Fifteen years ago, Tarleton State University’s W.K. Gordon Center for Industrial History of Texas opened its doors in the ghost town of Thurber, Texas, miles from a city of any size. Since then, more than 50,000 people have visited the center, making it a popular destination on the edge of West Texas.
A combined museum, research center and special collections library, the Gordon Center celebrates its 15th birthday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 18, with free admission, cake and tours.
“We’re excited to celebrate 15 years as part of the Tarleton family,” said Shae Adams, assistant curator at the center. “It’s fitting that our birthday falls during the university’s centennial as founding member of The Texas A&M University System. Together, we’re sharing our past and celebrating our future.
“We’re honoring the area communities who’ve supported and appreciated us for 15 years and, with their continued engagement, we look forward to greater opportunities to showcase more historic exhibitions and provide interactive learning opportunities for visitors of all ages.”
A dark brick building with stars along the edge, the Gordon Center—the state’s only institution focused on the industrial history of Texas and the Southwest—is located on four acres just off Interstate 20 midway between Fort Worth and Abilene in what was once a booming West Texas town, founded in the 1880s by the Texas and Pacific Coal Company.
In concert with its birthday celebration, the center has established a friends of the museum group, called the TP Club after the T&P Company. Friends will enjoy free year-round admission and members-only events.
The T&P owned every building in Thurber—every nail, shingle and doorknob. Residents lived in company houses, shopped at company stores, drank at company saloons, attended company schools and worshipped in company-owned churches.
In the early 1900s, Thurber was the largest coal mining community in Texas, boasted the best-equipped brick factory west of the Mississippi and, with the discovery of the McClesky oil well in 1917 at Ranger, opened the door to West Texas petroleum production.
At the height of Thurber’s brick manufacturing, 800 workers produced 80,000 bricks per day in 35 varieties. The bricks were used to pave streets and construct buildings throughout the Southwest, including Congress Avenue in Austin, Camp Bowie Boulevard in Fort Worth, the Dallas Opera House and Galveston seawall. The first building on Tarleton’s Stephenville campus was built with bricks fired in Thurber kilns.
“The W.K. Gordon Center chronicles that history and is a monument to a unique company town built by immigrant muscle,” Adams said. “Immigrants came from around the world—Italy, Poland, Ireland and Russia—to work and live in Thurber, creating a unique multicultural community.”
Museum visitors can listen to some of their stories, view exhibits of historic Thurber photos and artifacts—most collected by the Thurber Historical Association over the last 50 years—stroll past reconstructions of the mercantile store, the livery stable, the town bandstand, opera house and Snake Saloon, and learn what happened when the discovery of oil disturbed the balance between the T&P and the community.
Funding for the center came via a federal grant and gifts from the late Mrs. W.K Gordon Jr. in honor of her father-in-law—William Knox Gordon, a civil engineer from Virginia, who was instrumental in developing the coal fields and brick-building industry for the T&P in Thurber—the Gordon Foundation and Tarleton State University Foundation, Inc.
Mrs. Gordon originally gave $3.8 million to help construct the museum and research center, and later donated an additional $5 million to continue its operation. In total, Mrs. Gordon and the Gordon Foundation have given nearly $10 million to Tarleton—the largest gift in the university’s history.
“We are extremely grateful to Mrs. Gordon and the Gordon Foundation for their financial support to help us share the rich history of Thurber with others,” Adams said.