By Frank Chamberlain
The Thurber residents referred to the largest lake in the vicinity as “Big Lake”. This 150-acre lake was built in 1896 and is located about a mile southeast of the town. The purpose of the reservoir was to provide a water supply for the rapidity growing community. Previously, water was hauled in by railroad from nearby Strawn. T&P Coal Company President Col. Robert Hunter sought to eliminate this expense and increase the self-sufficiency of the town by building Thurber its own water supply [Hardman 106, Rhinehart 57,Woodard 53].
A smaller twenty-acre lake had been dug in 1881, but company officials recognized that it would not be able to adequately supply enough water to suit the town. After the larger counterpart was built five years later, this body of water became known as “Little Lake.” It is located a few hundred yards immediately south of town [Hardman 105, Woodard 52].
T&P General Manager W.K. Gordon designed and supervised the construction of “Big Lake” at a cost of over twenty one thousand dollars. This job involved fifty men, a steam shovel, four one-mule carts, and two large mule teams. The process involved cutting down trees and hauling off stones and dirt. A mile-long pipeline connected the lake to a tank on Cemetery Hill on the north side of town. At first, water was sold to residents by the barrel, but eventually it was piped straight into the houses [Hardman 106, Woodard 53].
“Big Lake” was an important recreation spot for company officials. Col. Hunter organized the R.D. Hunter Fishing and Boating Club whose members possessed the exclusive right to go boating and fish for the catfish, crappie, bass, and bream that were introduced to the lake. The rest of the town population was not permitted to engage in such activities on the premises. However, the common employees were allowed to fish, swim, and boat at “Little Lake.” In 1903, a special picnic was held for the employees at “Big Lake.” Over one thousand people attended the festivities that included games, music, free food, and complimentary beer. In actuality, the event was organized by company officials in order to divert the workers’ attention away from a planned pro-union rally rather than out of any desire to exhibit the bosses’ playground [Bielinski 180, Gentry 175, Hardman 106].
A near-disaster befell the lake in 1919 as heavy rains caused the dam to break on the northeast side of the lake. Almost 2/3 of the water spilled into the valley between the lake and Mingus, filling the countryside with an assortment of fish. Townspeople made the best of this unfortunate occurrence by gathering up large numbers of the helpless creatures. A team of nearly sixty men was able to repair the damage using motors and dump cars to haul in tremendous amounts of concrete, dirt, and rock with which to seal the break [Hardman 108].
The Thurber dairy was located about one hundred yards northeast of the lake. This industry was founded in 1896, and provided the town with meat and milk. Two large silos were located nearby in order to hold the feed for the company cattle. However, these receptacles were abandoned after a few years due primarily to the dry weather that hampered production of the silage. These silos can still be seen on the southern side of Interstate 20 east of Thurber. A tragic incident occurred during the first year of operations at the dairy. A fire broke out in the barn, killing all thirty-one cows that were chained up inside. The company recovered from the loss of its livestock, rebuilding the facilities on the same location. The dairy continued to operate until 1921 after the coal industry was shut down [Hardman 110-111].
Today, “Big Lake” is referred to as “Thurber Lake” and is home to the Thurber Lake Resort. Vacationers and locals alike are able to camp out in resort cabins, go fishing, or play golf on the grounds.
Bielinski, Leo S. Back Road To Thurber.Baird, TX: Joy Presswork Collection, 1993.
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.