The Labor of Living

Founders of company towns ranged from dreamy idealists to fast-buck Freddies.

When Tennessee Ernie Ford gave the full weight of his bass-baritone to “Sixteen Tons” and boomed that he owed his soul to the company store, the phrase evoked images of stooped miners living in tar-paper shacks under what Hardy Green calls the “super-exploitative conditions of life in a coal-mining company town.” But Mr. Green shows, in “The Company Town,” that such communities have also been social experiments, alternative forms of capitalist enterprise that encompassed everything from prophet-blaring to profit-sharing.

Typically in a company town, “one business exerts a Big Brother-like grip over the population,” providing employment, domicile, entertainment and even governance. Founders of such settlements have ranged from dreamy idealists to fast-buck Freddies; the fruits of their labor stretch from Hershey, Pa., to Gary, Ind.

Taking in textile, coal, oil, lumber and appliance-manufacturing towns, Mr. Green’s survey is a useful one, though the early utopian ventures he profiles are far more interesting than his pallid examples from the postwar era. Classic company towns could not withstand automobiles and suburbanization. No one owes his soul to an industrial park or a corporate campus.

Francis Cabot Lowell, eponym of Mr. Green’s first subject, the textile mill town in Massachusetts, had been appalled by an 1811 visit to Manchester, England, which he found air-blackened and overrun with “beggars and thieves.” His mills, he resolved, would improve their workers (as well as his bottom line). So Lowell employed young women drawn from the surrounding farms, who lived in boarding houses run by stern matrons “who made sure the girls were in by 10 p.m.” With libraries, lectures by the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and even a literary journal, Lowell had “a lively intellectual and cultural scene.”

Yet there was a trade-off. Once serenaded by birdsong, the mill girls now woke, worked and worried to the peal of factory bells. This was no life for young women who styled themselves “daughters of freemen,” so turnover in Lowell was high. Paternalism along the Merrimack waned once this work force of native milkmaids was replaced by Irish immigrants. The boarding houses were sold off and deteriorated into tenements, and strikes replaced strophes.

The textile industry shifted southward to places such as Kannapolis, N.C., where Charlie Cannon of Cannon Mills ran what one janitor called “a one-man town, but he’s a good man.” Cannon Mills, the “largest manufacturer of towels in the world,” built thousands of “tidy clapboard” houses for its workers in a town whose trash, police and fire departments were all under Cannon’s purview. Mr. Charlie, as he was known, hated the New Deal, though he did not object to state intervention in the form of National Guardsmen busting strikes.

The prince of “The Company Town” is Milton Hershey, the chocolatier who dreamed of a city with “no poverty, no nuisances, no evil.” Hershey, Pa., located far from the candy-craving crowd but surrounded by dairy farms, clean water and “industrious folk,” was informed by the Mennonite values of Milton’s childhood. Milton frowned on drunkenness and immorality on Chocolate Avenue. He despised the uniformity of other planned communities, so his streets, he decided, would exhibit more variety than his candy bars. Hershey provided a zoo, a library, a golf course, free schools, a model orphanage and a “cornucopia of benefits” for workers. “Employees seemed to find contentment in the well-appointed town of Hershey,” writes Mr. Green. He also singles out Maytag (Newton, Iowa), bane of appliance repairmen, and Hormel (Austin, Minn.), bane of gourmets, as companies that, in their heyday, cultivated a sense of community.

The idealistic company towns shared “an initial vision and daily existence articulated and elaborated by a capitalist father figure,” Mr. Green says, but when that figure died so, usually, did the dream. Idealism is seldom heritable. The Indiana steel city named after Elbert H. Gary—the chairman of U.S. Steel when it essentially built the city in the early 1900s—seems no longer modeled on its founder’s “Sunday school principles.” The least nurturing company towns were based on industries that relied on immigrants or the “cracker proletariat,” especially mining. Contra John Denver, West Virginia, at least for miners, was not almost Heaven.

Although Mr. Green ignores Washington, D.C., the company town that never recedes, he shines a harsh light on Oak Ridge, Tenn., created by the feds via “arguably the United States’ most astounding and disruptive exercise of eminent domain.” Thrown up in 1943 as a laboratory for the Manhattan Project and populated by 80,000 newcomers, Oak Ridge was a case of government gone wild, as thousands of Tennesseans—including families who had farmed the land for generations—were booted out by Uncle Sam with two weeks’ notice. Oak Ridge was a monument to statism, with informants, armed guards, “federally financed schools” and cheaply made public housing. Workers ate “mediocre food served in grim cafeterias” and toiled without “any sense of participation in the larger win-the-war effort,” since the Manhattan Project was conducted in the strictest secrecy.

The sootiest coal camp sounds like paradise by contrast. As Mr. Green writes, company towns, whether run by “utopian paternalist or exploitative despot,” were constrained to some degree by the market. Oak Ridge, wholly a creature of the federal government, was beyond any such discipline.

But if Uncle Sam’s company towns were gray and regimented, the company towns overseen by Milton Hershey, Francis Cabot Lowell and even Charlie Cannon were communities enlivened by quirks and passions and idiosyncratic visions. Edens? Hardly. But they had soul, and you can neither buy nor sell that at the company store.

Mr. Kauffman’s books include the recently published “Bye Bye, Miss American Empire” (Chelsea Green).


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