I wrote this review last fall and it ended up not getting published due to editor error (he didn’t realize a review had already been published of it, and that it was almost a year old at the time). I figured I’d throw it on the blog instead of letting it slip into the void.
Chronicling a Ghost Town
Book: Oysters, Macaroni, and Beer: Thurber, Texas and the Company Store
Author: Gene Rhea Tucker
Reviewer: Graham Oliver
Thurber, Texas is a ghost town that sits on I-20, halfway between Fort Worth and Abilene. For forty years, from 1894 to 1934, Thurber appeared as a company coal town, flourished, and then withered away.
Oysters, Macaroni, and Beer: Thurber, Texas and the Company Store chronicles the brief history of Thurber, with a special emphasis paid to the role of the mercantile operations within the town. The Texas Pacific Mercantile and Manufacturing Company, a subsidiary of the Texas Pacific Coal Company, operated company stores, utilities, saloons, and various other establishments for the residents of the town. Gene Rhea Tucker’s analysis of the operation depicts it as a crossroads in the fascinating relationship between laborers, the corporation, and the region. Oysters, Macaroni, and Beer uses the company store to touch upon bigger issues of racism, unionization, and corporate responsibility. Don’t let the overtly political tone of the foreword (which is labeled the “Plainsword” as a nod to this being a part of TTU Press’s “Plains Histories”)–the text itself goes out of its way to reserve judgment in the various conflicts, for the most part.
Tucker’s writing is best when it’s recreating what life was like in Thurber. It’s painstakingly researched, and is peppered with first-hand accounts of events in the town, including a fist-fight between the company president and a local businessman. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the book, however, is the images. Photo after photo depict the locations and events described in the text, from a row a smiling faces in a saloon, to a building’s demolition after the town’s collapse. All the images fit well with the content, and tell an additional story of their own. Beyond the photos, the book itself is a work of art–the jacket and lettering are eye-catching and aesthetically pleasing.
Oysters, Macaroni, and Beer began as a master’s thesis, which accounts for the in-depth research. It’s well-sourced, and would serve as a secure jumping off point for additional inquiry. However, the fact that it was once a thesis brings baggage along with it. It’s thin, especially once you discount the space allotted to notes and photos. It repeats itself occasionally and gets bogged down in details. The biggest tragedy, though, is the near-complete lack of speculation, which would’ve helped the reader make more of a connection with the stream of facts, figures, and implications.
The book appeals to Texas history buffs, ghost town aficionados, and those interested in reading about a microcosm of big business issues. Although it might have better served as a section of a larger work, Tucker’s work makes the Thurber of a century ago come to life for his readers, which ultimately means the book is a success.
Photo album from thurbertexas.com – Link