Texas Forts Trail Region

Participant in the Texas Historical Commission's
Texas Heritage Trails Program

A Union Story, One Hundred Percent

The story of Thurber, once a thriving industrial community based on coal mining but today marginalized to “ghost town” status, makes an ideal lesson in early 20th century labor relations and, in fact, the way perceptions influence historical documentation. The discovery of coal deposits in the surrounding hills of the future Thurber during the late 1800s transformed this patch of the Forts Trail Region into a company town, dominated by entrepreneur William Whipple Johnson. Johnson’s control was followed shortly by the Texas and Pacific Coal Company who purchased Johnson’s interests in the 1880s.  During the first two decades of the 20th century Thurber served as the primary coal mining town in Texas. Its population, comprised primarily of miners, represented more than a dozen different cultures including Italian, Mexican, Polish, Russian, German, and African American.

The discordance of foreign languages and customs provided the Company’s management an opportunity to create a controlled environment, a typical tactic in early 20th century industrialization, and one that inspired the growth of unions. Low wages, company-owned resources like stores and housing, and a disruptive reaction, including threats and physical intimidation, to any organized worker resistance characterized the owner/worker paradigm at the turn of the century. In Thurber, it also signaled the arrival of the United Mine Workers union. Thurber employees joined en masse, resulting in new labor-management relations that provided mine workers a voice in their employment terms and lives.

But the harmony wouldn’t last. By 1921, oil began to replace coal as a primary fuel source for the railroads, thus cutting into profits from the Thurber coal mines. The Texas and Pacific Coal Company, now calling itself the Texas and Pacific Coal and Oil Company, redirected its resources to petroleum operations and decided to phase out its stake in coal, starting with a thirty-three percent pay reduction for Thurber coal miners. The union fought back. The company responded, refusing to honor existing labor contracts and closing the mines, then hiring scab workers to complete the work, giving notice to now-unemployed miners in company houses that, unless payments for rent and utilities are made, eviction was in order. Although some historians interpret these events as union strikes, others insist that it was clearly a lockout, defined as “the refusal of an employer to allow his employees to come into work unless they agree to his terms.” Regardless, the union mining town met its demise, a victim of the changing needs and profitability of natural resources and the forces in their control. The story is told through exhibits and the town site at the W. K. Gordon Center for Industrial History of Texas managed by Tarleton State University.

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