Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Was the Brother of the Company President Poisoned?

By Lindsey Light
In December of 1902, A. B. “Bert” Marston arrived at the Stilwell Hotel in Pittsburg, Kansas, to gather African American workers to go with him to Thurber, Texas, to mine coal. Marston was the assistant storekeeper of the Texas Pacific Mercantile and Manufacturing Company (TPM&M). TPM&M was a subsidiary of the Texas and Pacific Coal Company led by President Edgar L. Marston, A. B. Marston’s older brother.

Postcard of Hotel Stilwell as it appeared about the time of Marston’s stay. Photo contributed by Mark Hill www.pittsburgksmemories.com.

On December 8, while playing billiards at the hotel, Marston fell to the floor with convulsions. Though men carried him to his room and a doctor arrived quickly, nothing could be done. He began to vomit and froth at the mouth and then died. Soon after, a panel of doctors started investigating the cause of death. In Marston’s room there was a bottle of mineral water found with a small amount of liquid left in it and business paper work. There were no signs of suicide.

Marston fell ill in the billiard room at the Hotel Stilwell. Built in 1890, it featured a well-appointed lobby and ballroom. Teddy Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, Susan B. Anthony and others chose to make speeches from the balcony above the entrance when passing through Pittsburg. The hotel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 and it is now used as apartments and commercial space. Photograph and information on the hotel courtesy http://www.hotelstilwell.org/.

The panel of investigators retained statements from the people who last had contact with Marston. Richard Hayden, a black man, accompanied Marston on the trip specifically to recruit black men from surrounding coal camps. Hayden told the panel that Marston purchased a bottle of Manitou mineral water like the one found in the hotel room, in South McAlester, Oklahoma, which was at the time Indian Territory. Unfortunately, there was no way to prove that the bottles were in fact one in the same since that brand was also available in Pittsburg. Also, the panel talked to A.L. Scott, a local lumberman, who chatted with Marston the night before he died. He reported that Marston knew that many people opposed him bringing in outside workers. Considering the eye-witness accounts and his symptoms, Coroner Boaz came to the conclusion that Marston died from deliberate poisoning.

On December 9th the Dallas Morning News reported the death of A. B. Marston. Though Marston was actually the assistant storekeeper for the mercantile subsidiary, many newspapers nationwide promoted him to assistant general manager of the coal company.

Because the panel of doctors suspected that arsenic caused Marston’s death, they conducted a post-mortem examination. All of Marston’s main organs appeared to be in a healthy condition, but his stomach indicated the presence of arsenic. They sent samples to a lab in Kansas City, Missouri to test for toxins in his system. When the contents of Marston’s stomach were tested, however, no evidence of poison was found. The investigation ended at this point and no one was accused of murder. His remains were taken to Greenville, Illinois, to be buried at Montrose Cemetery.

Company officials at Thurber shared the tragic news of Marston with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Locals who knew the family did not feel that suicide or murder were reasonable explanations for the death. Instead, they claimed that Marston suffered from kidney problems, or “Bright’s Disease,” which might have brought on the attack.

The death of A. B. Marston remains mysterious. Though the final coroner’s report indicated he died from natural causes, no immediate illness was ever identified. Later Thurber historians failed to record the event altogether, in spite of the fact it was sensationalized in newspapers across the nation. Certainly there were persons who were uncomfortable because he was bringing outsiders to work in Thurber, but were they capable of getting away with murder? Ultimately, the circumstances surrounding Marston’s death were suspicious, but the remaining questions about what A. B. Marston succumbed to that day in Pittsburg may never be answered.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Part 2 of the Coal Mines of Palo Pinto County: The Obel Family

By Matt Stephenson

The Obel family moved to Palo Pinto County, from Montgomery County, Alabama, in the early 1880s. Phillip Wilhelm Obel purchased farm land at Mingus and went to work as a butcher in Thurber located two miles south. His two sons, John Phillip (J.P.) and William (Will) Reinhold Obel, worked on the family farm and hired out as carpenters. Five more children were born into the Obel family between 1884 and 1898, including George Henry Obel (Henry) in 1896. After their father’s death in 1898, J.P. and Will continued to work as carpenters and farmers until around 1920.

Obel family photographed in Mingus, Texas, circa 1935. J. P. Obel is top left while his brother Henry appears top right. Ursula Obel, wife of P. W. Obel is seated in the front to the left.

That year Will and Henry opened a coal mine on the family property while J.P. went to work for the Texas & Pacific Coal Company (T&P), in Thurber, as a coal miner. According to oral tradition Will and Henry sold coal from a horse-drawn cart door-to-door in Mingus and also to the Strawn Coal Company. Sometime in the early 1930s Will fell ill and was unable to continue his role as co-owner of the mine with Henry. By this time coal mining operations had ceased in Thurber, so J.P. went to work for the Strawn Coal Company and assumed Will’s duties as owner/partner of the mine with Henry. The Obels no longer sold coal door-to-door due to the emergence of the petroleum industry and the availability of fuel oil. However, the Obel family mine continued to conduct business with the Strawn Coal Company until 1946.

Will Obel appears to the left of this photograph with an unidentified companion, circa 1930s.

J.P. and Henry Obel remained in the southwestern Palo Pinto County area until their deaths. Will Obel passed away in Wichita Falls in 1963. Descendants of the Obel brothers reside throughout the state of Texas and maintain a strong interest in their Palo Pinto County roots. Like the other coal mining operations in Palo Pinto County, the Obel family outlived its Thurber counterpart by more than a decade.

Envelope and pay stub addressed to John P. Obel from 1946 and 1944.

The Strawn Coal Company and Obel family mines did not expand into the oil and gas business. As a result, the smaller, specialized operations slowly became obsolete. Though their names are less familiar than T & P and Thurber, coal operations at Mingus, Strawn, and Lyra remain a significant part of Palo Pinto County history.

Approximate location of the Obel Family Mine.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Coal Mines in Palo Pinto County: T&P Wasn’t the Only Game in Town

By Matt Stephenson

Northern Erath and southern Palo Pinto Counties were the largest coal producing areas in the state of Texas from the late 1880s until 1946. In the region, the coal industry centered on the Texas & Pacific Coal Company (T&P) mines. In fact, in the mid-1890s T&P conducted underground mining operations in fifteen sites located throughout the hills surrounding Thurber. During peak years, approximately one thousand to fifteen hundred men mined fifteen hundred to two thousand tons of coal per day in the Thurber area. However, not every chunk of coal yielded from the bituminous-rich terrain originated in T&P mines. Nearby, workers at the Strawn Coal Company and other small family-owned operations, such as the Obel Mine in Mingus, produced a significant coal supply.

Approximate Locations of Strawn Coal Company Mines.

Coal mining arrived in Strawn around 1900 when brothers William and Harvey Johnson started the Mount Marion Coal Company. They originally settled in the area in 1878, and operated a successful feed, lumber, and grain company. By 1886 the profits they yielded from selling wooden cross ties to the Texas and Pacific Railroad gained them the necessary capital to open the first coal shafts near what would later become the town of Thurber in Erath County. The Johnson’s first coal mining venture resulted in failure and in 1888 they reluctantly sold their interests to parties in Fort Worth. The next few years they operated their retail/supply businesses in Strawn.

Photograph of a Strawn Coal Company Mine taken in 1927.

The Johnsons knew that there was tremendous earning potential in coal mining and never abandoned the idea. Quite possibly, they were encouraged with the growth of Thurber that had occurred since T&P purchased their operations in 1888. After nearly going bankrupt with their first venture, they learned that it required a tremendous amount of capital to operate a coal company, while it took only a small amount to find the coal and sink the shaft. Almost immediately after creating the Mount Marion Coal Company, the Johnsons sold their shares to a group of Fort Worth investors, including W. Burton, Paul Waples, L.H. McKee, John L. Johnson and A. Deffenbach, for a large profit. In 1904 the new owners merged the Mount Marion mine with the Bennett Coal Company in Lyra and in 1914 renamed it the Strawn Coal Company, Inc.

Strawn Coal Company tokens and scrip tickets used to purchase goods at the Company Store.

By 1920 the payroll of the Strawn Coal Company equaled $75,000 per month and had produced 1.6 million tons of coal since the merger. Railroad companies were the primary consumers of Palo Pinto County coal. When they converted their locomotives to diesel fuel, production and profits at Lyra plummeted and the company terminated operations. The original mine at Mount Marion, however, survived until 1946, approximately sixteen years after mining at Thurber ceased.

Next Month: Part 2 of the Coal Mines of Palo Pinto County

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Fill Your Tank with TP Gasoline!

By Lindsey Light

In 1928 the Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company opened its first TP Aero Brand filling station in present day downtown Fort Worth, Texas in the middle of the wide intersection at West Seventh Street and Camp Bowie Boulevard. It was designed in a unique octagonal shape and constructed of brick and ceramic tile. As time went by, the city reworked the hectic crossing and the station was destroyed. Between 1928 and 1938 the company had service stations in approximately eighty five towns across West Texas and the Panhandle. Eventually, Texas and Pacific supplied over five hundred service stations in Texas and Oklahoma.

The first Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company filling station at West Seventh Street and Camp Bowie Boulevard in Fort Worth, Texas. Reproduced from a Texas Pacific highway map courtesy Pete Charlton.

As automobiles gained popularity, owners required fuel to be accessible at more regular intervals. Early on, blacksmith shops, hardware stores, and grocery stores first provided the necessary local access to fuel supplies. Because moving and storing the gasoline was dangerous, however, these locations began delivering fuel by barrel to the consumer’s home. Ultimately, filling stations built specifically for the purpose created a safe and convenient outlet for the consumer.

TP gasoline and motor oil ink blotter featuring the Teepee advertising theme.

In 1929, the W.P. Boyd service station opened in Thurber, Texas, the birthplace of Texas Pacific Coal and Oil. The brick and tile building featured a herringbone pattern driveway, and is noted for its beautiful detail. The company installed four pumps at the Thurber location. To place the station in the middle of town square, workers moved the band stand to the south end of the square.

J. R. Foster grocery and feed store in Lake Worth, Texas, which proudly sold TP products.

In order to maintain and restock individual service stations, many owners purchased supplies from bulk stations. Located near refineries operated by Texas Pacific, bulk outlets provided product and equipment such as signage, storage tanks, pump globes, and push pumps to service stations in the surrounding area. Storage tanks at the stations were generally placed underground and contained the station’s fuel. Globes were placed on top of the pump to advertise the brand and display the TP logo. Push pumps moved the gas from the underground tank into a cylinder at the top of the fuel dispenser where it was measured. Afterward, it flowed by gravity into the customer’s gas container or automobile tank. Not only did these bulk stations deliver to the company-owned outlets and individually-owned stations, they also distributed gasoline and oil to many of the company departments and subsidiaries and other businesses including dairies, parks, ranches, and farms.

Original lens from a TP pump globe.

These service stations helped transform the Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company into one of the most profitable businesses throughout Texas. With the significant number of service stations in the state, it helped smooth over the transformation for Texans coming into the automobile age.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Mining Tools: Implements or Heirlooms?

By Matt Stephenson

Coal mining is one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. In Thurber miners worked in coal seams that were often two to twenty feet thick. They spent the day hunched over or lying on their sides using hand tools and explosives to break coal deposits from a vertical rock face. The miner’s tools were crucial to his livelihood. They enabled him to do his job effectively and to feed his family.

Photograph of Yugoslavian-born Miner Tom Krajcar and his wife Augustine.

The image of a coal miner would not be complete without a carbide lamp attached to his hat or helmet to light the way in darkness of a coal mine. Carbide lamps, properly known as acetylene gas lamps, produce and burn acetylene gas, which is the result of calcium carbide reacting with water. In addition to their use in mines, people employed them as building lighting, lighthouse beacons, headlights on motor-cars and bicycles, and today they are still the preferred method of personal illumination for cavers and spelunkers.

"Justrite” brand Carbide Lamp used at mine No. 9 by Vaclav Jim Vecera, circa 1900.

Coal miners used specialized picks weighing approximately 1-2 pounds to remove coal deposits from the rock facings underground. They were drop-forged from iron, had sharp points on each end and were mounted on a 12-18 inch wooden handle, depending upon preference. The company required a miner to remove 4.5- 6 inch chunks of coal. He was not paid for nut or pea-sized pieces. Because miners used their picks throughout their career, surviving examples show evidence of extremely heavy use.

Drop-forged 2-pound Iron Coal Mining Pick used by Tom Krajcar.

Miners used blasting powder and a hand drill when coal deposits were too solid to mine with tools. Miners drilled tap-holes through the coal deposits to the surface of the rock facing, placed small explosive charges between the rock facing and the coal, and finally ignited the charge with a detonator or a simple fuse. As with hand-chipping, blasting required special skill and precision. As coal mining operations expanded, blasting powder eventually replaced picks.

Remnants of a “Black” Blasting Powder can made by the Equitable Powder Company in Alton, Illinois, circa 1892-1897, collected near Mine No. 2.

In 1900 a skilled miner, such as Tom Krajcar was capable of mining approximately one ton of coal per man per day. For this he earned a wage of approximately $1.57 per day, or $52.00 per month on average. Miners in Thurber purchased their own picks and carbide lamps from the Texas and Pacific Manufacturing and Mercantile (TPM&M) company store. The combined price of tools would cost a miner $1.60-$2.00, which was more than he earned per day. Miners bequeathed their tools to the next generation in order to spare the descendant the expense of purchasing tools. The tools pictured here were owned and used by Thurber miners. The fact that their late owners’ families saved them attests to the strong memories evoked by tools and other similar items.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Thurber Tiny Journals

By staff

When a coal mining company established a town, it often built a church, a school, a saloon, and a general mercantile. In some cases miners, company employees, and their families could purchase goods only at that location. In Thurber the store began as a small commissary that dealt mainly in perishable items, dry goods, and tools under management of the financially strapped Johnson Coal Mining Company in 1887.

The Texas and Pacific Coal Company (T&P) acquired the land in and around Thurber in 1888 and reopened the store under the management of their newly established subsidiary, the Texas Pacific Mercantile and Manufacturing Company (TPM&M). Eventually the store developed into a large-scale retail complex that boasted a Hardware Department, a Print Shop, a Drug Store, a Grocery Store, a Meat Market, a Dry Goods Department, and a Casket Sales Department.

In order to advertise competitive pricing and establish a loyal customer base who would shop locally, the TPM&M published The Thurber Tiny Journal. It was a small-scale newspaper that contained small tidbits of local news and sporting events, a humor section, and store promotions. The two examples of the Thurber Tiny Journal below are from 1927.

Below, read a full edition of The Thurber Tiny Journal from 1930. Please note the timely economic references: