You can still find the remnants of American company towns from coast to coast. The capitalistic, worker-bee landscape still stands in places like Scotia, Calif., in the tidy Chicago neighborhood of Pullman, and in Kohler, Wis. Their current reincarnations are no longer tied to the bloated egos and strict morals of industrial barons, but these towns still punctuate our working histories, giving rise to a new brand of company campus as we lurch toward an uncertain economic future.
Author Hardy Green offers us the necessary historical context in "The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills That Shaped the American Economy." Green breaks down these towns into two broad categories: paternalistic and exploitive with, at times, a mix of the two. But at the center of it all is good old-fashioned American profit motive. When profits fell because of union activity, modernization or competition, the towns often fell into disarray, transformation or, in the case of the steel town of Gary, Ind., urban ruin.
The first of these communities began in post-revolutionary eastern United States with the textile mills that gave rise to the "first large-scale, planned industrial community: Lowell, Massachusetts."
Lowell was paternalistic, a blueprint that many other company CEOs would follow. After all, young women -- mere teenagers -- were among the workforce, and their families needed to be reassured that they "would not only be safe and well-looked-after, but that they would reside in an atmosphere of civility." Pianos, poetry and literary magazines were encouraged; alcohol and dance classes were grounds for firing.
The mining towns of Appalachia and Colorado were decidedly exploitive. Workers were kept under the harsh thumb of management through a combination of corrupt politics, depressed wages and isolation. Living and working conditions were horrible. Miners and their families lived in shacks and were forced to shop at company stores using scrip for cash, adding to their indebtedness. Out of this misery rose unions, collective bargaining and the 40-hour workweek. This important chapter in our nation's labor history showcases Green at his best, connecting the dots and writing with verve and authority.
Today's company towns are neither utopian nor exploitive. Consider Google's $600 million data center near Dalles, Ore. Only 200 human beings labor over "tens of thousands of inexpensive processors and disks." Less convincing, perhaps, are Green's inclusion into the pantheon of company towns of energy companies. Still, Green writes, who can predict anything linear about our economy?
"Just consider the sturdy brick edifices in Lowell -- built to last many lifetimes and now abandoned, like the great pyramids, to the fickle vicissitudes of history."
Stephen J. Lyons' new book is "The 1,000-Year Flood." His forthcoming article on the North Dakota economy will be in the Dec. 1 issue of American Way magazine.