The Snake Saloon
By Frank Chamberlain
The Snake Saloon was one of the busiest and most profitable enterprises in Thurber. It was the favorite place of congregation for the hordes of miners employed by the Texas & Pacific Coal Company. It was common for two to three hundred workers to gather here after the mines had closed for the day. Given such patronage, this establishment was reputed to have been the largest and busiest saloon between Fort Worth and El Paso [Hardman 95, Rhinehart 65].
A saloon had already existed in town prior to the Company taking possession of the mines and the rest of the town property in 1888. Col. R.D. Hunter, president of T&P Coal, had a bit of trouble in gaining possession of this piece of property. Hunter became involved in a lengthy and acrimonious legal struggle for ownership rights that eventually led to a gang fight between Hunter’s friends and associates of the previous leaseholder, Thomas Lawson. During this altercation, Hunter actually broke a spittoon over Lawson’s head and attempted to hit him with a large rock. This episode apparently was not enough to convince Lawson to relinquish the property rights. Next, Hunter attempted to sway Lawson by closing the roads in front of the saloon and cutting miner’s wages for patronizing Lawson’s saloon. Eventually, the Texas Supreme Court ended the affair by ruling in favor of Hunter, despite his questionable tools of negotiation. With this last business now under Company control, a larger two story brick building was constructed and reopened and renamed “The Snake.” The bar was located on the bottom floor while the upper level was used for lodging [Gentry 71, Hardman 95, Rhinehart 65].
In 1907, local commissioners voted to make Erath County “dry” which prohibited the sale of alcohol within the county. Rather than deprive their employees of a favorite form of relaxation, the Company moved the tavern a short distance northward into “wet” Palo Pinto County. The new saloon, also named “The Snake”, was one hundred twenty feet long and forty feet wide. It housed a large horseshoe bar that could accommodate over a hundred men at a time. The patrons were forced to stand at this while drinking because there were no chairs or tables provided. According to Company officials, more men could be served at the bar than at tables. This theory was often put to the test as customers often had to wait fifteen to twenty minutes for service. Teams of four to ten bartenders did the job of serving the drinks. Occasionally, the saloon was so busy that nearly twenty-five bartenders were needed. Once a customer received his order, he could take his beverage outside and drink in one of several sheds built on the saloon grounds. Groups of men from multiple nationalities gathered in these huts to fraternize, unwind, and wash the coal dust from their throats [Hardman 95-96, Spratt 14].
The Snake was intended for alcoholic consumption only. The Company forbade gambling on the premises, so no gaming tables were found inside. There was also no dance floor located within the building. This omission was probably due to the fact that women were not allowed inside the saloon (which ostensibly removed the reason for a man wanting to dance.) This ban included female entertainment of any kind, such as dancers or performers. Whether or not the men resented being denied these luxuries often associated with turn-of-the-century taverns is unknown [Hardman 96, Rhinehart 65].
If the Company banned those features from the saloon in the hopes of selling more alcohol, then such a plan seemed to work marvelously. The Snake made a profit of 100 to 125 % profit during the first six months of operation and continued to sale an average of 150 barrels of beer a month. The men could order drinks ranging in size from a pint (the smallest) to a gallon. Prices ranged from five to twenty-five cents. In addition, a sixteen-gallon keg could be purchased for four dollars. Wine and liquor were not high demand because those individuals tended to brew their own recipes at home [Hardman 97, Rhinehart 65, Spratt 14-15].
As might be expected, the Snake was often home to drunkenness and frequent fisticuffs (two activities that tend to become intertwined.) Law enforcement was often called upon to break up a fight or prevent illegal gambling inside. Thus, the saloon developed a reputation for raucousness. However, even though the Company sold liquor to the men, it forbade them from showing up to work while intoxicated. Any inebriated miner who was unable to perform his duties would be fired. The Company also banned the sale of alcohol on Sundays unless a person had a physician’s order. (This author wonders what afflictions might be remedied by alcohol treatment!)[Hardman 96-97, Rhinehart 65]
The Snake closed in 1920 due to the passage of the Volstead Act that ushered in the era of Prohibition. The following year, the coalmines were closed and Thurber was gradually closed down. Many ex-miners who were without work and alcohol turned to bootlegging. This underground industry prospered in the region until the end of Prohibition in 1933. However, the Snake was never reopened [Hardman 98, Spratt 15].
Gentry, Mary Jane. “Thurber: The Life And Death Of A Texas Town”. Unpublished M.A. thesis. The University of Texas, 1946.
Hardman, Weldon B. Fire In A Hole, Gordon, TX: Thurber Historical Association, 1975.
Rhinehart, Marilyn D. A Way of Work and a Way of Life. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1992.
Spratt, John S. Thurber Texas . Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1986.