Thurber is located about seventy-five miles west of Fort Worth just into Erath County as you travel west out of Palo Pinto County. It is now only a collection a few building sites and foundations of others but once Thutber was a boom town of as many as eight to ten thousand people.
Its economy was initially based on coal. According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), there are four types of coal. Ranked from the highest to the lowest in carbon content, they are anthracite, bituminous, subbituminous and lignite. Most of the deposits in Texas are lignite, but Thurber’s deposits were of the bituminous variety. Bituminous was more sought-after for electrical generation because of its high heating value. All four varieties of coal are basically formed from the same process called coalification in which buried plant matter over time is transformed into drier and denser material, coal. The coal deposits lent themselves to mining processes and the product was formerly used for heating and industrial applications. Now more efficient methods and materials are preferred for electrical generation and heating and to reduce the impact of coal combustion on the environment.
William Whipple Johnson (1843-1914) was born in Ionia, Michigan and came to Texas in the 1870s following the national economic difficulties of the 1870s. In Michigan he had been a hotelier and shopkeeper and moved to Texas to make a new start. He and his brother Harvey lived in Strawn, early on, and were involved in ranching and land sales. In the 1880s, the brothers came into possession of land that was believed to be rich in bituminous coal deposits and contracted to sell coal to the Texas and Pacific Railway. Harvey died in early 1888 after reportedly conveying his interest in the venture to his brother William.
The deposits were located in an area once known as Johnsonville but was later renamed Thurber. The mining operation was begun by Johnson in the mid to late 1880s but ceased for a time due to the influence of Knights of Labor, an early mine worker’s union, leading Johnson to shut down the mine and convey his interest to others. Mining was later resumed by new owners, the Texas and Pacific Coal Company, apparently not connected to the railroad company, but rather owned by out of state investors. One of the investors was believed to be H. K Thurber for whom the community was named.
While workers were on strike, the new owners set out to build a company town with residences, stores, churches, utilities, shops and stores along with two saloons. The labor disputes were eventually settled and workers began to flock to the new town as mining resumed. It was not long before the mines of Thurber began to produce fifteen hundred to two thousand tons of coal daily. At their peak, production is thought to have reached three thousand tons per day and sustained that level for many years.
Thurber had two more industrial booms when a brick making operation was started on the mining property using clay deposits in the area. Bricks were used for paving and construction. Thurber paving brick is known to have been used in paving Congress Avenue in Austin, Camp Bowie and the Stockyards in Fort Worth as well as portions of the Old Bankhead Highway in North Central Texas. The company was once said to have the best equipped brick manufacturing operation west of the Mississippi.
Another boom occurred when oil was discovered in nearby Ranger around 1917. By then, railroads and other industries had begun to convert to oil from coal. Another labor strike in 1920, combined with the decrease of coal use led the owners to close the mines and cease production. Eventually the use of bricks for paving also declined leading the company to discontinue those operations as well and the brick making facilities were demolished in the mid to late 1930s. Now only a lone smoke stack and a few buildings remain.
William Whipple Johnson had married Anna Frances Fatzinger (1847-1922) in 1881. It was the second marriage for each. The couple had two children, Marion and William Harvey, neither of whom lived to adulthood. William Johnson continued to pursue various interests in the mining and other industries. He died in 1914 of typhoid fever and was interred on the family ranch near Gordon, Texas in Palo Pinto County. Their ranch was called the Johnson League Ranch and once amounted to 4,200 acres.
A touching local legend is that after the children died, Mrs. Johnson was very affected by their deaths. She did not want to bury them in the earth and kept their remains in glass coffins for a while at the ranch before moving them to a makeshift wooden mausoleum. The wooden structure almost floated away in a 1908 flood but the structure and the small coffins were secured by ranch hands. Mrs. Johnson died in 1922 and left instructions for the building of a more permanent mausoleum to be constructed out of native sandstone. Once completed in 1923, the mausoleum was sealed according to Mrs. Johnson’s instructions and sits on a high point of the former Johnson ranch on private property, a few miles from Gordon. The mausoleum is still standing, at last report and resembles a small castle made of native stone. A marker bears this inscription: “Residents of Palo Pinto County from the year 1880. Pioneers in the development of our natural resources. Leaders in all matters of material and moral progress. Their works do follow them.”
It is natural to wonder what became of the namesake of the town, H. K. Thurber. Horace Kingsley Thurber was born in Delhi, New York in 1828, the son of a hatter. He married his wife Nancy McClaughry in 1854. Mr. Thurber had started working in the grocery business at the age of eighteen. He worked diligently and learned the business well enough to branch out on his own in New York City. He was very successful and at one time his business was one of the leading grocers in the world with branch houses in London and Liverpool, England, Bordeaux, France and in a number of other countries including Italy and India. He was a director of a number of banks and was president of a steamship line. When he was in his early fifties, he disposed of all his commercial interests and started investing in land and ranching businesses in the west. However he seems to have continued as guarantor for the debts of the new owners of his grocery business who were not successful at all. Their business failed in the early 1890s, leaving Thurber to back up their debts. When he died in 1899 he was still trying to do so. His death notices mention these and other occasions of his generosity. He is said to have died in Hailey, Idaho while on a business trip and that he was relatively poor as a result of paying off other men’s debts. His wife Nancy survived him about another seventeen years. Both are buried in Thurber’s home town of Delhi, New York.
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