and later by car) dispensing medication and using his expertise to spread comfort and healing.


Dr. Spratt atop his horse, Gnat, posing in front of his office.

Thurber, the largest town between Fort Worth and El Paso, was booming when Dr. Spratt moved to Mingus from Pecos with his family in 1904. Mingus at this time was a quarter of the size of the industrial Thurber. Spratt operated as the only doctor there where he built a drugstore and pharmacy. Despite the proximity of Mingus to Thurber, half of Dr. Spratt’s medical fees were paid to him in goods, according to his son, John S. Spratt in Thurber, Texas: The Life and Death of a Company Coal Town. Citizens in and around Mingus did not possess the cash to pay a physician for his services. They would give Dr. Spratt whatever they could spare as payment.

For many years, Spratt practiced out of his office seeing patients and performing minor surgeries. His rural setting did not mean he did not have a sophisticated practice. He had lab equipment including microscopes and an x-ray machine to help better-serve patients. Additionally, he spent a great deal of his time making house calls—delivering babies, prescribing medicines, and delivering tinctures to ill, rural residents. John S. Spratt remembers his father, “practicing medicine for years on horseback with a pair of medicine bags thrown across his saddle.” In 2004, W.K. Gordon Center received Dr. Spratt’s leather medicine saddle bags as a donation.

X-ray bulb from Dr. Spratt's X-ray machine.

The leather medical bags, manufactured by the A.A. Mellier Company in St. Louis, hold several small, glass apothecary bottles. Two tin-lined compartments inside allow for ample storage of medical instruments and supplies. The upper compartment remains stationary while the lower compartment pulls out at an angle, displaying the glass bottles for easy access. Some of the bottles still contain powders with labels identifying their contents:

-Oxalate Cerium—a mixture of cerium metals used to allay gastric irritation.
-Dover’s Powder—a preparation containing opium that was used as a pain reliever.
-Tincture of Aconite—Aconite is a deadly poison, but in the appropriate mixtures could be used to aid in blood-clotting, induce vomiting, or reduce bleeding.
-Oral Potassium—used as a homeopathic remedy for high blood pressure.
-Santonin—a drug that was widely used to expel intestinal parasites from the body.
-Phenolax Wafers—small red pills that contained a chemical common in over-the-counter laxatives.
-Zinc Sulphate—Colorless crystals that are especially effective, when applied through injection, as a treatment of chronic stages of gonorrhea.



The two leather saddlebags used by Dr. Spratt. The key-hole latch would keep bag closed during transit. Originally, the bags were connected by a wide leather strap that would hold the bags on the horse. The maker’s mark is stamped on both bags: “Elliot’s Patent/granted Jan. 18. 1870/A.A. Mellier/St/ Louis, MO/Sole Proprietor.” Saddle bag opened, reveals upper and lower, tin-lined compartments holding medicine and other supplies.

These are only a sample of the many medicines represented in Dr. Spratt’s saddle bags. He also had a stack of loose-leaf note paper possibly used to write down instructions for patients. Spratt traded in his horse and saddlebags for a Ford Coupe late in his career. However, he travelled many miles in the elements on horseback to provide relief, assurance, and good health to the folks of Mingus, Thurber, and the surrounding area.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

I Owe My Soul to the Company Store

By Mary Adams

Thurber, Texas, located approximately 70 miles west of Fort Worth, was a self-sufficient town in many aspects thanks in part to the Texas Pacific Mercantile and Manufacturing Company, a subsidiary of Texas and Pacific Coal Company. TPM & M provided for the material needs and desires of the residents by carrying a wide range of products in its numerous subsidiaries which included a meat market, dry-goods and general merchandise, as well as the drug and hardware stores.

Original hardware store located next to new hardware store under construction, circa 1913.

The stores located in the town, the only source of goods in Thurber, served the households of miners, company officials, and farmers in the surrounding area. A careful examination of the following photo taken inside the hardware store prior to 1913, reveals the variety of products offered to suit the diverse tastes and budgets of its customers.

Interior of hardware store prior to 1913.

The left side of the store is dedicated to household goods and furnishings. The case in the lower left side of the photograph contains boxes of knives and eating utensils (1). The boxes in the case identify one of the suppliers for the store, the catalog firm, E. C. Simmons Cutlery and Hardware Company. The shelves behind the counter displays a mixture of items (2) including stacks dinner plates, cups and bowls, sugar bowls, crystal bowls and glass pitchers, and a variety of enamel cookware (4). Kerosene lamps as well as replacement shades sit above the dishes (3). Can you pick out other household items such as roaster pans, chamber pots, and aluminum tubs on display?

The store carried a large selection of heaters and cook stoves in several styles. Note the differences between the multiple models that appeal to various needs and tastes. In 1910 heaters like the one tucked beside the cabinet next to the row of wood burning stoves sold for approximately $4.95 (5) while others such as the plain version sitting towards the rear of the store went for $1.69 (10). They also provided multiple options in cooking ranges which included different sizes and attachments such as a warming oven (6).

The loft (8) at the back of the building holds a selection of furniture such as chairs, tables or desks, and a stack of mail boxes. Behind the stoves and heaters along the back and right of the store there is a shelf of tin goods including milk strainers, stock pots (12), shallow tubs, and coffeepots (13). Also notice the row of “Kant Leak Oil Cans” used to store the kerosene used to fuel portable and permanent fixtures like those hanging from the ceiling above the case on the right (11).

The hardware store met the work needs of both the company and its employees by keeping basic supplies like screws, nails, and small hand tools. Because the coal miners supplied their own equipment the inventory included shovels, tool handles and blasting powder. It also ordered equipment requisitioned by departments within the company. As a result, the shelving on the right side of the photograph displays some tools and other hardware. You can search for items such as a box of Blue Jay oilers (14), stacks of Disston hand saws (15), wood planes, and along the right edge of the photo multiple boxes of ammunition (16).

Blue Jay Oiler can from E. C. Simmons Cutlery and Hardware Company catalog.

Residents in need of carriages and animal tack found their way to the hardware store as well. The photograph captured two buggies, one on the left side at the rear of the building (7) as well as one under the loft. They supplied harnesses, sundry other horse tack (hanging on the back wall, under the loft), and horse collars hung from the ceiling in front of the loft (9).

As this photograph indicates the hardware department of the TPM & M carried a variety of essential items which meant that almost any item could be bought locally. This allowed the parent company, Texas and Pacific Coal Company, to increase their profits by keeping their money centralized. Items not found in this photograph, such as clothing, food products, or jewelry could be purchased at other locations in town.


Thursday, July 29, 2010

Musical Memories

By David Buster

At its peak, Thurber, Texas, boasted some 10,000 plus residents. While this figure may seem small by today’s standards, Thurber was once the largest city between Ft. Worth and El Paso and one of the state’s most renowned industrial sites. It was home to Americans from every corner of the nation and a wide array of immigrants all of whom brought their musical interests with them. Music became one of the most significant legacies left by Thurber residents to their descendants.

Cover of music book prepared especially by the Tee Pee Band and used by trombone player George B. Studdard.

Thurber played host to a number of prominent bands. They included the following: the United Mine Workers of America Thurber Band, the R.D. Hunter Band, a World War I war time band, Thurber School Brass Band, several marching bands, the Hurst Concert Orchestra, and the Thurber “Tee Pee” Band, with the latter winning first place at the Ranger Oilbelt Jubilee of 1928.

Many ethnic groups in Thurber had their own bands as noted by historian Mary Jane Gentry, “There were always several bands in Thurber. The Mexicans had their own band, the Italians theirs, and the third one was the so-called American band. All these bands were rated as good, but the Italian band was rated the best.” Also, black musicians performed formal and informal concerts for black and white audiences alike. Ethnic bands were popular both throughout the town and other surrounding communities, as they were invited to participate in various celebrations, conventions, and other public gatherings. For instance, the Italian band often played at the Dallas State Fair and even accompanied the Thurber semi-professional baseball team to its state championship game in 1909.

Trombone part of “The St. Louis Blues” by W. C. Handy from Studdard’s music book.

On Saturday and Sunday nights the R. D. Hunter Band, the R. H. Ward Italian Band, and a string band held concerts attended by people from Thurber and the surrounding communities. The performances provided fond memories for those in the audience. In the following interview excerpt, former Thurber resident Dean Hiatt recounts his childhood concert experiences.

They had a bandstand. It’s across from where that old building [Thurber Drugstore] burned down. It was out in that area between there and the freeway….And I can remember going down there and listening to the band music, with the kids running around and hide-and-seek in the cars and all that mess. Give a night out when you didn’t have to go to bed early. Sit out there and listen to that band music. They played pretty often in there.

Bands were not the only source of musical entertainment in town. In 1895 Thurber boasted an opera house that hosted a variety of traveling troupes who presented a range of offerings to vaudeville to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust and Il Trovatore. The Opera House was the venue for many events including dances and socials. Invitations for the first of many grand balls held at the Opera House went out for October 19, 1896. A contemporary newspaper account from the Texas and Mining Trade Journal provides a description of this social event.

The Tee Pee Band, Thurber, Texas, in 1927. Studdard and his trombone are pictured in the top row, 5th from left.

Of the ball, we can give but a faint idea of its brilliancy. It was a grand success, over thirty-five couples participating among them many visitors from other towns. The scene presented in the ballroom was a lovely one-beautiful ladies, handsomely attired, and gallant men, and one could not see depicted in their countenances any thought of yesterday and tomorrow, all living in present, and getting from these few hours all of life… The music was furnished by Prof. Mueller’s orchestra of Fort Worth, and was pronounced superb.

Many individual residents of Thurber contributed to the local musical heritage. This was especially the case with Italian immigrants, who often gave impromptu operatic performances. Almost every evening a person could hear an Italian accordion player sitting in his doorway and performing native Italian music. Accordion players were never lonely. The random neighbor was always anxious to sing or perform along beside them. People from all over the neighborhood would come out into their yards or sit at their porch steps to listen as long as the makeshift band played.

Though the population of Thurber was gone by the 1930s, they took the sounds of nights at the bandstand and dances at the Opera House away with them as some of their happiest memories.


Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Follow the Red Brick Road

By Mary Adams


Beginning in 1897, the Green and Hunter Brick Company, later known as the Thurber Brick Company, produced, and sold a special heavy-duty brick called a paver to many cities and towns in Texas. Roads in and around the stockyards and Camp Bowie Boulevard in Fort Worth, Congress Avenue in Austin, or Sea Wall Boulevard in Galveston are well known for their brick. However, lesser-known communities also relied on Thurber pavers for street improvement projects. Some towns have gone to great lengths to protect their red brick roads, while others have paved over or torn up the historic brick in favor of asphalt roads which do not require as much labor intensive maintenance.



Men laying Thurber brick on Fannin Street (now Central Avenue) in Strawn. Circa 1920s.


Present-day view of brick paved portion of Central Avenue in Strawn. Yellow arrows indicate the same building.

Strawn and Lubbock differ in size and location, but they share at least two common characteristics. First, they have streets paved with Thurber brick and, second, the local government desires to protect and preserve this part of their history. Unfortunately, not all Lubbock’s 1920s era brick streets survive today. However, a 1999 article published in the Lubbock Avalanche reported, “Seventy-nine years later, 11 linear miles of brick streets remain in Lubbock.” The preservation of this “integral part of the city’s heritage,” began in 1982 when the Lubbock City Council passed a resolution “mandating that any portion of any brick surface disturbed by any public or private agency for whatever reason be replaced in a manner consistent with original construction.”

Strawn, located approximately 250 miles east of Lubbock but only 10 miles west of Thurber, chose to preserve the downtown portion of their streets. Though the Texas Department of Transportation covered over a brick portion of State Highway 16, the town has managed to save several blocks. As a part of their ongoing preservation efforts, Strawn city employees take great care to remove the pavers and stack them neatly when repairing the city water lines. Later, after all repairs are completed, workers come and relay them.


Brick carefully removed from Central Avenue in order to repair a water leak.

The decision to upgrade streets usually constituted a large expenditure. Some cities, like Stephenville, covered the cost through the use of municipal paving certificates. The city issued certificates to property owners and obligated them to pay for a percentage of the street improvements that bordered their lots.

Though Stephenville has not always been mindful of the preservation of its streets, attitudes have changed in recent years. According to the minutes from the August 7, 2007 Stephenville City Council meeting, a local repressentative indicated that there were 66 blocks of streets in Stephenville and at that time 16 had been restored to their original condition. Now Stephenville, like Strawn and Lubbock, makes a concerted effort to preserve and restore this small foundation of their history.

Certificate of Special Assessment for improvement of McIlhaney Avenue in Stephenville obligating a property owner to pay his portion of the cost of road construction.

As a result of the use of brick from the Thurber Brick Plant, residents of many towns, small and large, still benefit from street improvements that took place a hundred years ago. So when walking or driving through Texas towns that have red brick streets, take a moment to reflect on the durability of something produced and laid in the beginning of the twentieth century.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

From the Archivist's Desk: A 1915 State of the Mines Report

By Gary Spurr

The Texas & Pacific Coal & Oil Company papers record the history of the corporation from the 1880s through its sale in the 1960s. Over the years, employees compiled annual reports, publications, tax files, coal and oil exploration data, maps, and ledgers filled with financial accounts. One particularly valuable item in this collection is W. K. Gordon’s 1915 “Report of Inspection of Mines.” Through tables and narrative Gordon described the condition of the company property demonstrating his dedication to maintaining a safe and productive work environment. Gordon served as Secretary, Vice President, and General Manager when he conducted this survey of the conditions at Mines Nos. 10, 11, 12, New No. 1, and New No. 3. Management restarted the mine numbering system to avoid using the unlucky number 13.

W. K. Gordon

Gordon filed the report in August 1915 though he collected the data for this periodic statement for the board of directors in June of that year. He provided assessments of the surface condition of each mine as well as the shaft bottom, distance from the shaft to each working face, distance from the working face to the nearest mine, thickness of the coal vein, footage of the mine front being worked, amount of coal produced by the mine, and other statistics. He included a small-scale (1” = 400”) map for each mine.

The general manager revealed his commitment to quality in the narrative portions of the document. When he discussed the surface condition of the mine, he praised mine bosses who stacked spare pit car wheels, timbers, and rails neatly to prevent deterioration of the materials and to make them easily accessible. They received Gordon’s scorn if useful equipment was scattered about with debris. He spoke very proudly of the boss of Mine No. 10, the oldest shaft still in production, because he kept it in good order on the surface and below.

A page from Gordon's 1915 report

Gordon demonstrated his concern for the safety of the workers and proper care of equipment in several ways. He requested improvements to the screens to protect the cagers and elevator operators from falling coal and rock. He assessed the ventilation in each of the mines noting that New No. 1 required an upgrade to accommodate future expansion. The condition of the underground rails that carried the pit cars also caught Gordon’s eye. He expected workers to keep the roadbed clear of rock and dirt to prevent derailments that could result in coal spills, equipment damage, and personal injury. A table listed the number of unusable cars at each shaft and measures the cost of repairs in pounds of coal. Gordon tallied the number of workers by ethnicity at each mine stating that there were 600 “Italians,” 337 “Mexicans,” 270 “Polanders,” and 90 “Native Born.”

The self-made railroad surveyor, civil engineer, and mine manager’s analytical mind is evident in this report. The combination of Gordon’s personality, varied skills, and attention to detail allowed him to rise from surveyor in 1889 to Secretary, Vice President, and General Manager in 1899. He retired from the company in the early 1920s from to become an independent oil and gas producer and later became a director of Southwestern Life Insurance Company in Dallas. However, Gordon kept his seat on the Texas & Pacific Coal and Oil Company board of directors he held since 1892. He served as chairman of the board from 1934 until his death in 1949.

A map from Gordon's 1915 report

The Texas & Pacific Coal & Oil Company records which include W. K. Gordon’s 1915 report on the mines are available to researchers at the W. K. Gordon Center for Industrial History of Texas in Thurber. The finding aid for the records is available here. For more information contact the Collections Archivist.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Battling the Blaze at Mine #8

By David Buster


At approximately 2:30 am June 3 1904, the night engineer in the tower building of No. 8 Mine discovered a fire. Company investigations revealed that the conflagration most likely began when men from the machine shop making repairs, dropped cigarette butts or some other flammable material into one of the dust bins. This one careless act would have devastating consequences.

Mine #8 at the height of operation

Immediately, an alarm rang out to alert the citizens of Thurber and a party of volunteers formed to combat the blaze. The volunteers struggled in vain as the fire spread from bins throughout the woodwork of the mine. The flames engulfed the mine tipple, the majority of the wooden mine shaft structure, and the timbers underground. Because the fire grew so rapidly, a conical-shaped collapse occurred at the base of the mine. The subterranean loading entries filled with smoke and the temperature soared.

After several trips underground, volunteers rescued the fan house and secured multiple entrances to the mine. The men battled life-threatening conditions caused by the growing amounts of smoke, heat, and water inside the mine shaft. Several days later workers determined it vital to close the shaft openings to suffocate the persistent blaze, which was still burning throughout the mine pillars and large fall (collapse) at the bottom.

Fifteen days later when the workers attempted to re-enter the mine, the fire revived and dispersed in all directions. The miners knew they would have to conduct a hands-on fight to contain it. Workers created a new air shaft that allowed men to crawl on their stomachs towards the bottom of the main shaft. The only way for them to breathe was to keep their heads close to the mine floor. Once there, they ran a water hose from the surface through the airshaft to combat the blaze with heat and smoke suspended mere inches above them.

The miners battled the fire using this method until they arrived at the powder house situated at the south side of the main shaft. The almost thirty kegs of blasting powder stored there held the potential to cause a large explosion which would destroy one of the company’s most productive mines. Workers doused the superheated room then immersed the kegs themselves in water to prevent greater destruction.


Mine #8 after the fire: A) Long's body was discovered, B) Thomas' body was discovered

At last, the miners extinguished the flames lingering at both the north and west openings which were under constant threat of a cave-in and put an end to the persistent inferno once and for all. The cost of the fire was immense. Texas and Pacific Coal Company reported that the fire caused $21,701.21 in losses of mining equipment and buildings. Thanks to the firefighters’ success, the mine was repaired and production resumed. For their brave efforts in battling the blaze, the company paid volunteers maximum wages and rewarded them with a “handsome suits of clothes.”

Sadly, two employees, Eli Thomas and H.M. Long, were crushed by falling timbers weakened by the disaster. The number injured is unknown. Mining today is arguably as dangerous as it was almost 106 years ago in Thurber. Even with current advancements in technology and safety procedures, mining continues to be perilous as evidenced by the recent explosions in the coal mines of West Virginia that killed twenty-nine miners.

Henry M. Long and family shortly before he was killed in the fire

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Life After Work: Organized Social Clubs in Thurber, Texas

by Mary Adams

Thurber, Texas was at one time the largest community between Fort Worth and El Paso with a population of approximately ten thousand at its peak. People came to Thurber from diverse backgrounds and locations including at least eighteen different countries. Despite the size and diversity, the people of Thurber formed a sense of community through the fraternal organizations and clubs to which they belonged.


Foresters of America lodge meeting in Thurber, Tx

In her book, A Way of Work and a Way of Life: Coal Mining in Thurber, Texas 1888-1926 Marilyn D. Rhinehart noted “Private social associations that sponsored dances, sporting activities, dinners, and charitable activities abounded in Thurber.” Organizations were formed by friends, colleagues, and peers often along racial, ethnic, and class lines. Some clubs, such as the Lotus Club and the R. D. Hunter Fishing and Boating Club had limited membership while the others were open to all. By 1900, there were at least fourteen lodges or organizations in town including The Woodmen of the World, Shriners, Redmen, Masons, Ancient Order United Druids, and the Independent Order of Good Templars.

Lodges, clubs, and mutual aid societies were an integral part of social life in Thurber. They were a source of companionship, entertainment, benevolence, and patriotism. Independent Order of Good Templars organized box suppers and literary programs, thereby offering an entertainment outlet while urging its members to abstain from drink and tobacco. Whereas, the Improved Order of Redmen was founded on the principle of “freedom, friendship, and charity.” Its purpose was largely patriotic in nature. It encouraged respect for the American flag, and defense of the American government, and preservation of the democratic way of life.

Solomon Lodge By-Laws

The Ancient Order United Druids originated overseas and came to America with the immigrants who settled here. Despite its origin, the lodge discouraged nativist attitudes and supported assimilation by holding balls in which “a large number of American men and women were seen … participating in the festivities.” According to an article printed in the Fort Worth Morning Register, July 7, 1900, the purpose of the organization is “to unite people together irrespective of nation, tongue, or creed, for mutual protection and improvement: to assist socially and materially by timely counsel and instructive lessons…to foster among its members the spirit of fraternity and good fellowship.

Lodges played a role in benevolence within the town and in the surrounding area. An injured man could call his brothers for financial aid when needed, could be quite generous. On September 9, 1900, the Fort Worth Morning Register ran an article praising the “T. & P. Coal Co and Thurber Citizens” for their generosity in coming to the aid of the victims of the 1900 Galveston hurricane. The support for this effort was widespread with many social organizations contributing total donation of over a thousand dollars.

Mason's Apron from the Solomon Lodge in Thurber, Tx

Though most of the organizations in Thurber were exclusive to men, women participated in their own groups. They often formed auxiliary lodges to the men’s such as the Rebekah Lodge which accompanied the Oddfellows or the Order of the Eastern Star associated with the Masons. In this capacity the women could support their husbands’ activities while enjoying a similar form of fellowship.

Another aspect of lodges, fraternal organizations, and mutual aid societies in a town like Thurber was the escape and or relaxation they offered to their members. Rhinehart sums it up well when she states that the “…lodges formed an integral part of the after-work world that workers created in Thurber. They succeeded particularly in a setting like Thurber because they affirmed a feeling of community in a very individualistic world and offered safety and fellowship to a group that experienced little of it at work.”





Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Gravestone of a Ghost Town

By David Buster

At one time, Thurber was the largest city between Fort Worth and El Paso boasting some 10,000 plus residents. The most important coal mining site in the state of Texas, it was a major manufacturer of paving bricks and the headquarters of the company that discovered the nearby Ranger oil field. Today, Thurber is home to a mere handful of families, two restaurants, a museum, and a few remaining buildings that provide insight into the town’s history. However, one prestigious and iconic structure, unlike the rest of Thurber, has survived the test of time. Anyone who has taken a trip between Abilene and Fort Worth on Interstate 20 has come across this edifice serving as a de facto monument to Thurber’s once glorious past. The 148 foot smokestack is visible from miles away in every direction.



Early Thurber skyline

The origins of the smokestack can be traced back to a series of renovations to the existing ice plant. From 1889 to 1890, the ice that was used in Thurber was provided by saloon keeper Thomas Lawson. After June of 1890, the Texas & Pacific Coal Company provided ice for the town. When the company took over the saloon and overall demand increased, Colonel Robert D. Hunter, president and general manager, decided to build a seventeen ton ice plant. The total cost for this operation was detailed in the company’s 1896 annual report. “It has been necessary to expend $16,169.82 in additions to buildings and new buildings, and I have erected and put into operation an ice plant and cold storage, at a cost of $20,619.01…” The new ice plant produced all the ice used by the residents of Thurber, the cold storage, the markets, and the saloons. Any of the remaining ice was sold as surplus to surrounding communities and to the Texas and Pacific Railroad.

After twelve years, the plant required an expansion which resulted in the creation of Thurber’s most famous landmark. The extent of the renovations are listed in the Texas and Pacific Coal Company’s Annual Report for 1908.

Owing to the increased demand for the product of the plant together with the greater need for better refrigeration facilities it was deemed advisable to overhaul and make certain improvements in the Ice Plant. These improvements consist of the purchase and installation of New Boilers, Automatic Stokers, New Brick Stack, new Feed Water Heater and Purifier and the construction of a Boiler House, for which expenditures were made during the year amounting to $26,775.58.

Smokestack near completion

Like many new feats of engineering, the smokestack went through a christening process. However, this procedure was not performed in the traditional fashion. In her book, The Birth of a Texas Ghost Town: Thurber 1886-1933, author Mary Jane Gentry recounts this event. “The daughter of one of the men who helped build the stack often tells the story of how her father climbed to the top of the smokestack, swung one leg over the rim, gulped down the whiskey in his flask, christened the stack by smashing the empty flask on its side, and then hurried down the ladder before the ‘altitude’ could make him dizzy.”

Unfortunately, Texas’s most important coal producing site met its demise in the 1930s. All but a few buildings were sold and carted away. Houses and entire commercial buildings were dismantled or moved, water and gas pipelines were sold for salvage, railroad tracks and equipment removed, and the inventory of mining gear liquidated. Though the other smokestacks at Thurber were razed, the one associated with the ice plant was did not suffer the same fate. Through the intervention of former company general manager W.K. Gordon, the smokestack was left untouched to commemorate the town’s former glory. After 102 years the smokestack remains as one of the last tangible connections to Thurber’s past.

Downtown Thurber today