One can only imagine the sharp contrast between the early life of Nannie Thurmond as the wife of Harrison Thurmond, one of the best known “sporting men” of the Southwest and her later life as “Mother Thurmond” devoted charity matron and “Durant’s most loveable character” from the twenties until her death in 1949. She was so popular that everyone from the mayor to local school children celebrated her birthdays, and each one was reported in detail in the paper. In 1923 the Chamber of Commerce presented Mother Thurmond with red carnations on her special day. In 1944 her address and phone number were published in the paper so that the whole town could wish her well on her 88th birthday. And most people did!
Nannie had a variety of memories, good and bad, to regale her guests with and she seemed to enjoying sharing some of them. However, there are gaps in the story of her early life that we’ll probably never be able to fill. She began life in Louisiana with her parents, two brothers, and a sister, but somehow she ended up in Texas, married at seventeen to a man well past thirty. Her father was killed in the war and her family migrated to Traskwood, Arkansas.
In a 1938 interview, Nannie recalled the “grand old operas and stage plays” she enjoyed in San Antonio and Dallas. She mentioned later that after her marriage she had lived alternately at Paris, Texas, San Antonio, Dallas, and New Orleans. Her husband was a saloon keeper and stockman who lived and traveled throughout the southwest and sometimes found his name in the paper because of his violent confrontations with others. However, he was also loved and admired by some influential people. After Harrison shot a man in 1883 one newspaper published: “The trouble of Harrison Thurmond at Sherman is very much regretted here. He lived in Paris for a number of years and whatever his faults may be, his generosity and charitable deeds are still fresh in the hearts of our people.” His friends included Col. Tom Crooks, editor of the Denison Herald-News. In 1885 the Colonel and Alex Riddick presented Harrison with a silver cane as a “token of their esteem.” In 1933 Nannie gave the editor of the Durant Weekly News an antique calling card that had been given to her by T. J. Crooks during a dinner at her home in 1879.
Harrison and Nannie had been married for thirty-six years when he died in 1909. Harrison had served in the Civil War in Co. A of the 9th Texas Infantry so Nannie received a widow’s pension and settled in Durant to live out the rest of her life. After their mother died in 1918, Nannie’s sister, Alice Keys, also a widow, moved from Arkansas to join her. They lived on the corner of Mulberry and Fifth streets and whether for extra income or companionship rented out “three rooms” which they advertised in the paper from time to time. My great aunt’s in-laws lived there in 1922 and the newspaper reported my aunt’s wedding “at the home of Mrs. Thurmond.”
Nannie joined several civic and social organizations in Durant, including the Julia Jackson chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy and worked faithfully for The Christian Church, but she found her life’s calling when she became the chairman of the United Charities Association of Durant. She helped organize the local citizens in such a way that efforts were not duplicated by those offering assistance and “fakes and professional beggars” did not take advantage of the system. Mother Thurmond had the cooperation and support of the Chamber of Commerce, Goodfellows, Lions, Boy Scouts, churches, and individual citizens.
In 1922 the editor of the Democrat lamented that Durant seemed to be a “Mecca for all kinds of solicitors from other places, but also for destitute people from all over this section.” He urged everyone to not only make their donations to Mother Thurmond, but to refer “every appeal to her.” Apparently even the KKK listened: “Continuing their work of charity, the Durant Klan yesterday sent the editor of the Democrat $25 with instructions to hand same to Mrs. Thurmond, of the Charities Association, to be given to several worthy charity cases.”
Although her phone number was always in the paper and she had an office in the Chamber of Commerce, it would seem from the reports of her work that Mother Thurmond didn’t spend a lot of time sitting behind a desk. She was active in dispensing groceries, fuel, clothing, and medicines, as well as helping to find employment for adults and even entertainment for children. She arranged hotels for stranded travelers and temporary housing for the needy. Children were always one of her greatest concerns and the superintendent of Durant Schools declared that “no greater work” was being done in Durant than the work done by Mother Thurmond.
March 16, 1923
April 26, 1923
Kiddies Enjoy “Dr. Jack” in the Free Show
More than three hundred little boys and girls witnessed the Harold Lloyd comedy, “Dr. Jack” as guests of Sam Archibald, manager of the R. and R. Liberty Theatre yesterday afternoon. The three hundred were chosen ones, having been picked by Mother Thurmond of the United Charities, because they are seldom permitted to see a motion picture show. All that daddy and mother can get together must go to buy food and clothes…
There is also a touching article in a 1924 paper about Mother Thurmond visiting a man in the Bryan County Hospital who was stricken by a sudden blood clot in his brain, and although “his own wife was a total stranger to him,” he recognized Mother Thurmond. Another man declared after she befriended his family that “Mother Thurmond will never walk anywhere as long as I have a car.”
In 1933 Nannie’s beloved sister, Alice, died after months of suffering. One can only imagine Mother Thurmond’s distress at not being able to prolong their friendship. Alice was 81 and they had lived together for fifteen years. Alice’s son, Levi, and niece and nephew attended her funeral and then her body was returned to Arkansas for burial next to her mother.
After Alice’s death, Mother Thurmond continued with her work, but her own health began to take its toll. In 1935 she retired from the United Charities Association. For the next ten years she continued to make personal donations to local causes and contribute time and energy to the Christian Church and the United Daughter’s of the Confederacy. In 1944 she presided over a meeting of the UDC at the R. L. Williams library as their oldest living member.
Mother Thurmond often hosted parties and dinners to thank her generous supporters. At one event she thanked the Goodfellows by serving them “an old time Kentucky and Arkansas delicacy called syllabub, and delicious home-made cake and cigars.” She also published thank-you notes in the newspaper and expressed her gratitude for the annual outpouring of gifts she received for both her birthday and Christmas. Each year she left a floral tribute and note on the desk of the editor of the Democrat to wish him well on his own birthday. In 1936 he published her note in the paper and called her “the sweetest and noblest character” in Durant.
At a time in history when we seem to switch our allegiances as often as we change socks, it is remarkable to realize that even after her retirement, Durant never forgot their love and respect for Mother Thurmond. They continued to mark her birthday with tributes and shower her with gifts during the holidays. In 1938 the Rotarians honored her with a birthday dinner and children caroled at her home for Christmas. In 1942 she received 23 visitors, four cakes, countless floral arrangements, and numerous cards and gifts for her 86th birthday. And her family remained close. In 1943 she took an extended trip to Louisiana to stay with her niece, and in 1944 several members of her family visited her in Durant for Thanksgiving.
Nannie lived alone for several years after Alice died. Then she moved in with a couple of friends. Later she became the third resident of the new “Kings Daughter’s and Sons Home for the Aged.” It really was just a small home at that time and because of her failing eyesight, Mother Thurmond had a companion assigned to help with her care. She suffered a fall in 1947, but remained in good spirits and loved to visit with her friends.
Mother Thurmond’s last birthday celebration was her 93rd. A month later Durant’s beloved matron was gone.
Durant Weekly News
April 1, 1949
Rites Tuesday for “Mother” Thurmond
Funeral services for Mrs. Nannie (Mother) Thurmond, 93-year-old longtime Durant resident were held at the First Christian Church at 2:30 p. m. Tuesday. Mrs. Thurmond, one of Durant’s most beloved and for many years one of the city’s most valuable citizens, died at a local hospital Sunday morning at 11:30.
Funeral services will be conducted by Rev. Norman Dyer and burial will be in Highland Cemetery with Holmes Funeral home directing.
Active pallbearers will be Albert Mason, Clyde Clack, Frank Dyer, Fred Lowry, Tuck England, and Highlan Mitchell.
Honorary pallbearers are Allen Hill, Bennett Story, Dr. J. T. Colwick, Howard Holmes, R. F. Story, B. C. Newberry, Sr., M. C. Mhoon, T. A. Houston, G. A. Wilson, Ben Hunsaker, David MacDonald, Jr., Boyd Abbott, L. K. Hughey, D. R. Shannon, Frank Hynds, Walter Thompson, Sam W. Stone, Ed. L. Spears, Elger McElreath, Dan Swinney, T-Bone McDonald, Horrace Marshall, R. R. Tompkins, Mike Fitzgerald, and Morris Overstreet.
Mrs. Thurmond had lived in Durant for more than 35 years and for 18 years was secretary of Durant’s United Charities organization. It was during that period that she became lovingly known as “Mother Thurmond” by her coworkers and those she assisted in their needs.
Mary E. Maurer has previously written historical features for the Democrat.