Return of the company town

Company vegetable gardens like this one in Kerr Location provided food to workers but demanded loyalty to the company. (PHOTO: Oliver Mining Company, Minnesota Discovery Center archives)
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Mesabi Tribune.

A typical early 20th Century Iron Range miner worked long hours before retiring to a home and bed owned by his employer. He returned his wages to the company in exchange for just enough food, clothing and tools to survive. If the miner had a wife she possessed even fewer choices. Her very survival, and that of her children, depended upon her husband’s relationship with a company that seemed to control everything they could see.

Mostly immigrants, they came from the other side of the world fueled by a vague but hopeful notion that life could be better in America. They did not come out of enthusiasm for mining or cold winters, but were willing to endure such hardships for a small slice of status they could bequeath to their children. Frankly, most sought to make a small fortune and return to Europe.

Once they got here they were too broke to go back. Mining companies had no incentive to change that fact. And so these people began the arduous process of giving up everything they knew to become flickering candles in a cold, drafty place. Their families absorbed the trauma and we carry it around today, calling it tradition. 

As bad as it was in the mining locations of northern Minnesota, other places were arguably worse. In the 1890s, workers at the Lake Erie docks near Buffalo were paid in plug coins that could only be exchanged at company-owned saloons. Alcoholism became corporate policy. 

Tennessee Ernie Ford’s famous song “Sixteen Tons,” and its iconic line, “I owe my soul to the company store,” came from very real conditions in the coal country of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. John Prine sang a song about the lost town of “Paradise” in the same eponymous county.

We might consider the idea of a company town part of our past, a memory long ago replaced by a much more prosperous and equitable society. Alas, reality comes bursting out of the soft gauze of nostalgia. We must now consider company towns in the 21st Century, this time ruled by an entirely new roster of titanic corporations.

The tech giant Facebook houses its headquarters in Menlo Park, California. This year, Facebook seeks to turn its corporate campus into much more than office space. The company proposes a 59-acre development called Willow Village. This fully contained town would include housing, entertainment, parks and shops. 

Workers will no doubt find Willow Village to be considerably more comfortable than a 1905 Iron Range mining location. It’s built for high-demand workers who earn salaries above the national average. But when you look past the trendy veneer, you see some of the same problems workers discovered 100 years ago.

When your housing, neighborhood, network of friends and entire way of life are controlled by the company, your sense of loyalty, ethics and even the opinions you allow yourself to express are suddenly much more limited. This is not a side effect, but the stated aim of such an arrangement.

Facebook employees typically stay for about two years. The company wants to increase this number by capitalizing on an extremely expensive Bay Area housing market. In such a place you might leave a job, but you’d never leave affordable housing. 

“There has been a concern that as big tech companies expand their physical presence, the line between public and private is blurred,” writes Misan Etchie in a June 29 Hackernoon blog post. “Not only are the lines blurred, but local governments find themselves not governing but being governed by these companies.”

In 1917, the Oliver Iron Mining Company created a public garden for its Hibbing employees. Engineers plowed and disked the fields each spring. Any laborer or miner could request use of a dedicated plot that, if nurtured, would provide a year’s worth of vegetables for a family. For a mostly immigrant workforce that owned nothing, here or back home, the offer was seen as extraordinarily generous. 

But the company gardens were also a cheap and powerful way for the company to maintain control. There’s a reason this idea germinated the year after the Iron Range’s largest strike in 1916. No workers who meticulously tended a garden would risk losing his crop by quitting his job before the end of shipping season. Nor would he risk being fired for talking to a union representative. After all, the garden plots were in high demand. Another man would happily take his spot.

By controlling the most important aspects of life — food, water, shelter — a company controls their individual workers. Over time this allows them to constrain wages and benefits. Fear of loss suppresses all grievances. 

Here on the Range, history shows periodic rebellion against the company town model. But such revolutions were typically brief and limited in scope. We achieved independence only to gradually cede it back upon request of the mining companies. Dependence so often begins with a willing choice.

This is not new. More than a century ago, U.S. Steel sought control of its workers and the communities where they lived. Today, big tech firms seek no less. Modern sensibilities require better living conditions than long ago, but only because the market today favors such things. Should the market change, a dependent people will again face a choice between little or nothing.

In this, they will have closed a circle that Iron Range families began a century ago when when they stepped off those fateful train cars. Oh, people will endure. But if we are not careful we will repeat the long fight for freedom and comforts we take for granted in today’s shallow, fool-hearty political discourse.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, July 18, 2021 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.

 

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Comments

  1. Joe musich says

    Yep …All about controlling the basic living needs. Wait until “developers” arrive and start creating density housing and the opportunity to establish home equity disappears. It will be under the guise of affordable housing. Your gem here is a nice wrap…..” Here on the Range, history shows periodic rebellion against the company town model. But such revolutions were typically brief and limited in scope. We achieved independence only to gradually cede it back upon request of the mining companies. Dependence so often begins with a willing choice.” The family encouraged leaving to keep the willing choice of dependency from becoming reality. But there is never truly an escape for us Number Sixes out there. Controlling others is allowed. A certain segment of society has been trained possibly quite carefully but more likely by the very norms which we follow that “the government” is the agent seeking control. The paradigm is still in place. And it is too bad. Thanks for another stem winder. Well done.

  2. Toni Wilcox says

    “Their families absorbed the trauma and we carry it around today, calling it tradition.” The best line, in the best blog post you’ve ever published.

  3. David Kannas says

    My memories of growing up on the Range remain vivid. The culture that surrounded me – although I didn’t think of it in those terms at the time – was overlaid by the influence of the mining companies. Nashwauk was a thriving town with everything that was required to live. It’s now a ghost of that era. Cooly (That may be incorrect spelling) was a total company town located about a mile south of Nashwauk. It was bulldozed to make way for a highway. It’s good to be reminded of these truths from time to time. Thank you, Aaron; youv’e hit another one out of the park.

  4. What does this say about public housing in most towns of any size? Are the goals of the government any different than the goals if the companies? Create a population of voters dependant on the political party in power?

    • Will Miner says

      Having been a local reporter during two contentious public housing developments in a California town, and watched a couple of others in Colorado, there are two differences. One, at least in CA and CO, local elections are nonpartisan by law. Governing coalitions work more like those in parliamentary governments, where there is no party in the majority. More importantly, the motivation is a variation of what Aaron describes here: There isn’t housing for people working low-paid jobs and businesses will either have to absorb big wage increases or they will go out of business. City governments are usually protecting the local economy as it stands. In Colorado, people who work in ski towns either live in company housing (as at Vail) or they have long commutes (sometimes 70+ miles each way, as in Aspen) when there is no company or public housing.

    • Gerald S says

      If the intent of public housing is to create a population dependent on one party and willing to vote them into office, it is certainly a failure. The fact is that economic and social self-interest does not seem to motivate many if not most voters, who place various principles, ranging from religious beliefs about abortion and LGBTQ people to military actions and the repression of people who are different from them to historical senses of belonging to groups that have been abused and beliefs about humanistic values, above pure self-interest. Low-income people vote for right-wing candidates and very rich people for left wing candidates out of a sense that principles are more important than the money they pay in taxes or the benefits they personally get from government. This was certainly illustrated in the 2020 presidential election, when majorities of people with low incomes and tenuous holds on economic viability voted for Trump while majorities of people with high incomes and high levels of education voted for Biden. The elderly, the group that benefits most from publicly funded programs, including housing, actually had the largest majorities for Trump.

      In addition, in most places, and especially most places in Northeastern MN, public housing is actually decreasing, being replaced by Section 8 programs. It is true that there is a rekindling of interest in public housing as the private market prices many working class people out of the housing market in many areas of the country. As the cost of rentals and of ownership rises to as high as 50% to 100% or more of median incomes in many regions and prices more and more people completely out of the housing market, both private and public agencies are searching for solutions, and publicly financed and operated housing is being examined again.

  5. There are many resonant sentences in this post.

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