Though it is a ghost town today, Thurber once had a population of perhaps as many as 8,000 to 10,000. At that time (1918–20) it was the principal bituminous-coal-mining town in Texas. The site of the town is seventy-five miles west of Fort Worth in the northwest corner of Erath County. Mining operations were begun there in December 1886 by William Whipple Johnson and Harvey Johnson. Isolation forced the operators to recruit miners from other states and from overseas; large numbers of workers came from Italy, Poland, the United States, Britain, and Ireland, with smaller numbers from Mexico, Germany, France, Belgium, Austria, Sweden, and Russia. Black miners from Indiana worked in the mines during the labor troubles of the 1880s. The force of predominantly foreign workers, many of whom spoke little or no English, enabled the company to maintain a repressive environment for many years. Following inability to meet a payroll and a resulting strike by miners, the Johnsons sold out in the fall of 1888 to founders of the Texas and Pacific Coal Company, including Robert Dickey Hunter, who became president of the new company, and H. K. Thurber of New York, for whom the town was named.
Colonel Hunter chose to deal with the dissident miners, who were affiliated with the Knights of Labor, with an iron hand. The new company fenced a portion of its property and within the enclosure constructed a complete town and mining complex, including schools, churches, saloons, stores, houses, an opera house seating over 650, a 200-room hotel, an ice and electric plant, and the only library in the county. Eventually the strike ended, and the miners and their families moved into the new town. In addition to the mines, the company operated commissary stores. As in the typical company town, low pay, drawn once a month, forced employees to utilize a check system between pay periods, whereby the customer drew scrip, reportedly discounted at 20 percent, for use at the company's commissary stores. In 1897 a second industry came to the town, a large brick plant; Hunter was also a partner in this operation, which, although it was separate from the mining company's holdings, used clay found on company property. A stockade, armed guards, and a barbed wire fence, which restricted labor organizers, peddlers, and other unauthorized personnel, regulated access to the town.
Despite the retirement of Colonel Hunter in 1899, Thurber remained a company-dominated community. William Knox Gordon, the new manager of the Thurber properties, at first continued the established policy of suppression and antiunionism. Continuation of such activities resulted in a concentrated effort by the United Mine Workers to unionize the Thurber miners. Following the induction in September 1903 of more than 1,600 members into the Thurber local of the UMW and the organization of locals of carpenters, brick makers, clerks, meat cutters, and bartenders, the company opened negotiations with the workers and, on September 27, 1903, reached an agreement resulting in harmonious labor-management relations. Thurber gained recognition as the only 100 percent closed-shop city in the nation. The victory at Thurber indicated what unions might accomplish with effective leadership and more congenial opponents than employers like Colonel Hunter, even when confronted with problems as difficult as organizing diverse ethnic groups. Despite occasional strikes, basic labor-management harmony prevailed, and Thurber remained a union stronghold until the demise of mining operations in the 1920s, after railroad locomotives began to burn oil rather than coal. Gordon's discovery of the nearby Ranger oilfield in 1917 stimulated this conversion, and the change of the company name to Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company in April 1918 signified shifting company interest toward oil production, which yielded large profits from 1917 to 1920. The conversion to oil-burning locomotives led to Thurber's demise; declining use of coal and a resulting wage cut led to labor unrest lasting through much of the 1920s and to a strike in 1926 and 1927. Many miners accepted UMW assistance and moved to mining areas in other states. Numerous Italians returned to Italy rather than work in nonunion mines, and in 1926 the union chartered two railroad cars to return to their homeland 162 Mexicans, who likewise refused to scab. By the end of 1927 no union miners remained in the state. The company maintained operation of the brick plant until 1930, a general office until 1933, and commissary stores until 1935. By the late 1930s Thurber had become a virtual ghost town. The population was listed as eight in 2000. See also COAL AND LIGNITE MINING; LABOR ORGANIZATIONS; UNION REGULATION.