I wrote this in January of 2012, but since I was asked about Grant Town, I thought I would reprint it here.
Our name was the only odd name in the Stephenville telephone book before World War II. Oh, yes, there were the Welsh Joneses, the Irish Clevelands, the English Smiths, and the Scots Buchannans. Of course there was Mac spelled Mc, or vise versa, which could be either Irish or Scots, depending on how it came to be spelled after the family arrived in the States.
Now after World War II, that business about the phone book wasn't exactly true as the Kunishige family had moved in from California making this Ficke girl feel somewhat less out of place in the midst of the Crains, Hallmarks, Whites, and Rasberrys. (And an aside, my friend Toby Kunishige and I just had a great visit...more on that in another blog post.)
But, oh, was that all to change. We moved to Palo Pinto County in 1958, and Ficke was just as ordinary as could be sandwiched in with Wolgamott, Kryskanowski, Teichmann, Fouche, Beauregard, Buschow, and Brandenburg, as well, of course, as the British names of Jones, Smith, Clark, and Taylor!
We moved to Mineral Wells, but if I had only known I might have recommended the southern end of the county around Gordon, Strawn, Santo, Mingus, and Thurber to my parents, for there I have found, along with many other nationalities, the Italians and Poles--along with British Gordons, Johnsons, and McCleskeys, and Ficke seemed ordinary when compaired to those names Italian names!
But, hey, guess it depends on where you grew up. My husband's Piscataway, New Jersey, high school annual has names that to my Texas ears appear to be as unpronouncable as Ficke was to many of those folks in Erath County in 1940!
While chasing a tale in the northwestern part of Palo Pinto County I came to the subject of this column through an internet link and disovered a particular town in Southern Palo Pinto County which isn't a Ghost Town like Thurber. It is a no town at all. I had never heard of it, but those old timers in Mingus and Thurber sure have. But its reminants are not listed on any map that I have, even the USGS map.
Louis' reply came: "My mother and grandparents came to Thurber from Italy to work in the coal mines. When they shut down, my mother's folks moved to Grant Town and my dad's, along with many others, moved to Manvel south of Houston.
"My Mom's parents name were Luigi and Carmella Biondini. There is a lot of great history in the area including the Thurber Cemetery recently named a Texas Historical Cemetery. To really get a true picture and flavor of the community I suggest you contact Leo Bielinski who lives in Aledo. Leo is a writer, historian and 'Mr. Thurber, Mingus and Grant Town'. He lived there much of his life and would be a resource for an excellent series. Along with that, take a drive to New York Hill Restaurant in Thurber to see the pictures and enjoy a good meal. And plan to attend the annual 'Homecoming' in June.
"My mother, Maria, came over as a baby and later became the star of the Mingus High girls basketball team. I have been told they played professional teams out of Dallas as well."
In the mean time, before I could contact Mr. Bielinski, I had an email from him, and this is what he said, "This is in response to your request forwarded to me via Louis Scopel. Jimmy Grant opened a saloon just outside the city limits of the T and P Coal Co. [Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company, now owned by Sun Oil] owned Thurber. His saloon was frequented by miners who could talk freely about unionization without fear of company intimidation. Some immigrant Thurber miners moved out of Thurber to Grant Town to own homes and small businesses. The area became known as 'Grant's Town' shortened to 'Grant Town.'
"Today it is part of Mingus, but the locals still refer to it as 'Grant Town'. During Prohibition, there was bootlegging in Grant Town, and after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, several 'Honky Tonks' opened up.
"Johnny Biondini, Louis Scopel's uncle, summed up the family's move from Thurber to Grant Town after the coal mines shut down in Thurber: 'In Thurber we had all the modern conveniences like running water, gas heat and electricity. But when we moved to Grant Town, just a quarter mile away, we had to adjust to coal oil lamps, well water and wood stoves.'
"There are just a few left who lived in Grant Town before WWII."
I later heard from Leo again, "Thurber had a barbed wire fence around it to keep Thurberites buying in the company store. Jimmy Grant's saloon was just outside this fence. The immigrant Italians made up a fourth of Thurber's population, but the company store did not stock the different salamis, cheeses, olive oils etc.(which the Italians wanted). So in addition to Grant's saloon, there were several Italians who set up small combination grocery store/saloons in Grant's Town, just outside of the barbed wire fence to cater to the Italians on Thurber's nearby 'Italian Hill'. Sealfi, Ronchetti, Mezzano, Corona, Castaldo and Raffaele [were some of these families].
"Dan Raffaele was an interesting guy. He was also a band director in Thurber and Thurber Junction (Mingus). (Italians have an inherent musicality.) In the late 1930s, Dan moved to Mineral Wells and opened Dan's Venetian Club on the west side. (The building is still there.) It was a good Italian Restaurant with drinks and very successful, especially with Camp Wolters in WWII.
"There were several prominent bootleggers in Grant Town during the Prohibition era. Not just Italians, but all nationalities were involved in bootlegging. When the mines began shutting down in the 1920s, bootlegging was a way of surviving and had none of the Chicago style gangsterism. There was little stigma if you bootlegged. The nearby Ranger Oil Boom was profitable for the bootleggers."
You can also get a copy of Leo's book either through the Thurber Historical Association or at New York Hill: THE BACK ROAD TO THURBER, by Leo S. Bielinski 282 pp. historical fiction on the growth and decline of Thurber from the immigrant's perspective. Dr. Bielinski's family has been a part of the Thurber locale for over a hundred continuous years. Recounts the unionization and fight for two UMW Locals, the "English" and the "Italian." HB $23.00. PB $16.00.
Now, hasn't that just whetted your appetite, not only to know more about theItalian immigrants to our county, but also for some of that salami, cheese, and olive oil?
Leo has a wonderful website with loads of information on the Thurber area at http://www.thurbertexas.com. This site included history, Thurber today, sites of intereste, photos, Ranger, maps and events, and merchandise. In the merchandise link you can purchase books, tee-shirts, caps, and even an engraved brick which the Thurber Historical Association is using to pave a walk to the site of McCleskey No. 1 Discovery Well of the Ranger Oil Boom. The photos and history are wonderful, and you can assist with historical preservation by purchasing a brick!
Address for the area historical associations are Thurber Historical Association, Box 192, Gordon TX 76453; Ranger Historical Preservation Society, P. O. Box 320, Ranger TX 76470.
Now let's look at some of the names associated with Grant Town.
In researching some of the names Leo gave me, I have found that Ronchetti comes from the Salto, Alpette, San Benigno, Crotte, Prascorsano, Pratiglione area of Italy. While the Corona families came from Sicily, Abruzzo, Molise and Castaldo came from Campania and Napoli.
Just looking through the county telephone book I discovered three Raffaele families, three Bielinski families, and one Biondini family. However, there are many interesting Italian and Polish names in the area.
Interestingly St. Barbara's Church was first St. Thuribus and was established in 1892 in Thurber. With the recruitment of Eastern and Southern European miners, the immigrants felt a communion with home and loved ones through the Mass. The Italians and Poles were two of many ethnic groups in Thurber. Everything was company owned in this coal mining town of Thurber. That is one reason Grant Town held such interest for people who wanted to stay in the area but out of the company owned town.
One thing which troubles me some is that there is not a lot of information on the internet about the Thurber area, and with its rich history I can only hope that descendants of that area get busy with their family histories.
Here are some queries specifically about the Grant Town area. If you can assist these folks, I certainly hope you will. Perhaps they can help you, too.
"I'm looking for relatives of John Monroe WILSON born 15 Oct 1849 in Arkansas (some family say VT?) son of William Rance/Raines WILSON b. ca 1822 in Scotland ? John Monroe WILSON was the first Postmaster and Merchant of both old and new ZEPHYR, Brown Co., TX ... (ca 1872) also the first Worshipful Master of Zephyr Masonic Temple. John's wife was Lucinda Emma "Lucy" ABBOTT (1/2 Cherokee) b. 1854 in MO. John Monroe Wilson aka JM Wilson was killed in a one man mining accident in Thurber Mines, Erath Co., TX. His family continued to live in the Mingus/Grant/Strawn area of Palo Pinto Co., TX. Children of JM and Lucy Wilson are Leslie Ervin, (stillborn son buried in Zephyr Cemetery, Brown Co., TX), William R. m. Mary Alice Wells, Estelle Marge m. Jerome Vance WALLING, Talmade Dewitt m. Nora Emma LASSITER, John M. Jr. m. "Octavia/Dotsy". Estelle Marge (Wilson) WALLING died in 1961 in Mineral Wells, Palo Pinto, TX. Looking for her descendants also! -- Peggy Sue Wilson
Palo Pinto County Texas was the home to Herman Boyd, Sr. and wife Docia Boyd (Looney). I am looking for information on either of them, their parents, and also information on the coal mining community of Thurber (circa 1920). -- James Boyd
I am looking for information about the miners, and the mines of Thurber. My Grandmothers, Father, and her Grandfather, were killed,or died in the Coal Mines there. Are there any list of Miners who died in the mines around there any where? -- Tricia Hopkins
Atop New York Hill, a large brass plaque shows the location of significant structures when Thurber thrived. The restored 100-year-old St. Barbara's Church, Thurber Cemetery, a furnished miner's house, and an authentic Italian bocci ball court give a glimpse into the past.
New York Hill Restaurant displays photos of Thurber in its heyday and is headquarters to the Thurber Historical Association. Thurber was founded in 1888 and, after the mines closed in 1921 and the brick plant in 1930, it was abandoned in 1933 and was almost entirely razed.
An annual Thurber reunion is held on the second Saturday in June. The site is some 70 miles west of Fort Worth on 1-20 at Texas 108.
Interestingly, Thurber is in Erath County, but Grant Town is in Palo Pinto County.
For genealogical information from Italy, the best place on the web is Italy WorldGenWeb at <http://www.rootsweb.com/~itawgw>. And for Polish genealogy, go to PolandGenWeb at <http://www.rootsweb.com/~polwgw/polandgen.html>. For researching surnames from around the world, I suggest you try Rootsweb/Ancestry at <http://boards.ancestry.com/mbexec?htx=main&r=rw>.
This has certainly got me thinking about future columns concerning this most interesting area of our Cross Timbers Hill Country.