A century ago, America was home to an estimated 2,500 company towns, places built and operated by a single organization, for which the residents or their family members all worked. A number of these communities sprung up in isolated locations, near coal mines, logging sites and textile mills, and earned a bad reputation because they usually consisted of little more than poor-quality rental housing and an overpriced company store. However, not all company towns were exploitive and some, such as Hershey, Pennsylvania, were designed as industrial utopias. Learn about five of these historic communities, which produced everything from pianos to chocolate.
In 1884, George Pullman completed construction of a new manufacturing complex and town on 4,000 acres of land south of Chicago for the employees of his flourishing Pullman Palace Car Co., founded in 1867 to build luxury railroad sleeping cars. He intended for his planned community to help prevent labor unrest, attract a skilled workforce and increase employee productivity by providing a clean, orderly environment away from the vice-filled big city. The town featured more than 1,000 homes, public buildings and parks. Residences had yards, indoor plumbing, gas and daily trash removal, rare amenities for industrial workers of that era. The community won national accolades and by 1893 had 12,000 residents; however, some who lived there chafed under Pullman’s iron rule. Workers, allowed only to rent their homes, could be evicted on short notice and faced random inspections by officials. Saloons and town meetings were banned and Pullman even had the final say on which books the library stocked and what performances the theater put on.
In response to an economic downturn in 1894, Pullman cut jobs and wages while refusing to reduce rents, sparking a violent workers’ strike that ended only after federal troops were sent in. When the railway car magnate died in 1897, his coffin was buried under layers of concrete and steel so no one could desecrate his body. The following year, the Illinois Supreme Court ordered the Pullman Co. to sell all its non-industrial property, allowing workers to buy their homes. The neighborhood, which was annexed to Chicago in 1889, went into a slow decline and the factory closed in 1957. Soon afterward, Pullman was slated for demolition; however, it eluded that fate after residents protested and survives today.
In 1900, Milton Hershey sold the successful caramel candy business he’d founded in order to become a pioneer in the mass-production of milk chocolate. He built a factory complex near his birthplace in rural Pennsylvania, in part because the area’s dairy farms offered access to an ample supply of milk. Due to the remote location of the factory, Hershey also constructed a town for his employees, intending it as an industrial utopia that reflected his progressive beliefs. With streets named Chocolate and Cocoa avenues, the new town featured a wide variety of affordable, modern homes that workers could rent or own, a trolley system, public schools, social clubs, an amusement park and zoo. In 1909, Hershey, who was childless and had a limited formal education, established a local boarding school for orphaned boys. During the Great Depression, he launched a building campaign that kept hundreds of people employed and resulted in the addition of a large hotel, sports arena and other public structures to his model town.
Despite Hershey’s altruism and his chocolate-scented community’s many amenities, life in “the sweetest place on Earth” wasn’t entirely sweet. Efforts were made by Hershey and his executives to police employees’ behavior when they were off the clock, and company managers were accused by some workers of showing favoritism when it came to wages and hiring practices. In 1937, Hershey chocolate factory workers organized the company’s first labor union and went on strike. Although the strike was short-lived, it marred the community’s idyllic image. However, after the chocolate king died in 1945, Hershey survived, unlike other company towns, and chocolate is still made there today.
In 1853, German immigrant Henry Steinway founded a piano-making business bearing his name in lower Manhattan. By 1870, the thriving Steinway & Sons needed more space, but the company’s success had also made it a target of labor agitators. Eager to get their employees away from the anarchists and socialists who were “continually breeding discontent among our workmen and inciting them to strike,” according to William Steinway, one of Henry’s sons, the family constructed a complex, including a foundry and sawmill, on 400 acres in the lightly populated Astoria section of Queens, New York. There, across the river from Manhattan, William Steinway also established a village with housing for his workers, which gave him some control, as he could evict anyone who went on strike. However, as a further means of making money, he rented and sold homes and land in the village to non-employees. Additionally, Steinway constructed an amusement park that drew thousands of New Yorkers to the area on weekends, developed streetcar lines linking his settlement to other parts of New York and eventually headed a committee that planned the city’s subway system. Today, while Steinway Village has merged with other neighborhoods, the Steinway factory remains in place, producing more than 1,000 pianos each year
In the 1840s, Prussian immigrant John Roebling launched a wire rope manufacturing business and began designing and building suspension bridges. His best-known project was the Brooklyn Bridge, which was completed after his death by his son Washington. John Roebling’s three sons expanded their father’s business, and in 1904 the family bought farmland south of Trenton, where the company had been based since 1848, to build a steel mill. The Roeblings also constructed a town next to their plant, with more than 750 houses, several hotels for unmarried working men, stores, recreation fields and an auditorium. The company maintained the housing, lawns and streets; however, unlike George Pullman, the Roeblings didn’t try to control the moral lives of their employees.
The Roebling’s products were used in the Golden Gate Bridge, the George Washington Bridge, the Empire State Building, netting used trap enemy submarines during WWI and even the wire used in Slinky toys. In 1947, the Roeblings put their town’s buildings and houses up for sale, giving their workers first priority at ownership. Six years later, they sold the company to a new owner, who kept the plant running until 1974. While a number of the factory buildings have been since torn down, many homes and other company-erected structures in Roebling remain standing.
Developed in the 1880s by the Pacific Lumber Co., which needed housing for its loggers and mill workers, this Northern California town was named for the Nova Scotian lumberjacks who were among its early residents. From the 1890s to the 1980s, Pacific Lumber was owned by a family with a paternalistic view toward its employees and Scotia earned a reputation as a desirable place to live. Pacific Lumber maintained all of the town’s housing, which was rented to company employees at affordable rates, and even gave residents presents at Christmas. Generations of workers raised their families in Scotia; however, in the mid-1980s, Pacific Lumber’s longtime owners sold the business, and in 2007 the new owners filed for bankruptcy. Scotia, then comprised of some 270 homes, several churches, a hotel and a handful of other commercial buildings, became the property of a New York hedge fund. In 2011, the 800 residents were asked whether Scotia should be put up for sale or become a self-governing town, and the community voted for independence. Tenants received the opportunity to buy their homes, and in 2014, Scotia’s first elected officials were sworn in.