By Bartee Haile
(Hard as it may be to believe, this is my 2,000th column! My sincere thanks to the newspapers and, most of all, the readers who made it possible. – BH.)
The post office at Thurber closed permanently on Nov. 30, 1936, leaving the once thriving mining town with hardly a pulse and neighboring Mingus on the critical list.
Separated by two miles and the Erath-Palo Pinto county line, the two shared a mutual prosperity in the boom times of the coal-burning locomotive. The future was bright for the mining mecca and the rail center until the dawn of the oil age pulled the rug out from under them both.
Mingus was a quiet, off-the-beaten-track village in 1886, when the coal digging operation began at the nameless camp just over the hill. After the local owners failed to make payroll two years later, angry miners turned in their picks and shovels forcing the paralyzed enterprise to fold.
The shafts were reopened in a matter of months by the Texas and Pacific Coal Company, a subsidiary of the railroad by the same name. Texas Rangers were assigned the task of keeping the lid on the labor powder keg, and idle miners went back to work.
The makeshift camp became Thurber, a company town from head to toe, where every square foot of land and every building belonged to the Texas and Pacific. All able-bodied individuals including the sheriff, doctors and schoolteachers worked for the T&P.
Thurber was never incorporated because the company brass, who deliberately excluded employees from the decision-making process, scorned city government as an unnecessary nuisance. Since the Texas and Pacific picked up the tab for public education, there was no need for a school board. Besides, in the absence of private real estate, no one paid a cent in property tax.
In addition to free schooling for their children, the inhabitants of Thurber enjoyed other unusual benefits. At a time when very few Texans had more than part-time access to the wonders of electricity, Thurber had full power around the clock. In addition, the company’s opera house was the first public structure in the Lone Star State to feature ceiling fans.
The T&P ran a tight ship, as the Knights of Labor, forerunner of the American Federation of Labor, soon discovered. Clamping down on union agitation by the Knights in the late 1880s, the company ringed the town with barbed wire and stationed armed guards at every entrance. Uninvited visitors were turned away at gunpoint.
Despite these stringent precautions, organizers from the United Mine Workers eventually slipped into Thurber. UMW strikers brought the company to its knees in 1903 and compelled the stunned management to capitulate. The Texas and Pacific’s private domain was transformed into the very first union town in the world.
This dramatic change was taken in stride at Mingus, where all that mattered was the uninterrupted flow of coal. Thurber, with an exotic mixture of 20 nationalities, extracted the black fuel, and predominantly Anglo-Saxon Mingus shipped a hundred carloads a day down the line.
The union coup also made little difference at the Snake Saloon, famed for the largest horseshoe bar between Fort Worth and El Paso. Each afternoon a combat-ready crew of 25 bartenders quenched the thirst of the dust-caked miners selling seven freight cars of beer per week.
Thurber and Mingus enjoyed the good life during the First World War, as their combined population surpassed 15,000. Who could have guessed that the oil bonanza 20 miles away at Ranger would bring it all to a screeching halt?
By 1920 the Texas and Pacific Railroad had converted to the more economical oil-powered locomotive. As a result, coal production at Thurber was drastically reduced, and the company tore up the contract with the UMW. The union retaliated with a walkout, and the T&P sealed the mines on May 1, 1921.
With their greatest concentration of dues-paying members in the Thurber local, the United Mine Workers provided unprecedented support. The national office rushed hundreds of surplus army tents to the strike site to shelter families evicted from their company homes and contributed $65,000 a month in relief over the next two years.
Ignoring the fact that they too were expendable, the shop workers in the Mingus rail yard went on strike in July 1922. As the months dragged by, discouraged miners and railroad men gradually gave up on their lost causes. What started as a trickle mushroomed into a mass exodus as the two towns slid together into oblivion.
The final nail in the Thurber coffin came in 1933, when the Texas and Pacific headquarters moved to Fort Worth. Not only was the town abandoned, but buildings were razed or carted away in pieces and the gas and water mains were ripped out of the ground.
In 2017 Thurber reported 48 inhabitants, and Mingus was a sleepy hamlet of 248. Casualties of the march of progress, the unlucky neighbors are hanging on for dear life.
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