Yet in a lifetime of wandering backroads, I have been drawn to them; places with fascinating histories and lyrical names like Terlingua and Salt Flat, Glory, Thalia and Chalk Mountain. And Thurber.
In many cases they are no longer even dots on the map, their residents gone, victims of economic hard times, plagues, tornadoes, fires and floods. Or, in the case of Thurber, Texas, the closing of the mines.
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Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when Thurber’s coal mines were fueling locomotives and its brick production provided streets for major cities throughout the Southwest, its population climbed as high as 10,000, making it the largest city between Fort Worth and El Paso. In its glory days, Thurber was an ethnic melting pot, where homegrown workers labored alongside immigrants who arrived from as many as 20 foreign countries to chase the American dream.
Today, however, as travelers speed by on Interstate 20, 75 miles west of Fort Worth, they glimpse only an old landmark smokestack that stubbornly stands sentry. It and a cemetery with more than 1,000 graves remain as the most visible proof of what once was.
It was a company town, owned lock, stock and mine shafts by the Texas & Pacific Coal Company. It had schools taught by no fewer than 17 teachers, churches for many denominations, the only library in the county, a 650-seat opera house, a general store, a fire station, a post office, a hotel and row upon row of small frame houses where its workers and their families resided. Folks worked — and played — hard. When they weren’t digging in the mines, they gathered around the town bandstand for concerts, looked forward to the annual summer weekend when a touring circus came to town, swam and fished in the man-made Big Lake nearby. Their semipro baseball team drew large crowds to their games — and won the 1896 Texas State Championship. Workers frequently enjoyed a few cool ones at the local Snake Saloon once the workday ended.
They deserved it, considering that they were producing 3,000 tons of bituminous coal and 80,000 bricks per day.
Historians insist that it was the first community in the nation to be totally unionized, every working resident a dues-paying member of a craft union.
Born in 1886, Thurber officially died in 1936. The arrival of the oil boom killed it. Suddenly it was more efficient to fuel trains with oil rather than with coal. Oil-based asphalt replaced brick for road constructions. The mines closed, and Thurber’s residents scattered in search of new work. Most of the town was razed. The frame houses were sold for $40 each to anyone willing to haul them away.
And, yes, there are the ghost stories. Like the oft-told tale of a weeping woman, clad in white, who wanders nearby Cemetery Hill, said to still be mourning the drowning death of her son almost a century ago. Or a sad-faced little girl wearing a summer dress and carrying a parasol, who is said to have mysteriously appeared in the background of photographs taken by long-ago residents.
One of the few buildings that remains is the old red-brick general store. Today it is the Smokestack Restaurant, a home-cooking way-stop that is owned and operated by Andrea Bennett, who lives nearby in a 100-year-old house that was once the home of the company doctor. Since the 2000 death of her husband, Randy, a descendant of Texas Pacific Oil Co. president Carroll Bennett, she and one of her three children are the only full-time Thurber residents.
“People who stop love to look at the old pictures we have on the restaurant walls, showing the town as it once was,” Bennett says. “And they always ask questions.” She likes that. It keeps the memories alive.