Housing at Thurber
By Frank Chamberlain
The early houses at Thurber were constructed in a seemingly disorganized manner, with little emphasis placed on such modern concepts as urban planning or zoning regulations. These dwellings were frequently built on whatever level piece of ground was accessible at the time. With the front door of one house often facing the back door of the next, these neighborhoods were rarely aesthetically pleasing (Hardman 102, Rhinehart 41-42).
If the physical layout of the Thurber neighborhoods left much to be desired, the houses themselves did even less to improve upon the physical appearance of the neighborhoods. The first residences were especially rudimentary in their design. These “shotgun” houses basically offered four walls and a ceiling for the inhabitants. The term “shotgun” was applied to houses of this type of layout because a shot fired through the front door would exit the back door. The house was partitioned into individual rooms by lumber walls. One or two windows and the door provided the light and ventilation for the household. As might be expected, coal-burning stoves were used as heaters. As the years passed, many homes began to feature a front porch. A “wash house” was frequently built at the rear of the main dwelling. Inside, a small coal-heated stove was used to heat water for washing and bathing. Outhouses were another essential feature of these residences because indoor plumbing was not commonly available. Even in the final years of the community, the majority of families lived without this modern convenience (Woodard 35, Hardman 100-102).
These houses were uniformly painted in either red or green and were generally coated with either coal or clay dust due to the industries in the town. Thus, the outer appearances of these dwellings must have been less than appealing to the eye. The inside walls were not painted or coated by the company. The individual residents had to do the wallpapering jobs themselves. In addition, the barren appearance of these neighborhoods was enhanced by a general lack of trees or shrubbery that might have improved the appearance of the landscape. The yards were generally devoid of vegetation as well. Therefore, families spent a substantial amount of time sweeping away excess clods, rocks, or other objects that could cause discomfort when stepped on (Woodard 36, Hardman 101, Rhinehart 42).
Families were allowed to improve upon their yards and residences by building fences. However, this luxury had to be financed by the individual and was not automatically provided by the company. If the family wanted to keep livestock, they needed to build an additional barn or shed inside this enclosure. Many families also added gardens, outdoor ovens, or outdoor arbors which were used for socializing and drinking with friends. It was also common for families to plant flowers in flowerbeds inside their yards in order to add a small degree of beauty to the otherwise barren area (Hardman 102, Rhinehart 43).
Not all of the houses in Thurber were as drab as those inhabited by the miners. The company executives lived in comparatively high-class dwellings on Church and Marston Streets, located on the south end of the town square. These houses were of frame construction with plastered interiors that were a stark contrast to the bare pine walls found in the homes of the miners. In addition, these homes were equipped with indoor plumbing and bathing facilities. Later, another “society” section of town was opened on New York Hill. Here, the houses were frequently two-story and were serviced by a brick sidewalk that led down the hill and into town. The houses in these two areas were recognizable by their gray or white paintjobs and matching picket fences (Hardman 103).
Most of the miners in Thurber tended to form neighborhoods along ethnic lines. Many Italians (the largest immigrant group in Thurber) lived on the appropriately nicknamed “Italian Hill.” The Polish side of this hill was nicknamed with similar imagination, as it was called “Polander Hill.” Nearby “Stump Hill” was home to a large Irish population. Locals forsook the traditional naming system in this case because the bottom of “Stump Hill” was covered with many tree stumps. Not every ethnic group flocked to the hills that surrounded Thurber. The English, Welsh, and American-born citizens frequently lived on Park Row, located on the northeast side of town. This location was thought of as a better place to live because most of the mines were found on the west end of town. The black population lived on the far eastern side of town. They were forced to live in segregated housing, attend separate schools and religious services. However, they were still allowed to shop in the company stores and drink in the saloon. Apparently, the rules of segregation did not extend to moneymaking establishments [Hardman 128-129, Rhinehart 44-45].
Although the modern reader might easily believe that the miners were forced to live in subhuman dwellings, it is important to remember that these homes were comparable to those in most towns of comparable size and economic strength. The company upgraded the employee houses through the years to match the standard of living in similar communities. Also, the tendency of the various ethnic groups to band live together is not necessarily a sign of native hostility but rather a natural human tendency to seek out others similar to themselves when placed into an unfamiliar environment. Still, when looking at the differences between the homes of the employees and employers, it is easy to detect a bit of social stratification within the town (Hardman 101-102.)
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.
Woodard, Don. Back Gold! The Saga of Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company, Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press, 1998.