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Company Towns in the United States

Summary and Keywords

Company towns can be defined as communities dominated by a single company, typically focused on one industry. Beyond that very basic definition, company towns varied in their essentials. Some were purpose-built by companies, often in remote areas convenient to needed natural resources. There, workers were often required to live in company-owned housing as a condition of employment. Others began as small towns with privately owned housing, usually expanding alongside a growing hometown corporation. Residences were shoddy in some company towns. In others, company-built housing may have been excellent, with indoor plumbing and central heating, and located close to such amenities as schools, libraries, perhaps even theaters.

Company towns played a key role in US economic and social development. Such places can be found across the globe, but America’s vast expanse of undeveloped land, generous stock of natural resources, tradition of social experimentation, and laissez-faire attitude toward business provided singular opportunities for the emergence of such towns, large and small, in many regions of the United States. Historians have identified as many as 2,500 such places.

A tour of company towns can serve as a survey of the country’s industrial development, from the first large-scale planned industrial community—the textile town of Lowell, Massachusetts—to Appalachian mining villages, Western lumber towns, and steelmaking principalities such as the mammoth development at Gary, Indiana. More recent office-park and high-tech industrial-park complexes probably do not qualify as company towns, although they have some similar attributes. Nor do such planned towns as Disney Corporation’s Celebration, Florida, qualify, despite close ties to a single corporation, because its residents do not necessarily work for Disney.

Company towns have generally tended toward one of two models. First, and perhaps most familiar, are total institutions—communities where one business exerts a Big Brother–ish grip over the population, controlling or even taking the place of government, collecting rent on company-owned housing, dictating buying habits (possibly at the company store), and even directing where people worship and how they may spend their leisure time. A second form consists of model towns—planned, ideal communities backed by companies that promised to share their bounty with workers and families. Several such places were carefully put together by experienced architects and urban planners. Such model company towns were marked by a paternalistic, watchful attitude toward the citizenry on the part of the company overlords.

Keywords: company town, textiles, labor strikes, Appalachia, coal mining, manufacturing, steelmaking, meatpacking, company store, housing, model cities, paternalism, natural resources, high-technology, Google, Facebook

First Stirrings: The New England Company Town Experience

Company towns can be defined as communities dominated by a single company that is typically focused on one industry. Beyond that very basic definition, they varied in their essentials. Some were purpose-built by companies, often in remote areas convenient to needed natural resources. There, workers were often required to live in company-owned housing as a condition of employment. Others began as small towns with privately owned housing, usually expanding alongside a growing hometown corporation. Residences were shoddy in some company towns. In others, company-built housing may have been excellent, with indoor plumbing and central heating, and located close to such amenities as schools, libraries, perhaps even theaters.

Company towns played a key role in US economic and social development. Such places can be found across the globe, but America’s vast expanse of undeveloped land, generous stock of natural resources, tradition of social experimentation, and laissez-faire attitude toward business provided singular opportunities for the emergence of such towns, large and small, in many regions of the United States. Historians have identified as many as 2,500 such places.

Questions of economics and development were much discussed from the early years of the American republic, with pro-agrarian forces, led by Thomas Jefferson, pitted against the pro-manufacturing ranks, led by Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton and his supporters wanted to establish a multi-industry hub in New Jersey, which they dubbed Paterson. This community, though, never developed as a company town. Most early US industry was isolated and small in scale. “The manufacturing operations of the United States are carried out in little hamlets,” noted one late-18th-century visitor to New England, “around the water fall which serves to turn the mill wheel.” Indeed, in Rhode Island, site of the country’s initial textile mills, pioneer Samuel Slater’s first workforce numbered only seven—all children between the ages of 7 and 12.1

Drawing on their experience at a small textile mill in the Boston suburb of Waltham, a group of Massachusetts businessmen determined to set up larger-scale operations. The project had three fundamental requirements: an undeveloped site, sufficient water power to run the mill, and a diligent and numerous workforce. After considering a location in New Hampshire, these capitalists, who historians later called the Boston Associates, settled upon a site near East Chelmsford, Massachusetts, along the Merrimack River. With an initial capitalization of the then-enormous sum of $600,000, three principal figures—Francis Cabot Lowell, Nathan Appleton, and Patrick Tracy Jackson—incorporated in the name of the Merrimack Manufacturing Company. By 1823, streets were laid out, mills and boardinghouses built, an existing canal enlarged, and new canals begun. Appleton decreed in 1826 that the settlement would bear the name of the figure key to the undertaking: Lowell.

The founders of the company town intended to hire the same kind of employees that they hired in Waltham: young farm women drawn from across New England. Recruiters traveled across the area, assuring the families of potential millhands that the workers would be closely supervised by female boardinghouse keepers and exposed to music, literature, and improving lectures by cultural luminaries. Whatever period of their time spent in Lowell would be far from onerous, families were promised. Employment in the town, instead, would amount to preparation for later life. Moreover, Lowell’s cash wages compared well to those of other alternatives for women, including both domestic service and teaching.

A separate enterprise, the Locks and Canals Company, was placed in charge of the waterworks and town development. This company, owned by virtually the same group of capitalists as those in charge of the Merrimack Manufacturing Company, proceeded to sell land, lease water-power rights, and build new mills and boardinghouses. Soon, multiple new firms appeared, including the Hamilton Corporation (1825), the Appleton and Lowell corporations (1828), the Suffolk, Tremont, and Lawrence corporations (1830), and the Middlesex Corporation (1831). In 1845, the Lowell Machine Shop was organized to design and build machinery for the factories.

The boards of these entities consisted of many of the same men, plus a few capital-bearing newcomers. Interlocking directorates ensured a concentration of power. The companies paid identical wages, had identical working hours, and followed similar employment policies. Marketing their popular printed calicoes via the same Boston commission houses, all were hugely profitable.

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Figure 1. Lowell’s Boott Cotton Mills in the late 19th century.

Photo courtesy of Center for Lowell History.

By 1850, forty mill buildings lined the river for almost a mile, their mill wheels driven by six miles of canals and a system of gates and flow-measuring devices that regulated the water. A series of belts linked mill wheels to power looms and other machinery. The population more than tripled during the 1830s, rising from 6,474 in 1830 to more than 20,000 in 1840. In 1850, Lowell’s population exceeded 33,000, making it the second-largest city in Massachusetts.2

The early workforce was much celebrated for its intelligence and refinement. Visitors included Charles Dickens, who described how the young women not only had access to pianos and high-toned library books, but also produced their own literary periodical, the Lowell Offering, filled with original poetry, essays, and stories of millworker life.3 The Offering received favorable notices in the Times of London and the Edinburgh Review. The women were required to observe a 10 p.m. curfew, abstain from all spirits, attend church (twenty-six of which existed by the mid-1840s), and watch their step: missteps (including drinking and dancing) could draw a reprimand from a morals police force consisting of boardinghouse keepers and coworker snitches. Fall afoul of these watchers, and the young women risked blacklisting from employment in the region.

By the mid-1840s, the Yankee-girl workforce gave way to an employee pool made up of Irish and French-Canadian families. The farm women were drawn away by other options, including westward migration. Sped-up machinery, lengthened workdays, wage cuts, and boardinghouse-fee increases proved more acceptable to near-desperate immigrants. Men and children joined women in tending the Lowell machinery. The boardinghouse-residency requirement ended.

Both profits and pay fell victim to increased competition. In 1839, Henry David Thoreau observed that the Merrimack River had evolved into “a busy colony of human beaver around every fall.” He noted that, in addition to Lowell, factory complexes were constructed in Newburyport, Haverhill, Lawrence, and Concord, as well as Nashua and Manchester in New Hampshire.4 The grand Lawrence, Massachusetts, development was patterned on Lowell, but this only added to an oversupply of textile product. Then, economic woes beginning in the late 1840s led to failure for five of the Boston Associates’ now numerous companies. When the Civil War (1861–1865), with its Union blockade of Southern ports, halted the supply of Southern cotton, many Lowell mills closed. After the war, the new system of sharecropping that drew largely upon the labor of former slaves gradually rebuilt the plantation economy. The rebound from what manufacturers had dubbed a “cotton famine” was dramatic: By 1870, total cotton production surpassed the previous high set in 1860.5

Textile production in Lowell resumed after the war, interrupted by a series of strikes in 1867, 1875, and, most seriously, in 1903. A slow decline set in, with mill closings escalating after World War I. During the Great Depression, two-thirds of the town’s population were unemployed or working only part time. By 1940, only three mills were left in operation, and after World War II, Lowell millwork all but disappeared. The town’s mills had become technologically obsolete, even as mills in North Carolina and the upper South combined modern, high-speed machinery with even cheaper labor.

In 1978, Lowell’s former mill district became the first urban national park—a sort of Colonial Williamsburg devoted to increasingly quaint industrial practices. Tourists can visit the still-impressive brick factories and boardinghouses and witness the machinery in operation. Then they can tour the canals that once powered America’s industrial revolution.

The Impetus for Company-Town Development

Lowell illustrates several of the motivations and limitations associated with company-town development. Large production or extraction complexes require considerable space for initial building, and later expansion. The undeveloped area that became Lowell met that need. But like a variety of subsequent company towns, Lowell was chosen primarily for its natural resources (in this case, water power). Of secondary but still important consideration was the question of labor supply. Labor shortages were common in America during the 19th century. Lowell’s masters discovered two solutions: underemployed Yankee farm girls and the increasing number of foreign immigrants, first from Ireland and Canada, then later from Greece, Poland, and forty other countries.

The more remote the location, the greater loomed the issue of transportation for the raw materials and the finished product. Lowell initially received raw cotton and sent out its finished goods via canal. After 1835, however, the Boston & Lowell Railroad assumed those tasks. Some thirty-odd miles from Lowell lay Boston itself, with its ample connections to consumer markets farther south and west.

And what of more idealistic motivations for company-town building? Profit was always an incentive to industrial development, but Alexander Hamilton was not the only figure in the young republic to concern himself with the nation’s destiny. Francis Cabot Lowell visited the Lancashire mill area in Britain in 1811 and was repelled by the squalor. “Operatives in the manufacturing cities of Europe,” he found, “were notoriously of the lowest character for intelligence and morals.”6 This would never do in the new republic. Hence, his town’s handsome red-brick boardinghouses, absence of saloons and requirement of temperance, and the elaborate paternalistic edifice, from the churches to the improving lectures and the Offering.

Lowell was America’s first company town, but many others exhibited similar characteristics. However, compiling a comprehensive list of US company towns is difficult, not least because of their nearly infinite variety. Does Washington, D.C., with its array of federal-government operations, qualify as a company town with a federal-government overlord? Probably not. Any such large metropolitan center is simply too diversified, containing a wide array of enterprises and a power elite that transcends any single purpose. That said, any list of company towns would have to include the following places and pursuits:

  • Textile towns across the Carolinas and Georgia, varying from small villages to large developments such as Kannapolis, N.C.

  • Coal-mining towns in Pennsylvania, followed by more in southern Appalachia once a post–Civil War railroad building boom made the area accessible.

  • Milton Hershey’s model town of Hershey, Pennsylvania, erected in an area with lots of dairy farms to provide milk for his milk chocolate.

  • Timber settlements, particularly in northern California, Oregon, and Washington State.

  • Steelmaking towns ranging from Alabama to West Virginia and into Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Indiana, and Colorado.

  • Midwestern manufacturing towns, ranging from whose single companies made everything from plumbing fixtures and washing machines to Ford automobiles.

  • Meatpacking towns, again notably located in the Midwest, near the supply of hogs and cattle.

  • Copper and hard-rock mining towns in the West.

  • Towns devoted to the production of munitions and hardware needed for World War II—notably the secret town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

The Company-Town Problem

So dramatic and disruptive were two late-19th-century strikes—the bloody 1892 work stoppage at Carnegie Steel’s Homestead, Pennsylvania, works; and the 1894 nationwide railroad strike kicked off by wage cuts at legendary Illinois railcar maker Pullman—that they reshaped the thinking of industry and company-town developers.

Homestead was not really a town at all, much less a company town. It was more like urban sprawl along the Monongahela River bank fourteen miles south of Pittsburgh. Carnegie Steel’s awesome plant shared the area with rows of cheap frame housing erected for workers by private developers. Across the river stood another chunk of congestion known as Braddock, whose housing was characterized in Tom Bell’s novel of immigrant life, Out of This Furnace, as “characteristic of the steel towns, long, ugly rows like cell blocks” lacking in “conveniences of any kind.”7

In 1892, the master of the Carnegie mill, Henry Clay Frick, determined to destroy the workers’ union, the Amalgamated Association of Steel and Iron Workers. After demanding pay and job cuts, Frick had the plant fortified with eleven-foot-high walls topped by barbed wire and backed by towers with searchlights. Then after a work stoppage, Frick attempted to reopen the plant, importing three hundred armed Pinkerton guards up the river by barge. Assembled on the riverbank, the strikers met the Pinkertons with a barrage of rifle and cannon fire. Nine strikers and seven Pinkertons died during a twelve-hour battle. With the aid of the state militia and more strikebreakers, Frick broke the union, but at a considerable cost to all concerned.8

Two years later, another labor conflagration centered on the town of Pullman, Illinois, fourteen miles outside of Chicago. In 1880, railroad sleeping-car magnate George Pullman built a model company town there, in an area that he said he considered free of all pernicious influences. His factory produced ornate sleeping cars, decked out in brocaded fabrics and polished wood. The town’s residential area included many blocks of well-built, red-brick row houses and tenements, most with indoor bathrooms, natural gas, and running water. A large marketplace for meats and vegetables, a handsome hotel, an elaborate theater, retail shops, a school, parks, and playing fields provided a variety of services and amenities for residents and visitors alike.

Yet George Pullman expected his workers to pay their own way: Rents were high, and any tenant could be evicted with little notice. No town, village, or municipal government separated the community from the company. A crew of “company inspectors” maintained round-the-clock surveillance of resident-workers to make sure that their habits and opinions passed muster.

Company Towns in the United StatesClick to view larger

Figure 2. The Illinois National Guard assembled in Pullman during the Great Railroad Strike of 1894.

Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

Then came the hour of reckoning. Hard times in the early 1890s led to layoffs, falling wages, unionization, and a strike, but no reduction in rents. Events continued to escalate, leading to a nationwide general strike in which mobs sabotaged tracks and trains. The president, Grover Cleveland, sent in federal troops, and thirteen railroad workers died in a confrontation in Chicago. The strike was broken, but Pullman’s model town was forever tainted. The city of Chicago took over its municipal functions, and in 1904, the company began selling residential properties and other town holdings.9

Were company towns, no matter how plush, inherently prone to trouble and labor strife? Many wondered.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Pullman events did not mean an end to model-company-town building. In the late 1890s Apollo Iron and Steel chief George Gibson McMurtry hired the celebrated architecture firm of Olmsted, Olmsted, and Eliot to design a model steel town on the Kiskiminetas River, about thirty miles northeast of Pittsburgh. The town would be called Vandergrift, and, unusually, workers were allowed to buy property and own their own homes. Lots were offered for $750 for elite workers, $150 for lower-paid operatives, and less still for laborers. Home-owning workers would have a stake in society—and in peaceful social relations: A 1901 strike called by the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers drew little support, as employees were “bound up by their property interests,” in the words of one union observer.10

Similarly, in 1904, chocolate maker Milton Hershey began construction of his own model town, Hershey, Pennsylvania, in a remote area of the state convenient to lots of milk-chocolate-ready dairy products. In an echo of George Pullman’s sentiments, Hershey declared that in his town, there would be “no poverty, no nuisances, no evil.” In the town, laid out by local engineer Henry Herr, worker housing was once again well equipped, featuring indoor plumbing, central heating, and even electricity. Hershey constructed parks, a zoo, a public library, a medical clinic, free schools, and more. Hershey company workers received a cornucopia of benefits: insurance, medical coverage, pensions, and a tuition-free junior college. In Hershey, houses could be bought for between $1,200 and $1,500, and a hundred lots were offered to those who wanted to build their own homes. It enjoyed peaceful labor relations during most of the ensuing decades. Unions achieved little success in organizing workers until a 1937 organizing campaign, followed by 1939 recognition of the conservative Bakery and Confectionary Workers Union.11

But the velvet-glove approach was not the only response to the violence that seemed endemic to company towns. When the United States Steel Corporation decided in 1904 to expand its production facilities, it, too, decided that a new town was in order. That became Gary, Indiana, a megacity literally constructed from scratch on the Lake Michigan shore, just across the state line from Chicago. That company town provided plenty of space, railroad access, and a large labor pool already nearby. US Steel went on to erect the largest steel complex in the nation, with capacity for sheet, wire, and tinplate production, a locomotive works, even a cement factory.

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Figure 3. Gary, Indiana, under construction in 1907.

Courtesy of Calumet Regional Archives, Indiana University Northwest.

Like many other steelmakers, US Steel was disinclined to build worker housing. Company executives intended simply to build the works, and then arrange the city around it. No celebrated landscape-architecture firm was involved in the design of this city: Instead, the Gary Works plant engineer, A. P. Melton, provided an unforgiving grid pattern. When the private market initially failed to produce a sufficient supply of homes, the company erected a number of residences. But in time, private developers did deliver, constructing hundreds of cheap frame houses and boardinghouses.

Most important in the mind of Eugene Buffington, a key planner and president of the subsidiary Illinois Steel, was the layout of the Gary plants. The steel works stretched for eight miles along the Lake Michigan shore. On the other side of the factories was the Grand Calumet River, dividing the facilities from residential areas. In the event of a Homestead-like labor confrontation, ore and coal for steelmaking, along with guards and strikebreakers, could enter the plant from the lake side. The river served as a defensive moat against any rowdies.

US Steel did not coddle Gary workers. “Time and again the paternalistic mistakes of Pullman were given as justification for a ‘do-as-little-as-you-have-to’ policy in shaping town conditions,” reported social reformer Graham Romeyn Taylor in his profile of the emerging Gary in 1915. Nine years after its first brick was laid, the city’s population reached 50,000. Despite the company town’s many faults, Taylor felt Gary was likely “the greatest single calculated achievement of America’s master industry.”12 Gary factories remained productive for decades, and by 1945, the Gary Works was the largest steel plant on Earth.

Exploitation in the Upper South

At the outbreak of the Civil War, “the United States was in truth an ‘undeveloped’ country,” according to historian Edward Chase Kirkland.13 Thus, there was a hiatus between the establishment of New England company towns and those that followed. But after the war, industrial development took off in a host of industries. Gradually, the textile industry migrated from New England to the Carolinas and Georgia, and the postwar development of railroads in the South allowed the exploitation of the great Appalachian coal fields in Kentucky, West Virginia, and elsewhere.

Beginning in the late 19th century, the hardships of rural life prompted a multitude of Southern tenant farmers to abandon agriculture and move to one of approximately 100 mill villages that arose in the backcountry of North Carolina, South Carolina, and northern Georgia. Most such villages consisted of little more than a mill and a few rows of worker houses (each with a privy out back), and perhaps a company store, a church, and a schoolhouse. Low wages, often only 60 percent of those paid in New England, were facilitated by cheap rents, usually 25 cents a week per room. The heyday of such textile hamlets occurred between 1880 and 1930, the number of workers rose from 17,000 in 1880 to nearly 100,000 in 1900, and as many as one-quarter of the laborers were children.14

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Figure 4. Child laborers in the textile town of Kannapolis, North Carolina.

Photo by Lewis Hine, courtesy of Library of Congress, LC-DIG-nclc-02638.

Housing may have been modest in Southern textile company towns. However, the Southern textile factories featured modern, labor-saving equipment that allowed workers to be little more than machine tenders. Some villages, including Burlington, North Carolina, and Greenville, South Carolina, became urban centers. Kannapolis grew into the largest nonincorporated town in North Carolina and featured seven Cannon Mills factories, the Cabarrus Memorial Hospital, hundreds of houses, and a newspaper, all owned by the Cannon family, while the Cannon company handled functions as policing, firefighting, utilities, and trash collection.

The barons of nearby coal country proved even more controlling. To hold a job in coal country, generally the worker had to live in and pay rent on a company-owned house, which was little more than a shack. No outsiders, such as peddlers, meddlers, or union organizers, were allowed into the area. Workers got paid in scrip—company-issued currency—or sometimes in cash, according to the number of tons of coal ore loaded this month. Rent and utilities were deducted from pay, often along with school fees and taxes. If a worker ran out of money, he could get food on credit at the pricey company store. But if one were injured on the job or otherwise became unable to work, he would be evicted from his house with as little as ten days’ notice. The same treatment would be delivered to his family if he were killed on the job.

Company Towns in the United StatesClick to view larger

Figure 5. The coal-mining village of Jenkins, Kentucky, founded in 1912.

Photo by Ben Shahn, courtesy of Library of Congress, LC-USF3301-006137-M5

The living quarters in coal mining camps were among the worst in the United States, according to a 1925 report of the US Coal Commission. Only 14 percent of coal-town houses in Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky had running water. Most had outside privies that emptied into a nearby creek. Each little house was heated only by an open fireplace or a coal-fired, potbellied stove.

“The Man” was the law: One coal-mine operator bragged, “I was the high justice, the middle, and the low.” His primary aim was keeping unions out. Private guards, blacklists, beatings, and even killings were hardly unknown. In the 1910s and 1920s, Logan County, West Virginia, sheriff Don Chafin, the personal beneficiary of largesse from mine owners, named three hundred mine guards to be his deputies. He met every train that came into the area, questioned passengers regarding what they were doing there, administered beatings to union organizers, and jailed perceived political opponents. The intimidating tactics provoked a response. In 1921, an army of thousands of miners marched on Logan to demand the release of jailed union activists. Chafin and his two-thousand-strong army of deputies met the marchers at Blair Mountain. The result was a war that included aerial bombings of the miners and shootouts in which thirty deputies and up to one hundred miners were killed. Intervention by federal troops resulted in a roundup, arrests, and trials of hundreds of miners, with many miners sent to prison.15

Similar outbreaks of violence continued well into the 20th century. In 1913, coal miners in Las Animas County, Colorado, joined in mass activity aimed at unionizing coal mines, most owned by the Rockefeller family’s Colorado Fuel and Iron. The companies rejected union demands and evicted miners from their company towns. Tent cities sprung up, with the largest, housing one thousand people, set up near a railroad depot at Ludlow. Battles broke out between strikers and company guards employed by the Baldwin-Felts strikebreaking firm. A months-long siege ensued, with Colorado National Guard troops ushering strikebreakers into the mines. Finally, in April 1914, the Guard attacked the encampment at Ludlow, firing machine guns into the tents and setting fire to the site. Two women and eleven children died.

In the 1930s, violence flared in Harlan County, Kentucky. Wage cuts, walkouts, armed clashes, National Guard intervention, and strikebreakers were features of labor-relations conflict in coal country. But the New Deal’s 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act, with its endorsement of the right to organize, prompted coal miners to flood into the United Mine Workers union by the thousands. Still, Harlan remained an antiunion stronghold. By the spring of 1935, bombings and shootings of union organizers were rife there. Two years later, the US Department of Justice prosecuted sixty-nine coal companies for engaging in a conspiracy to violate federal labor law. State police enforcement led to a decline in violence.

In industries where labor was plentiful, employers were sometimes generous toward workers and less hostile toward unions. But coal operators found willing workers difficult to come by during the coal-industry boom that stretched from the 1880s to the 1920s. Locals were widely aware of such risks as cave-ins, gas explosions, and less-dramatic respiratory ailments such as chronic bronchitis and pneumoconiosis, or black lung. Moreover, Appalachian workers, sometimes derided as hillbillies, were perceived by employers as prickly and unreliable, tending to gravitate back to small farming plots during planting and harvesting seasons. The companies’ labor agents haunted the docks in big East Coast cities, looking for newcomers from Italy, Hungary, Poland, and Greece. Promised good pay, these penniless “transportation men” arrived via railcar in coal towns, only to find that they were already in debt for their travel expenses. Kentucky and West Virginia populations soared, but the immigrants often proved unreliable, fleeing to other jobs in other places. World War I and restrictive immigration laws also played havoc with the flow of Europeans.

Some coal towns were built as models, including Lynch, Kentucky, and Holden, West Virginia. But the little coal-mining villages, sporting such unlikely monickers as Neon, Hi-Hat, Chevrolet, and Blackey, were probably more typical. There, daily life was grim. Author Harry M. Caudill, who profiled the area in his masterful Night Comes to the Cumberlands, wrote of the “monstrous coal-dust genie,” a black plume that rose near every town’s tipple (or loading facility for railcars), infecting the towns’ every nook and cranny. Moreover, there were giant refuse heaps of discarded slate that sometimes spontaneously erupted into “mountains of living fire which blazed without intermission.” Polluted air peeled paint from the walls and turned every surface ashen gray.16

The prison-camp-like coal company town entered a period of slow decline in the 1930s. There were dramatic clashes between coal miners and the federal government during World War II and further violent strikes in the 1960s and 1980s. At the same time, the declining national demand for coal led to a rapid fall-off in the number of coal miners, along with a mass exodus to Midwestern industrial cities. The coal company town was becoming a population-free ghost town in the mode of such places as Lobo, Texas, and Bodie, California.

Federal government criticism led many Southern textile companies to abandon and sell their towns during the Depression years. By 1939, a dozen companies had sold at least thirty villages, with houses being purchased for very little by inhabitants, with another sixty villages sold during the 1940s. Larger places such as Kannapolis, however, survived and even prospered. When a Fortune magazine reporter visited during the 1930s, he found the place to be “[l]ike a medieval city, [standing] aloof and self-contained in the midst of empty country, suspicious of strangers, loyal to its feudal lords.”17 The textile fiefdom lasted into the 1980s, when Cannon fell victim to corporate raiders, buyouts, bankruptcy, and finally a shutdown.

From Country Town to Company Town

Not every company town in the United States was built from scratch. In many cases, country towns expanded alongside a hometown corporation. Two of these serve as illustrations here: Newton, Iowa, hometown of the Maytag washing machine company; and Austin, Minnesota, home of the Spam-making Hormel Corp.

Newton, Iowa, was a coal-mining and railway hub with a population of twenty-five hundred when Frederick Maytag moved there late in the 19th century with his parents from Illinois. In 1892, the young Maytag joined with others to make and market threshing-machine accessories. Soon, several companies making hand-operated washing machines appeared in town. In 1907, Maytag and his company’s mechanic began producing a washer as well—basically a wooden tub with a crank mechanism that dragged clothes against a corrugated surface. They saw this as a sideline to their farm-equipment business, but it quickly became profitable.

Within a few years, Maytag bought out his partners, renamed the company Maytag Co., and began producing both gasoline-powered and electric washers. By 1915, the company’s washers were outselling its farm equipment. Its Maytag Multi-Motor became a hot seller owing to its ability to power other implements, such as a butter churn or ice-cream maker, while washing clothes.

Hundreds of manufacturers made washers during this period, but a quarter of the machines were produced by four companies in Newton. Maytag’s innovations, including the millrace washing principle, which forced hot water through tumbling clothes, spurred rapid growth. By 1920, the company had the largest factory in Iowa, with six hundred thousand square feet, two thousand employees, and a network of thousands of dealers.

In that decade, Maytag became a public corporation listed on the New York Stock Exchange. But family members remained the key executives. Chief Executive Officer Elmer Maytag and his partners purchased hundreds of vacant lots around town and built homes that they sold to employees. Mortgages were offered by a savings bank where Elmer was an officer. The family funded a local YMCA, which workers were required to join and pay dues to, and a yearly family picnic, which employees also were required to attend.

These company welfare programs, however, masked worker discontent. A 1937 union drive by the United Electrical Workers signed up fourteen hundred Maytag workers in only nine days. One year later, amid union demands for a 25 percent raise and the company’s institution of a 10 percent pay cut, the workers went on a work stoppage, and the state sent in four National Guard companies equipped with tanks and machine guns. The union’s strike was broken in days.

During World War II, Maytag shifted its capacity to armaments production, and when it returned to washer-making after the conflict, a raft of new competitors awaited. These included General Electric, Westinghouse, Philco, Frigidaire, Amana, and Whirlpool. But Maytag held on, its sales spurred by its successful advertising campaign featuring the “lonely Maytag repairman,” underemployed thanks to the company’s near-unbreakable machines. Still, during the ensuing decades, too-rapid expansion, unwise acquisitions of such lines as Jenn Air and Hoover vacuums, and finally competition from foreign makers sealed the company’s fate.18 Whirlpool took over Maytag in 2006, closed its Newton headquarters and factories in that town and elsewhere, and laid off twenty-eight hundred Newton residents, about a fifth of the town’s citizenry.

Like Newton, Austin, Minnesota, was initially a transportation and trading center. Austin, however, followed a rather different evolution. In 1891, a traveling hide-buyer out of Toledo, George A. Hormel, turned his hand to operating a retail butcher shop and packing house in Austin. During the decade, four other Hormel brothers moved to the town of thirty-nine hundred souls, where they worked in beef and pork slaughtering, sausage making, the ice harvesting necessary to keep meat refrigerated, and running the retail shop. Most meat-packing at the time was carried on in Chicago by such behemoths as Armour, Cudahy, and Swift. Small-town buyers who developed close relations with nearby farmers, however, discovered other business advantages. Before long, Hormel developed distribution centers across the Midwest and the South and perfected a means of canning ham, which proved a popular item. And in 1933, Hormel’s cultivation of a national market proceeded, assisted by the construction of a new $1 million beef slaughtering plant in Austin.

Hormel also followed a different path in labor relations. Plant supervisor Frank C. Ellis and other pro-union employees, some of whom Ellis had hired and placed in strategic positions across the plant, organized mass meetings and union events. In the fall of 1933, the workers shut down the plant and escorted George’s son Jay, the company president, out of the facility. Already inclined toward progressive labor relations, Hormel recognized the workers’ organization, the Industrial Workers of the World–inspired Independent Union of All Workers. A number of forward-looking policies resulted, including group-incentive bonuses and profit-sharing. The speed of the work was determined by work gangs rather than by dictatorial foremen.

For more than 40 years, Hormel suffered no serious disputes between company and union. Hormel established a Hormel Foundation to support local charities and ensure “the welfare of the community in which [the company] was located.” And the company’s expanding line of branded products, including Dinty Moore beef stew and the spiced-ham-like product Spam, proved enormous sellers across the United States and beyond.

The company’s success paid off for the town. In 1953, author Fred H. Blum reported that Austin contained no slum areas or neglected houses, and 75 percent of Austinites (a higher percentage than in any comparable US city) lived in their own homes.19

But by the 1980s, this cozy relationship seemed doomed. New, aggressive packers with union-busting and wage-cutting ways entered the field, and many older companies (including Wilson and Armour) were driven from the business. Recession, plant closings, union defeats, and Reagan-era pay cuts joined to bring packinghouse workers’ pay down to 20 percent below the average manufacturing wage.

In 1985, Austin’s Hormel workers engaged in a renowned strike against the company’s demands for significant wage and benefit cuts. Led by an innovative group of young, militant workers, the strike became an inspiration for a budding anticoncessions movement. But the walkout was opposed by the local union’s proconcessions national union, which imposed a trusteeship. Those who had crossed the picket line became the new union members.

By 2000, the typical meatpacking company town was a dystopia, populated by poorly paid workers, including many immigrants from Latin America. In Austin, workplace injuries and job turnover were at high levels. The hog slaughter was subcontracted to an entity called Quality Pork Producers, which paid even lower wages than Hormel. (“All of the fresh meat we process goes to the Hormel Foods Corporation,” the company’s website blatantly proclaimed.) Hormel ran the rest of the plant. Meanwhile, Austin’s formerly pin-neat houses in many cases had been replaced by boarded-up, dilapidated hovels. The town’s once-bustling shopping mall was largely vacant. And the levels of crime, drug addiction, and poverty were profound.

The Company Town in the 21st Century

Some industrial company towns lived on into the 21st century. Meatpacking is still the primary activity in Austin, Minnesota, and Fremont, Nebraska, both dominated by the Hormel Corporation, and also in Tar Heel, North Carolina, home to a huge Smithfield Packing plant.20 The picturesque model company town of Kohler, Wisconsin, site of both the longest strike in US history and, incongruously enough, numerous top-flight golf championships, still produces Kohler plumbing fixtures. In Morenci and Bagdad, Arizona, mining company Freeport-McMoRan owns all the buildings and makes most of its money unearthing copper. Corning, New York, is still the fortunate home of Corning Inc., a world-class glassmaker, and the Corning Glass Museum, a must-stop for tourists traveling between New York City and Niagara Falls.

Company Towns in the United StatesClick to view larger

Figure 6. Corning Inc.’s modern headquarters in the town of Corning, New York.

Photo by Hardy Green.

A new model, however, had emerged during the first half of the 20th century: the suburban corporate campus. Automobiles and improved roads encouraged companies to begin moving away from urban centers as early as the 1930s. One of the first was the Bell Labs division of American Telephone & Telegraph. At first, that company figured that it would erect a new headquarters and research laboratory in Manhattan. Instead, in 1944, Bell Labs relocated to a parklike campus near Summit, New Jersey, some twenty-five miles outside of Gotham.

The construction of Bell Labs in a New York suburban location marked the beginning of a substantial exodus. In 1940, fewer than thirty-five such corporate campuses existed in the United States. By the early 1970s, however, more than three hundred such communities could be found in California alone. Numerous other examples arose in Florida, Georgia, Minnesota, Missouri, Texas, and Wisconsin. In 1957, International Business Machines (IBM) commissioned famed Finnish architect Eero Saarinen to design a scientific research center in leafy Westchester County, north of New York City. Others soon moving to the suburbs included Connecticut General Life, PepsiCo, General Electric, and Raytheon. These were not true company towns. Still, urban sociologist William H. Whyte found the new structures inhospitable and fortresslike, a triumph for the “car culture.”21

And despite some corporate movement back into cities, the exurban trend continues today. With more than eleven thousand workers in the Silicon Valley town of Mountain View, California, Google owns 10 percent of the town’s property. The corporation hopes to add 3.7 million square feet of new development, which could allow it to double its workforce. Was Mountain View evolving into a modern-day, one-company town? Concerned, the city council opposed Google’s plans to build employee housing. Later, the company leased a thousand-acre federal airfield, where the city has no jurisdiction to prevent the housing of Google employees. Google also developed plans for employee residences on the former National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) base at Ames. The Silicon Valley Mercury News estimated that housing would take up 10 percent of the base’s space.22 The ultramodern Googleplex building already offers a smorgasbord of workplace amenities, from free food to nap rooms, that give work a homey, warm-nest feeling and make employees feel that they never need to leave.

Another high-tech company town is seemingly being shaped by Facebook. In February 2011, Facebook announced that it was moving its headquarters to the former Sun Microsystems campus in Menlo Park, California. By 2017, the company had two campuses on either side of an expressway, a Frank Gehry–designed area that spanned 430,000 square feet and housed offices for twenty-eight hundred employees, and the “Willow Campus,” reconfigured by Rem Koolhaas to include fifteen hundred units of housing and a score of merchants, from gourmet eateries to hair salons, that catered only to Facebook employees.23

Discussion of the Literature

A limited number of works examine the American company town as a broad topic. Among the few studies that attempt an overview, consideration of architecture and urban planning often overshadows an examination of social or economic history. Among the most important of these is John S. Garner’s The Model Company Town: Urban Design Through Private Enterprise in Nineteenth-Century New England, which provides a useful overview of early company towns in the Northeast. Margaret Crawford’s Building the Workingman’s Paradise: The Design of American Company Towns describes the evolution of company towns from “vernacular settlements” to impressive projects by celebrated architects and planners (p. 140). Such now-forgotten sites as Phelps-Dodge Company’s Tyrone, New Mexico, and the Norton Company’s Indian Hill Village, Massachusetts, receive well-deserved attention.

Several works consider the company towns of particular geographical areas, such as New England or the West. And in the most common approach of all, historians have tended to examine such places individually, community by community. Such studies often provide a wealth of detail about specific places, almost as if each were developed in isolation. John Coolidge’s Mill and Mansion: A Study of Architecture and Society in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1820–1865, shows in prose and photos how the town’s buildings and its inhabitants evolved over time. Stanley Buder’s Pullman: An Experiment in Industrial Order and Community Planning is an engrossing examination of the construction of that model town, its unfortunate role in the 1894 nationwide railroad strike, and the town and company’s subsequent decline during the 20th century. Amoskeag: Life and Work in an American Factory City, by Tamara K. Hareven and Randolph Langenbach, provides an essential history of Manchester, New Hampshire, and, in a Studs Terkel–like section, allows the workers to give voice to their personal histories. Thomas Dublin’s Bancroft Prize–winning Women at Work: The Transformation of Work and Community in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1826–1860 is the definitive account of Lowell’s early history. Finally, perhaps the most impressive of the works that concentrate on one locality is Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World, by Jacquelyn Dowd Hall et al. This landmark effort examines a range of villages across the upper South, drawing on over two hundred interviews with textile workers to describe the transformation of agriculture, the migration to the mills, the work experience, and the sometimes-peculiar folkways of the Southern cotton mill universe.

Few writers have celebrated life in company towns. Rather, existence there has been considered grim. In his classic The Mind of the South, journalist W. J. Cash wrote that the model for the Southern textile village was clear: “a plantation essentially indistinguishable in organization from the familiar plantation of the cotton fields.”24 Similarly, in his landmark Night Comes to the Cumberlands, Harry M. Caudill writes of the “pitiful, hideous little shelters” that characterized coal-country towns.25

Such oppressive scenes dominate our thinking about company towns. This means that we may overlook the fact that not all towns were quite so shabby: As has been noted, some even had housing with indoor toilets, running water, and central heating. But to find accounts of life in such relatively privileged places, the reader should look for works dealing individually with such communities as Hershey, Pennsylvania; Scotia, California; and Corning, New York.

Primary Sources

Confident of his place in the annals of history, one of the primary founders of Lowell, Massachusetts, had his recollections of the development of the town printed and bound. Nathan Appleton’s Introduction of the Power Loom and the Origin of Lowell tells how Francis Cabot Lowell and Paul Moody perfected a loom, how the site for the new town was chosen, and how European manufacturing towns served as a negative example. Correspondence Between Nathan Appleton and John A. Lowell in Relation to the Early History of the City of Lowell offers further details of the town’s early days.26 There are more Appleton papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society, while various business records such as those of the Hamilton Manufacturing Company are available at the Harvard University Business School’s Baker Library. The mill girls’ literary magazine, The Lowell Offering, is available on microfilm and is excerpted frequently in anthologies.

John Brophy’s A Miner’s Life is the autobiography of a former coal miner and union officer, useful for its description of miners’ work and coal towns from the 1890s through the 1920s.27 The United States Coal Commission released a variety of reports on the industry during the 1920s, including the studies “Earnings of Anthracite Miners” and “Labor Relations in the Anthracite Industry.”28 The United Mine Workers of America maintained voluminous archives, some of which can be found at the library of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

In the 1930s, the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration enlisted hundreds of poor Southerners—including cotton-mill workers and villagers—to write their own life histories. The originals are at the library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A good selection of the life histories can be found in the volume These Are Our Lives.29

The thinking behind Gary, Indiana, is revealed in Illinois Steel president Eugene Buffington’s magazine article, “Making Cities for Workingmen,” published in Harper’s Weekly.30 Graham Romeyn Taylor’s studies of steel towns, including Gary, ran in several issues of The Survey, a journal published by the Charity Organization Society of the City of New York; these were later collected in book form.31 The Interchurch World Movement formed a commission to study the decisive 1919 steel strike, concluding with an indictment of the labor practices of US Steel management.32 The Russell Sage Foundation’s multivolume study of living and working conditions in the Pittsburgh area, collectively known as the Pittsburgh Survey, offers a broad view of steelmaking communities. It is available online in excerpted form, and published volumes were issued by the University of Pittsburgh Press and the Russell Sage Foundation.

Further Reading

Allen, James. The Company Town in the American West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966.Find this resource:

    Blum, Fred H. Toward a Democratic Work Process: The Hormel Packinghouse-Workers’ Experiment. New York: Harper, 1953.Find this resource:

      Buder, Stanley. Pullman: An Experiment in Industrial Order and Community Planning, 1880–1930. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.Find this resource:

        Coolidge, John. Mill and Mansion: A Study of Architecture and Society in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1820–1865. New York: Columbia University Press, 1942.Find this resource:

          Crawford, Margaret. Building the Workingman’s Paradise: The Design of American Company Towns. London and New York: Verso, 1995.Find this resource:

            D’Antonio, Michael. Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.Find this resource:

              Dublin, Thomas. Women at Work: The Transformation of Work and Community in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1826–1860. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.Find this resource:

                Ely, Richard T. “Pullman: A Social Study.” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 70 (1885): 452–466.Find this resource:

                  Garner, John S. The Model Company Town: Urban Design Through Private Enterprise in Nineteenth-Century New England. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.Find this resource:

                    Garner, John S., ed. The Company Town: Architecture and Society in the Early Industrial Age. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.Find this resource:

                      Green, Hardy. The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills That Shaped the American Economy. New York: Basic Books, 2010.Find this resource:

                        Hales, Peter Bacon. Atomic Spaces: Living on the Manhattan Project. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.Find this resource:

                          Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd, et al. Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World. New York: W.W. Norton, 1987.Find this resource:

                            Hareven, Tamara K., and Randolph Langenbach. Amoskeag: Life and Work in an American Factory City. New York: Pantheon, 1978.Find this resource:

                              Kulik, Gary, Roger Parks, and Theodore Z. Penn, eds. The New England Mill Village, 1790–1860. Cambridge, MA, and London: MIT Press, 1982.Find this resource:

                                Mosher, Anne E. Capital’s Utopia: Vandergrift, Pennsylvania 1855–1916. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

                                  Mozingo, Louise A. Pastoral Capitalism: A History of Suburban Corporate Landscapes. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011.Find this resource:

                                    Reutter, Mark. Sparrow’s Point: Making Steel—the Rise and Ruin of American Industrial Might. New York: Summit Books, 1988.Find this resource:

                                      Taylor, Graham Romeyn. Satellite Cities: A Study of Industrial Suburbs. New York: D. Appleton, 1915.Find this resource:

                                        Wilkerson, Hugh, and John van der Zee. Life in the Peace Zone: An American Company Town. New York: Macmillan, 1971.Find this resource:

                                          Wright, Carroll D. Fall River, Lowell, and Lawrence. Boston: Rand, Avery, 1882.Find this resource:

                                            Wright, Carroll D. Report on the Factory System of the United States. Washington, DC: US Congress, 47th, 2nd session: 1882–1883.Find this resource:


                                              (1.) Gary Kulik, Roger Parks, and Theodore Z. Penn, eds., The New England Mill Village, 1790–1860 (Cambridge, MA, and London: MIT Press, 1982), xxiii; and Thomas Dublin, Women at Work: The Transformation of Work and Community in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1826–1860 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979), 15.

                                              (2.) US Census Bureau, “Population of the 100 Largest Cities and Other Urban Places in the United States, 1790–1990,” Washington, DC: Population Division Working Paper No. 27, June 1998.

                                              (3.) Charles Dickens, American Notes (London and New York: Cassell, n.d.), 55–58.

                                              (4.) Henry David Thoreau, “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” in Walden and Other Writings of Henry David Thoreau, ed. Brooks Atkinson (New York: Modern Library, 1937), 340–341.

                                              (5.) Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), 246–292.

                                              (6.) Quoted in Nathan Appleton, Introduction of the Power Loom and the Origin of Lowell (Lowell, MA: B. H. Penhallow, 1858), 15.

                                              (7.) Tom Bell, Out of This Furnace (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1976), 122–123.

                                              (8.) Paul Krause, The Battle for Homestead 1880–1892 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992), 12–43.

                                              (9.) Stanley Buder, Pullman: An Experiment in Industrial Order and Community Planning, 1880–1930 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), 97–103, 129–199.

                                              (10.) Anne E. Mosher, Capital’s Utopia: Vandergrift, Pennsylvania 1855–1916 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), 145.

                                              (11.) Michael D’Antonio, Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 50–51, 84–140; and Joel Glenn Brenner, The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars (New York: Random House, 1999), 75–88, 106–135.

                                              (12.) Graham Romeyn Taylor, Satellite Cities: A Study of Industrial Suburbs (New York: D. Appleton, 1915), 10, 165.

                                              (13.) Edward Chase Kirkland, Industry Comes of Age: Business, Labor, and Public Policy, 1860–1897 (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1961), 1–2.

                                              (14.) Jacquelyn Dowd Hall et al., Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World (New York: W. W. Norton, 1987), 56.

                                              (16.) Harry M. Caudill, Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area (Boston: Little, Brown, 1962), 144–145.

                                              (17.) “Cannon II,” Fortune, November 1933, 141.

                                              (18.) Robert Hoover and John Hoover, An American Quality Legend: How Maytag Saved Our Moms, Vexed the Competition, and Presaged America’s Quality Revolution (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993), 62–156, 176–201.

                                              (19.) Fred H. Blum, Toward a Democratic Work Process: The Hormel Packinghouse-Workers’ Experiment (New York: Harper, 1953), 3.

                                              (20.) Charlie LeDuff, “At a slaughterhouse, some things never die,” The New York Times on the Web, June 16, 2000.

                                              (21.) William H. Whyte, City: Rediscovering the Center (New York: Doubleday, 1988), 290.

                                              (22.) Sean Hollister, “Welcome to Googletown,” The Verge, February 26, 2014; and Mike Swift, “Google’s Growth Online reflected by Expansion in Mountain View,” The Mercury News, November 11, 2010.

                                              (23.) Jessica Guynn, “Welcome to Zucker Burg,” Los Angeles Times, August 10, 2012; and Julianne Tveten, The Baffler, September 27, 2017.

                                              (24.) W. J. Cash, The Mind of the South (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1941), 205.

                                              (25.) Harry M. Caudill, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, 109.

                                              (26.) Nathan Appleton, Introduction of the Power Loom and the Origin of Lowell: Correspondence Between Nathan Appleton and John A. Lowell in Relation to the Early History of the City of Lowell (Boston: Eastburn’s Press, 1848).

                                              (27.) John Brophy, A Miner’s Life (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1964).

                                              (28.) The US Coal Commission, “Earnings of Anthracite Miners” and “Labor Relations in the Anthracite Industry” (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1923).

                                              (29.) Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration, These Are Our Lives (New York: W. W. Norton, 1975).

                                              (30.) Eugene Buffington, “Making Cities for Workingmen,” Harper’s Weekly, May 8, 1909, 15.

                                              (31.) Taylor, Satellite Cities.

                                              (32.) Commission of Inquiry, Interchurch World Movement, Report on the Steel Strike of 1919 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Howe, 1920).