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Thurber Booze

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Now a ghost town, Thurber existed only as long as it could produce something.

Coal mining brought the Eastland County town into being in late 1886. When the Texas and Pacific Railroad pushed across West Texas in the early 1880s, it needed fuel for its steam locomotives. A large vein near what became Thurber produced plenty of bituminous coal.

Then someone realized that all the red clay around Thurber would make good bricks. In 1897, the Texas and Pacific Coal Co. opened a brick plant on company property. Workers from Italy, the United Kingdom, Mexico and other countries produced vitrified paving bricks used on the streets of Amarillo, Austin, Tyler and many other Texas cities.
Thurber Texas brick yard
The Thurber Brick yards.
Old post card TE Archives
When wildcatters discovered oil around the nearby town of Ranger in 1917, Thurber prospered from that production. The Texas and Pacific Coal Co. added "and Oil" to its name and Thurber boomed, reaching a population of up to 10,000.

Though those three phases of Thurber's history - coal, bricks and oil -- are well known, much less known is that the town became a production center for a fourth product: illegal booze.

For that information, posterity has Ed Owen to thank. Throughout his long career as a geologist, Owen studied more than strata and fault lines. He later recorded his experiences and observations in a tidy print, chronicling everything from his family and educational background to weather.

Samuel Ellison, Jr., Joseph J. Jones and Mirva Owen (the geologist's sister-in-law) edited Owen's writings for publication by the Geology Foundation at the University of Texas at Austin. Published in 1987, "The Flavor of Ed Owen -A Geologist Looks Back" is a hard-to-find soft cover with considerable insight into early 20th century Texas.

Working for oil producer Lew H. Wentz, Owen established his headquarters in Eastland in 1927. There he soon became familiar with Thurber, where labor difficulties and the conversion of coal-fired steam engines to oil burners soon resulted in the closure of the Thurber mines. Despite the cessation of coal mining, scaled-down operations continued at the Thurber brick plant.

"The prohibition era came on at the right time," Owen wrote, "so now Thurber is the bootleggers' domain. It is the mecca for the thirsty for miles around, for these manufacturers have imagination and are also energetic retailers."

The observant geologist found the range of Thurber-made liquid products quite remarkable.

"The pride and joy of the Italians is 'grappo,' a throat-searing, soul-trying distillate of grapes and apricots," Owen continued. "Emil sells homemade beer that approaches some of the old-time brewers' quality. The specialty of the Dutchman's house is peppermint whiskey. It has a cloying, sweetish taste, but the Dutchman will calm your fear of poison by trying it on the nearest three or four of his 14 children."

Someone named George sold red wine by the gallon. "Some people can get drunk on it," Owen observed, "but most get sick too soon."

While Thurber stood as the "gourmet capital of the bootleg industry," the pickings elsewhere in West Texas were rather sparse in Owen's opinion.

A man in need of a warming brace could get "sugar whiskey" at Coleman, tequila smuggled on mule back from Mexico, home brew at "Mac's house" in Humbletown (a short-lived oil boom town near Cisco in Eastland County) and of course, "the madam of the honkey tonk at San Angelo made gin."

Even so, heavy customer demand forced Mac to sell his beer before its time, the Coleman sugar whiskey came out "too raw or burnt" and the San Angelo madam's gin was "as unsatisfying as the other articles of commerce in the honkey tonk."

Concluded Owen: "So Thurber has broad paths beaten to its humble doors."

The Thurber brick plant closed in 1930, though Texas and Pacific maintained some presence in the town.

When Congress decided in 1933 that its experiment in social engineering called prohibition had failed, Thurber went into its final decline, having no more commodities to offer.


Mike Cox

"Texas Tales"
September 7, 2006 column

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Thurber Brick by Mike Cox
Thurber, Texas' Premier Ghost Town

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