Backyard Burials Have Stopped, The Mysterious Cause Remains

Albert Whitehead buried people in his back yard. There, I said it. Before you phone the sheriff, please know that the last spade full of dirt was tamped into place back in 1960. Appropriately, this last burial was Albert himself. At least 17 graves preceded his, behind that wood-framed Whitehead house.
Where the garden should’ve been.

Mr. Whitehead was a good guy, a pillar of the Thurber community. His house sat on a street among many other houses, roughly east, north-east of where New York Hill Restaurant sits today. In the vernacular of the day, he was “colored”.

WhiteheadI can’t imagine that his neighbors back then didn’t know what was going on. Back behind the house.

Albert Whitehead towered above folks at six foot four, a large booming voice and a “hearty laugh” to match. One imagines a twinkle in his eye, a joke just told, in the photographs I’ve seen of this gentleman.

Mr. Whitehead was a little boy during the Civil War. He died at 98 years of age, four years before LBJ’s civil rights legislation was signed into law. He never heard Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Didn’t sound like he needed to.

I like Albert. He had five wives. A real contender. He may have had two at once, near the end. He didn’t care what folks thought. He married his last known wife Liza when he was 84. Hope springs eternal. Liza was the daughter of his fourth wife Belle (Liza conceived by another man). Albert outlived all of his wives, though he produced no surviving offspring.

Albert was well liked in Thurber, Grant Town, Thurber Junction and Mingus. Said to be the son of slaves, the story was told that Albert walked the 60 miles to Thurber from Fort Worth, looking for work in the winter of 1903. He’d just completed a railroad construction job. Why he didn’t take the train is not known. The T & P Coal Co. imported many of its workers of whatever color to Thurber by train.

Toward the end of Albert’s foot-bound journey, he navigated by following the black coal-fired smoke clouds that consumed that coal mining boomtown’s sky. When he topped the Gordon Cutoff hill, he saw Thurber’s brick plant, power house, town square and many neatly-tended rows of red and green miner’s homes. They say that the hope of a fresh start fired his imagination and fueled his steps.

Albert’s house, Number 265, was just north of the black chain link fenced cemetery, unlabeled at the back of the puzzlingly-named W. K. Gordon Museum of Industrial History. If you’ve visited the turquoise-colored miner’s house down the slope from New York Hill, that’s likely what Albert’s home looked like. His house was near the west end of the Thurber Brick Yard. If you look at the large Whitehead Cemetery, then imagine it being behind this man’s small house, you see very quickly that Albert had a yard full.

By 1936, most everything was gone from Thurber, but the T & P allowed Albert to stay, 74 years old and nowhere else to go. Albert worked a gray Jenny mule around the Thurber Junction/Mingus area about 1950, the last remembered working mule in those parts. Albert plowed gardens for local residents and did other odd jobs.

Saturdays this man would hitch his mule to his wagon and drive with his wife Liza two miles north to Thurber Junction/Mingus for supplies. He visited his white friends and was known to enjoy a few quarts of beer. Sometimes a second black woman rode with the couple, giving rise to the rumor that Albert was now marrying two-at-a-time. The story was that Wife Number Two had run her husband off and moved in with Albert and Liza. Miss Liza would ride up front with Albert on the wagon seat, while his backup bride rode behind, her legs dangling off the rear end of his wagon.

Albert’s Thurber house burned around 1955, so the Whiteheads moved to Stephenville. Liza died two years later and was buried behind where their house used to be. Three years after that, Albert passed away.

If you scan historical documents, then examine the site itself, it appears that five male adults, seven female adults, four male children and one male infant are at rest there. The only marked graves are Liza Whitehead (1875-1957), Albert Whitehead (1862 – 1960) and Henryetta Halversen (April 9, 1862 – August 29, 1936). Henryetta could have been a wife, mother-in-law or friend.

These three names are recorded on steel funeral home nameplates. There are no marble tombstones, nor any sign announcing this site as a cemetery. Oral history suggests that the unknowns could be Mr. & Mrs. Ed Jackson and John Bennett. It has been suggested that some of Albert’s wives may be buried here. One of the male children (stillborn) is thought to be Albert’s son (Nathan Griffin?).

Why did Albert not take these people to the black section of the company-owned Thurber Cemetery a mere quarter of a mile away? Graves were free for the asking. What would T & P Coal Co. management have thought about an employee burying people in his backyard (on company property)? T & P ran its town in a very round peg, round hole manner.
The ground in the black section of Thurber Cemetery hill is famous for its shallow rockiness. Graves were often dug with dynamite, with miners down the hill asking “who died?” when periodic explosions rang out.

There’s a story that the road to the black section of Thurber Cemetery washed out in the 1930s (though the stillborn child, if indeed buried in Albert’s yard, predates this). There are several other 1930s burials in Thurber Cemetery, nonetheless, so this reason seems unlikely.

When Thurber was winding down, Albert remained behind as a caretaker for the few buildings and houses that were not torn down or moved. When Texas & Pacific brass traveled out from Cowtown to hunt and fish, Mr. Whitehead served as their guide.

The Whitehead Cemetery was neglected during the 1960s, becoming overgrown with mesquite and cactus. Cattle grazed among the fallen brown earth rocks. It’s not known if any marble tombstones were ever there. Old timers would mention that there was a cemetery “over there” from time to time and point below New York Hill.

Roland McMinn, a local historian and brick collector from Mineral Wells was exploring around the old Thurber Brick Yard around 1986 when he happened upon the little cemetery. After showing some friends his discovery, the site was cleaned and a fence was built. At the time, only seven graves were visible. There is no way to know the first burial date, though it’s thought to be after 1903, when Albert moved in.

Few hard and fast answers concerning the Whitehead Cemetery or why it got started remain. The graveyard is fenced. The grass is mowed. And Mr. Whitehead isn’t talking. The burials have stopped, for now…

Special thanks to Leo S. Bielinski, Ph. D.
Jeff may be reached at jeffclarktexas@gmail.com.
Jeff Clark sells ranches and chases history. See his work at ranchpartners.org or history stories at texastabernacle.blogspot.com

One Response to "Backyard Burials Have Stopped, The Mysterious Cause Remains"

  1. J Banks   September 2, 2016 at 6:44 PM

    Thank you.