W.K. Gordon Center offers free admission to military personnel, families

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STEPHENVILLE (June 12, 2015) — This week, Tarleton State University’s W.K. Gordon Center for Industrial History of Texas announced its participation in Blue Star Museums to show appreciation to all active duty military personnel, including National Guard and Reserve, and their families through Labor Day.

Participation provides free admission to all military personnel and their families. The effort is a collaboration among the National Endowment for the Arts, Blue Star Families, the Department of Defense and more than 2,000 museums across America.

The W.K. Gordon Center, located along Interstate 20 in the ghost town of Thurber, Texas, joins museums in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and American Samoa in taking part in the Blue Star Families program.

“We are very appreciative of our partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts and Blue Star Families and the U.S. Department of Defense,” said NEA Chairman Jane Chu. “What a great way for the arts community to say thank you to our service members and their families for the sacrifices they make on our behalf, every day.”

Opened as part of Tarleton’s research and teaching mission in 2002, the Gordon Center has brought a Texas ghost town back to life.

Thurber, located about 30 minutes from Tarleton’s campus in Stephenville, was a booming center of industry with a population of roughly 10,000 in 1918, including immigrants from Italy, Poland, Mexico, England and Ireland. By the late 1930s, the town was virtually abandoned.

To chronicle that history, the $3.2 million facility was built in a joint venture among Tarleton, the Tarleton State University Foundation, Inc., the Texas Department of Transportation, Erath County and the late Mrs. W.K. Gordon Jr. of Fort Worth.

It serves as a research facility and state-of-the-art museum located on four acres along Interstate 20 halfway between Fort Worth and Abilene. It is the state’s only such institution focusing on the general industrial history of Texas and the Southwest.

Dr. T. Lindsay Baker, an accomplished historian and author, serves as director of the center and holds Tarleton’s first endowed chair, funded by a private gift from Mrs. Gordon.

“The W.K. Gordon Center presents a wonderful opportunity for members of the general public and for scholars to learn more about the industrial heritage of Thurber and the state of Texas,” Baker said. “The focus of our permanent exhibits is the development of the coal, brick and petroleum industries in the Thurber area. Our special collections library and research area permit detailed examinations of life in Thurber and in other areas of industrial development in Texas and the Southwest.”

Ghost Town is Rich in History
The 10,000-square-foot museum takes visitors through the unique history of Thurber, which was set in motion in 1886, when coal mining began at the site. The Texas and Pacific Coal Company purchased the land in 1888, and soon Thurber was the largest coal mining community in Texas, producing nearly $11 million in coal by 1900. At its peak, Thurber was mining nearly 3,000 tons of bituminous coal for steam locomotives per day.

After the Texas and Pacific Company purchased the Thurber area, representatives appointed a civil engineer from Virginia named William Knox Gordon, for whom the museum is named, as manager.

After the discovery that the area’s abundant shale hills were ideal for producing brick, the Green & Hunter Brick Company was opened in 1897. It soon became the best-equipped brick plant west of the Mississippi River, producing bricks used across the country, including Congress Avenue in Austin and the Fort Worth Stockyards. It was formally acquired by the Texas and Pacific Coal Company in 1901.

Prosperity continued into the 1900s. Thurber claimed to be the largest city between Fort Worth and El Paso and was one of the first totally electrified cities in the United States, with approximately 1,000 homes, several churches, stores and even an opera house.

Oil boom hastens town’s demise
In 1917, in what would become a fatal blow for the town, the McCleskey No.1 oil well was discovered in nearby Ranger. The well, which produced almost 4 million barrels of petroleum at its peak, ushered in the West Texas oil boom.

As railroads replaced coal with oil for their steam locomotives, the market declined for the bituminous coal mined in Thurber. Increased petroleum production, in turn, also led to expanded use of oil-based artificial asphalt as a paving material, rather than brick. The company changed its name to Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company and by 1933, had moved its national headquarters to Fort Worth.

The last shaft in the Thurber coal mines was closed in 1927, followed by the brick plant in 1931. Houses and commercial structures were sold and moved, and the brick plant and its smokestacks were demolished. Today a lone smokestack that once belonged to the electric plant stands alongside I-20 next to what is now the Smokestack Restaurant, located in Thurber’s old mercantile store.

Between fire destruction and relocations, area businesses closed permanently, remaining Thurber schools shut down and students began attending classes in nearby Strawn. Everyday life, as once known in Thurber, disappeared completely by 1937.

“It takes some imagination to picture the thriving town that once occupied this spot,” Baker said. “However, we hope that through our educational outreach programs, public events and special exhibits, visitors to the center will leave with a better understanding of the role of Thurber in Texas history.”

Today, poignant historical photographs, lifelike figures and the sights and sounds of life in the turn-of-the-century town, including an Italian bread oven and a brief documentary about life in Thurber, bring the “ghost” town’s history to the modern day audience.

The Gordon Center is located at Exit 367 (Thurber/Mingus) on I-20, and is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.

For more information about the center, visit www.tarleton.edu/gordoncenter or call 254-968-1886. To learn more about the Blue Star Families program, see http://arts.gov/national/blue-star-museums.

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