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Historic Texas Graveyard: Thurber Cemetery 

Historic in a Texas Ghost Town: Thurber Cemetery

The following is an adapted excerpt from Unexpected Texas, my quirky travel guide to offbeat and overlooked day trips near Dallas and Fort Worth. I also feature Thurber Cemetery in my book of historic cemetery tales called 6 Feet Under Texas. Part of what makes it such an interesting place to explore is the unique history of the area, so here’s a brief overview:

Thurber Cemetery sign (photo by Tui Snider)
Thurber Cemetery sign (photo by Tui Snider)

More than a Smokestack

These days, Thurber’s 128-foot brick smokestack is the only thing most people notice as they whiz through this ghost town on their way to Abilene. It’s all that remains of the power plant which, in 1895, made Thurber, Texas one of the very first electrified cities in the USA.

Thurber’s history is fascinating. In the early 1900s its population neared 10,000, making it the largest city between Fort Worth and El Paso. While the population has currently dwindled to five, don’t let that fool you; this tiny burg offers a surprising amount of things to see, do, and even eat.

You can find Thurber bricks all over Texas! (photo by Tui Snider)
You can find Thurber bricks all over Texas! (photo by Tui Snider)

Thurber Bricks and Coal Mines

Thurber’s heyday ran from the late 1880’s through the mid-1930’s when it was a major bituminous coal producer. Thurber also had the most prolific vitrified paving brick plant west of the Mississippi thanks to high quality local clay deposits.

So keep an eye out for Thurber bricks. I see them all over Texas! In fact, these are the same red bricks you see in the Fort Worth Stockyards, the Galveston sea wall, Congress Avenue in Austin, Camp Bowie, and throughout many towns where the main roads are still paved with brick.

Many graves in Thurber Cemetery feature wooden crosses. (photo by Tui Snider)
Many graves in Thurber Cemetery feature wooden crosses. (photo by Tui Snider)

From Company Town to Ghost Town

At one time, Thurber was a company town, just like the one Tennessee Ernie Ford sang about in his famous tune “Sixteen Tons.” In Thurber, you truly could “owe your soul to the company store” if you weren’t careful.

Texas and Pacific Coal Company is “the company” I’m referring to; it owned and operated everything in Thurber from the housing, restaurants, and stores, to the churches, opera house, and cemetery. (Yes, we’ll get to the cemetery eventually!) The company even printed its own scrip, paper money that could be spent in the town of Thurber, and nowhere else!

Headstone inscriptions are frequently in other languages at Thurber Cemetery. For ex: "figlia" as you see on this one, means "daughter" in Italian. (photo by Tui Snider)
Headstone inscriptions are frequently in other languages at Thurber Cemetery. For ex: “figlia” as you see on this one, means “daughter” in Italian. (photo by Tui Snider)

Citizens from all over the World

Thurber’s work force hailed from all over the world, including Italy, Poland, Ireland, and Russia. The local Catholic church was named St. Barbara after the patron saint of coal miners, and the priest heard confession in several languages.

A large percentage of Thurber residents were Italian (see the headstone above), which may explain why the Metropolitan Opera troupe once stopped in Thurber en-route from the east coast to the west. Not to mention that Thurber’s opera house was pretty swanky for its day. Not only did it seat 665 patrons, but it included ceiling fans and private opera boxes.

West Texas Oil Boom Kills off Thurber

The discovery of oil and the ensuing West Texas boomtown frenzy led to Thurber’s demise. As steam trains switched to oil, the demand for coal dwindled. By 1935, most of the town’s inhabitants had moved on and the mines were abandoned. Even so, Texas and Pacific still owns the remaining coal: all 127,000,000 tons still buried beneath this once-thriving city.

Beautiful headstone in historic Thurber Cemetery. (photo by Tui Snider)
Beautiful headstone in historic Thurber Cemetery. (photo by Tui Snider)

Neglect and Vandalism in Thurber Cemetery

As the townsfolk moved away, no one was left to tend Thurber’s 9.1 acre cemetery where some 1000+ residents are laid to rest. So from the 1930’s on, the graveyard became increasingly overgrown. As if that wasn’t bad enough, a rancher let his cattle graze there, and another man ran a bulldozer through the area.

For some reason, Thurber Cemetery has also been the target of vandalism several times. This vandalism isn’t just the result of “rowdy kids” as people often assume. For instance, the man most recently convicted of using a dump truck to crunch up the marble monuments dedicated to the unmarked graves of Thurber’s coal miners was in his 50’s. (I wonder what his motives could have possibly been?)

These marble monuments in Thurber Cemetery replace the ones vandalized in 2010. (photo by Tui Snider)
These marble monuments in Thurber Cemetery replace the ones vandalized in 2010. (photo by Tui Snider)

Rescued by the Thurber Cemetery Association

After decades of neglect, the Thurber Cemetery Association was created in 1990. Since then, the group has spent time righting headstones, clearing brush, and doing extensive research to bring the graveyard back to good shape.

A sign by the cemetery gate credits Leo Bielinski for his persistent efforts towards maintaining and protecting this historic graveyard. Without his continued efforts, this historic site would be little more than a pile of broken stones in an overgrown field. (Here’s a link to Leo Beilinski’s website about Thurber, Texas; it has a lot of great information.)

Last time I visited Thurber Cemetery, it was looking good! I was so happy to see that the wrecked memorials have been fixed. (Here’s an article about the dedication ceremony for the new cemetery monuments in Thurber, Texas.) It’s also good to see that there are security cameras to photograph your license plate as you go in. It’s a pity that they are needed, but they seem to be doing the trick.

A well deserved sign at Thurber Cemetery (photo by Tui Snider)
A well deserved sign at Thurber Cemetery (photo by Tui Snider)

Thurber Cemetery as an Open-Air Museum

I often tell people that historic graveyards are open-air museums. Thurber Cemetery illustrates this idea perfectly. Headstones here reflect the varied ethnic background of Thurber’s residents, and some epitaphs are in languages other than English.

While Thurber’s monuments are not as artistic or fancy as some graveyards I’ve seen, many of the graves feature plaques revealing interesting facts about the person buried there or the meaning behind the symbols on their headstone. It really enriches the experience and enhances the feeling that you are strolling through an outdoor museum.

I love how so many graves at Thurber Cemetery include plaques with information. (photo by Tui Snider)
I love how so many graves at Thurber Cemetery include plaques with information. (photo by Tui Snider)

Anthony Bascilli’s Quirky Grave

With such an interesting past, you can bet that the Thurber Cemetery has some intriguing historic tales to tell. So stay tuned, because I will be sharing one next week about the elaborate burial preparations made by a quirky Hungarian coal miner named Anthony Bascilli.

How to visit Thurber Cemetery

Like so many historic graveyards, Thurber Cemetery doesn’t have an official street address, but it’s pretty easy to find. Also, there’s a gate and no key is required. My advice is to point your GPS to the Smokestack Restaurant (239 Private Road 741 Mingus, TX 76463.)

If you’re hungry when you arrive, it’s well worth grabbing a bite to eat. I love that place! Afterwards, just continue up the dirt road that wraps around the restaurant and turn right at the green cemetery sign. Once you drive into Thurber Cemetery, the road makes a loop through it and takes you right back to the gate. I’d also suggest searching for “Thurber Cemetery” on Google maps before you go. If you spend a few minutes playing around with street view, you’ll have your bearings when you get to the restaurant and know exactly where to go.

Speaking of graveyards…

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21 Comments

  1. Carla Norris Carla Norris

    We went there this last weekend. The Thurber cemetery is fascinating and loaded with history. I purchased the book of the towns history from the Smokestack Restaurant. It’s sad to see the condition it is in. The only area that was “maintained” that we saw was the area of where the former Mayor is buried.
    It’s so sad that the majority of the markers are covered by overgrowth and the monuments are really what you see. We wore knee high boots and the grass/overgrowth came up to the top of the boots.
    We found the burial area for the unknown infants and children. You could barely identify it. I left two very small teddy bears at the gate to their burial site.
    I would love to find a way to help clean the cemetery up a bit….I know it’s 9+ acres but still to be able to do some cleanup around the markers would be so satisfying knowing that people’s family members are cared for. Right now you could be walking on them and not even knowing it.

    • It gets overgrown there very quickly! When I visited last year, it had been freshly mown. I’m not sure who does the upkeep. That was very sweet of you to leave the little teddy bears. Thanks for stopping by my blog. :)

  2. David Ray Dyke David Ray Dyke

    I went through about 10-15 years ago. We had to get a key from the restaurant. After we were done we were asked if anything interesting had happened of course we had heard whispering that was neither did the two of us that were there. We were told that it was one of the most haunted in Texas. But I haven’t found any mention of that anywhere. Maybe our minds were playing with us.

    • You can go through without a key these days, but I know what you’re talking about. If you browse YouTube, you can find some stories of it being a haunted cemetery and even see some paranormal investigations. Some have even gotten EVPs in other languages, which is pretty cool! Thanks for dropping by. :)

  3. Eastland Historic Hotel Eastland Historic Hotel

    Thurber Cemetery is one of my favorite day trips; we drive over often from Eastland. The hotel we live in and operate is built of Thurber brick, so we feel like we have a connection.

    • Oh, how cool that your hotel is built from Thurber brick! I will have to come and take a look next time I’m in your neck of the woods. Thanks so much for stopping by! :)

  4. Wendy Wendy

    Hello, I really enjoyed your article. We drive through Thurber to go to Dallas from our hometown. It’s an interesting town with an amazing history, it’s great to see the story being told. The picture of the doll at the grave was actually placed there by my mom when she went to visit. Of course it looked better when she left it but time and weather did it’s thing. They were visiting because my step dads great great great grandfather was buried there, he worked in the coal mine. Thanks for telling the story.

    • Oh, you must be related to the other person who mentioned that they left the doll – your dad, maybe? (There’s another comment on this page about that, I think.) Time does wear down those dolls. I think it was very sweet of your mom to leave that one there. I am really fascinating by Thurber’s fascinating history. Thank you for sharing your experience with me! :)

  5. Jane Carroll Jane Carroll

    July 2020. Just watched UTube Video from four months ago of the cemetery. It appears to have slipped back into decline. Sad.

    • Oh, no! I am so sorry to hear that. Poor Thurber Cemetery! It’s had a tough time of it. I am planning to visit again this year and will let you know what I find. Thanks for the heads up.

  6. DeVone Bower DeVone Bower

    My Great Grandma is Bury here Harriet ( went by Hattie) Billings Hankins February 1885 – 30 August 1909 • K2FF-B1N
    My Grandma was only 2 years old when her mom pass.

  7. Patrick Patrick

    My wife left that baby doll on the little girl’s grave in the fourth picture. We were searching for my great great great grandfathers grave, and she saw that little girls headstone and left that doll on it. It looked a lot less spooky when we left it there!

    • Hi Patrick! Thank you for tell me that your wife left that doll behind when you visited Thurber Cemetery. Even though Mother Nature took her toll on that little toy, I thought it was very sweet to see that. Thanks again! :)

  8. What a treasure! I’m so glad that its friends are looking after it now. Thanks for the story, Tui.

  9. what a fascinating piece of history! glad i took the time to read it!
    i think kids should be required to go on field trips to places like this and then write a story about one of the people buried there. now that’s a worthwhile homework assignment! (sorry, the teacher in me!)

    and thanks for stopping by my cradle rock release post at chemist ken’s!
    happy 2017

  10. Eddie Hargrave Eddie Hargrave

    TuI, Enjoy the article there is another cemetery between Strawn and Minus that supposedly has a telephone in a grave. It been years since I been to it and it may be between Minus and Thruber but I believe it is between Strawn and Minus. Out in middle of nowhere

    • Oh, how cool! I *have* to check out that grave! You have been to it? I am going to try and find out more about that one. Thanks, Eddie! :D

    • jerry couger jerry couger

      Eddie Hargrave, it is between Mingus & Strawn, Davidson Cemetery. I have heard the story of the phone also.

      • Davidson Cemetery, eh? And someone’s grave there allegedly had a telephone? Thanks, Jerry! I will look into this. (If you know any more, please let me know!)

    • We drove by it once and I was so curious about the big smokestack that I looked it up online, and then when I found out that it had been a “company town” I was hooked! I keep thinking I’ll set a story in Thurber sometime…

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