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The General Store and Other Thurber Businesses

By Frank Chamberlain 

The Thurber General Store (also known as the Dry Goods Store) was symbolic of the self-sufficiency of the town and of the control the Texas & Pacific Company held over its employees. The company owned and sold every item that was sold in Thurber. It was the only source of daily supplies for the workers. The company went to great lengths to insure that this was the only place available for daily shopping.

T&P Coal Company officials created the Texas Pacific Mercantile and Manufacturing Company in 1894. This subsidy of the main business was established to manage the commercial and merchandizing enterprises in the town, such as the stores and saloon. With all these services now under company control, T&P now could accurately claim that it offered “services from cradle to grave.” This meant that citizens were born in a company hospital, ate food sold by the company, wore clothes from the company store, attended school and church in company-owned buildings, resided in company housing, and were even buried in company-sold caskets for interment in the company cemetery [Hardman 89-90].

Although company officials denied explicitly forcing their employees to buy exclusively from the TPM&M, measures were certainly taken to ensure that it would be extremely difficult to trade with outside sources. A six-foot barbed wire fence was erected in 1888 and was complete with locked gates and armed guards. The primary reason for this enclosing the town was to keep out union organizers and peddlers. However, the fence was equally effective in preventing Thurber citizens to shop outside of town. This enclosure was removed in 1903, as the result of a miner’s strike and because of a legal suit that claimed the fence prevented many from being able to reach the post office. Col. Robert Hunter claimed that while purchasing exclusively from the company stores was not compulsory, such patronage was certainly expected. However, it was well known that the T&P boss wielded tremendous power, and could make life very difficult for anyone who he deemed undesirable. (For an example of this ruthlessness toward outside competition, read the article entitled “The Snake Saloon” in this collection.) [Bielinski 185, Hardman 90, Rhinehart 45-46].

The store offered many competitive advantages over independently owned businesses. The company allowed the employees to buy on credit via a “check system.” These books of checks could be procured in between paydays and used as cash at the company saloon and stores. The cash equivalent was taken from the employee’s salary on payday. Once a person became involved in trading of this kind, it was often very difficult to balance their debts and expenditures. Thus, they were forced to continue making purchases based on credit. Conveniently, the company-owned stores were the only shops that redeemed these checks [Gentry 112, Rhinehart 46].

Another example of the hegemony that the Company held over the local economy was the beef cattle industry that provided most of the meat consumed by the townspeople. The cattle were kept on the P.O. Ranch to the west, processed in the slaughterhouse north of town, and sold at the meat market on town square [Hardman 110, Woodard 48-49].

Company officials also felt the need to control the presses within the community. The Texas Mining and Trade Journal and the Texas Miner newspapers were printed and distributed within the town. This enabled company officials to send messages to the employees and customers and to provide the latest news to the community. When the newspaper was discontinued, the printing plant continued to serve as the main printing office for the T&P Company. It was closed when the main offices were moved to Fort Worth in 1934 [Hardman 112-113].

The dry goods store and other businesses were simply more convenient to shop at than those outside of company control. Most were located on the square in downtown Thurber, whereas shopping elsewhere meant having to travel a few miles. Also, the Thurber stores offered basically every item needed for day-to-day-life in the community. Any item that was not in stock could be easily custom ordered. These businesses also employed bilingual clerks to serve the various ethnic patrons. This undoubtedly made shopping in Thurber more convenient than trading with stores that did not offer this service. All of these factors combined to make the residents virtually dependent upon the company stores for their daily conveniences [Hardman 91, Rhinehart 46].

The general store is one of the only buildings still standing in Thurber. This brick building is now home to the Smokestack Restaurant. This eatery serves excellent food and displays an array of nostalgic pictures and artifacts from the history of Thurber.

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.

Woodard, Don. Black Diamonds! Black Gold! . Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press, 1998.