In the mid-1880s, William Whipple Johnson and his brother Harvey, Michigan-born land, lumber and livestock speculators, discovered deposits of bituminous coal in extreme northwestern Erath County east of Ranger. Their discovery completely transformed that part of West Central Texas from a rural backwater into the leading coal-producing area of the state by the end of the century.
The Johnsons proposed to exploit their discovery themselves: They bought several thousand acres and contracted with the Texas & Pacific Railway Company to supply coal for its locomotives.
Shaft No. 1 was opened in the fall of 1886. Employees from the mines at nearby Coalville, which had been shut down in a labor dispute, moved en masse to the new mines. Unfortunately, the Knights of Labor union moved with them. By 1886, mining was underway, but union agitation caused a repeat of the Coalville experience. Johnson's mines closed in 1888 when the company could not meet its payroll obligations.
Eastern investors, headed by Col. Robert Dickey Hunter, bought the mines from Johnson late that year and formed the Texas & Pacific Coal Company. They renegotiated the contract with the T&P Railway. With the strike still on, the new owners fenced part of the property and began building a town, which they named Thurber for New York grocer and T&P investor H. K. Thurber. They imported miners from mining regions throughout the United States.
A Company Town
By 1900, the town had over 200 houses, more than 30 stores and shops, a waterworks, churches, schools, offices, stables, an opera house seating more than 650, a dairy, a meat market, a 200-room hotel and an ice plant. The Thurber electric plant furnished power 24 hours a day, making Thurber one of the first towns in the state to have full electric service.
The opera house was the first building in Texas used for public entertainment to have ceiling fans. The company's ice plant had the largest storage vault in the state; frozen meat, prepared to the different national tastes of Thurber's ethnically varied citizens, was kept there.
Bricks from the Thurber brick works were used in buildings, streets and other heavy construction throughout the Southwest, including the Galveston seawall and Congress Avenue in Austin. Thurber was virtually self-sufficient: Machine shops kept the machinery running, painters and carpenters maintained buildings and houses, and tinsmiths, blacksmiths and plumbers kept the city water system operating.
William Knox Gordon, a young railroad engineer from Virginia who had come to Texas in 1888 to make a survey for the railroad between Thurber and Dublin, accepted the post of mining engineer for the coal company in June 1889. He advanced quickly to the post of general manager of the coal company and held that position for almost 20 years.
Thurber was completely a company town. Only company employees and their families, schoolteachers and members of the clergy could live there. Since the company owned everything in town, there were no taxes. There was no city government, and T&P paid for law enforcement, furnished the school building and supplemented state and county funds for teachers and school operating costs.
Thurber -- an International Town
Thurber was one of the most ethnically diverse towns in West Central Texas, with nearly 20 different nationalities or racial groups represented, including Italian, Polish, English, German, Austrian, Irish, Chinese and black. By 1910, 500 Italian and more than 100 Polish coal miners -- some from the old countries, others from the Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois and Ohio coal fields -- worked there at the height of the coal boom.
Both Poles and Italians lived on Hill Number 3. The railroad tracks to the mines bisected the hill, with the Poles living on the south side, Italians on the north. The Italians even segregated themselves within their own community according to their place of origin in Italy. The Italians were said to be the best musicians in Thurber, and touring opera companies appreciated the enthusiastic Italian audiences.
With the adoption of Prohibition in 1919, the Italians in Thurber imported grapes from California to make wine. Since it was illegal even to teach someone how to produce alcoholic beverages and many neophyte wine-makers needed instructions, the labels on the bricks of dried grapes circumvented the law by giving detailed instructions on how not to produce wine: They warned the user that he would be violating the law if he put the grapes in so many gallons of water, added so many pounds of sugar and kept the concoction at a specified temperature for so many days. For those who preferred their liquor hard, clandestine stills turned out corn whiskey, known locally as "white mule."
Mining the Coal
All the mining was underground, through 15 different shafts. By 1900, there were more than 800 men producing between 1,500 and 2,000 tons of coal a day. Two work trains transported miners each day to the shafts.
Burros pulled the coal cars in the mines at first, but by 1910, electric motors replaced the animals. Electric lights strung throughout the long underground passageways supplemented the carbide lamps attached to the miners helmets.
Statewide, coal production reached 804,798 tons in 1901, growing to 1,247,988 tons by 1913. At the close of the 19th century, the value of the state's coal output exceeded the combined value of all other mineral products.
Life in Thurber
As the mines prospered, Thurber grew, reaching a population of about 4,000 in 1910. And as Thurber thrived, the farming community for 50 or 60 miles around also benefited. Although the T&P Coal Company discouraged free-lance produce dealers, probably because the company owned the grocery stores in town and the free-lancers cut into their profits, local farmers hauled in produce and sold it to the residents of Thurber, Mingus and other neighboring towns. The Thurber area was a ready market for beef, both fresh and on the hoof; fruits; melons; vegetables; hay; corn; oats; and homemade lard and sausage. The only product the farmers could not sell around Thurber was cotton, and for several years just after the turn of the century, a company gin even processed that for the farmers. In turn, the farmers bought their necessities at the company stores: clothing, dry goods, groceries and an occasional bottle of liquor.
Miners also needed entertainment. Several independent saloons operated profitably in the area surrounding Thurber and Mingus. One of the owners of the coal company, seeking to cash in on liquor-sale profits, built several company-owned bars in Thurber itself. When Erath County voted dry in 1904, the company built a big saloon just across the county line in Palo Pinto County. Called "The Snake," it boasted what some said was the longest horseshoe-shaped bar in the world, manned at peak hours by as many as 25 bartenders. Beer sales averaged seven carloads a week. The Snake closed with the adoption of Prohibition and was never reopened.
After years of labor agitation, the United Mine Workers organized Thurber's miners in 1903, and by 1907, the community was one of the first 100 percent union towns in the United States. UMW president John L. Lewis was an occasional visitor.
The Demise of Thurber
After 1910, the T&P Railway began converting its locomotives to run on oil rather than coal, and the coal chutes along the tracks were replaced with tanks holding several thousand barrels of oil. The Texas & Pacific Coal Company became the Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company and turned its attention more to oil production after a 1915 oil find near Thurber. The mines operated on a reduced scale until 1921, and Thurber died a lingering death. The site is marked today by the old electric plant smokestack and a couple of old administration buildings on the north side of Interstate 20 about 16 miles east of Ranger.
— written by Mary G. Ramos, editor emerita, for the Texas Almanac 1990-1991.