A bright history of a quintessentially American place.
Former Business Week associate editor Green (On Strike at Hormel: The Struggle for a Democratic Labor Movement, 1990) examines single-enterprise towns and their role in the economic development of the United States. Once numbering around 2,500, writes the author, company towns flourished in America with the availability of land and the support of government policies. They have often reflected the visions of “capitalist father figure[s]” like George Pullman, Milton Hershey and Henry Ford, who attracted workers to places where they were needed by providing housing, insurance, medical coverage and other benefits. Most towns were located near a firm’s most critically needed resource and treated workers in ways that were either utopian and paternalistic, exploitative and despotic, or somewhere in between. Utopian towns have included Scotia, Calif., where Pacific Lumber established a forest camp in the 1880s that became “a pin-neat, saloon-free Shangri-La amid redwood forests”; and Hershey, Pa., which “featured electrified, centrally heated homes, a free playground and zoo, and a model school for orphan boys.” By contrast, coal-mining towns offered wretched living quarters, few recreational facilities and the notorious company store. In even the most humane towns, company police monitored employees’ behavior at home and on the job. Green tells the stories of dozens of company towns, from Lowell, Mass., the first large-scale planned industrial community, to Gary, Ind., where U.S. Steel developed the largest company town ever built. He also discusses modern corporate campuses like Collierville, Tenn., which offers jogging trails, a library and a wellness center for 1,500 FedEx workers; and the Googleplex in Mountain View, Calif., with its free gourmet meals for employees and myriad other unique benefits. His stories are mainly top-down accounts; many readers may wish for more from workers who lived in these communities. Although company towns persist, many disappeared after strikes, buyouts and economic downturns. Others faded once cars and highways allowed people to drive to work. Green notes these towns are part of “a long tradition of business social experimentation and efforts at social betterment.”
A solid addition to the business shelf.