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Review

Company Towns of the Pacific Northwest

By Linda Carlson

November 4, 2013

Review By William Robbins

COMPANY TOWNS – once ubiquitous across the greater North American West – usually originated in the corporate need for labour in isolated areas of resource extraction. Even those who remember favourably their experiences in company towns acknowledge varying degrees of paternalism in their respective communities. “A job in a company town was more than employment, it was away of life,” Linda Carlson argues, “the boss’s way” (198). This sometimes redundant sixteen-chapter compilation of disparate company towns focuses on settlements that survived into the twentieth century. Covering human communities from temporary, mobile, and transitory camps to sizable federal towns such as Richland, Washington, Carlson weaves the social histories of company town dining, educational, recreational, informational, economic, and religious practices. 

Carlson confronts directly the ugly stereotypes of company towns depicted in Tennessee Ernie Ford’s classic song, / Owe My Soul to the Company Store. Although “the stereotypes sometimes (my emphasis) did apply,” her study attempts to capture the “spirit of community” that prevailed in many company settlements. Carlson emphasizes the close ties between entrepreneurs and small company executives who lived in these communities and who had legitimate reason to care for the welfare of their workers. The issue of control was always important to owners and managers: the sale and distribution of liquor, the bogey-man of union organizing, and controlling the workers’ purchasing power. In McLeary, Washington, Henry McCleary was fond of saying, “A good kingdom is better than a poor democracy” (12). 

Readers of BC Studies should be forewarned that the company towns featured in this book suffer from the conventional scholarly intellectual blinders that stop at the forty-ninth parallel. With the exception of Canadian-based companies with investments in towns south of the border, the trans-boundary, British Columbia Northwest is not part of this story. The map of Northwest company towns offered in the first chapter shows the location of company settlements in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, with more than half of them in the state of Washington. Carlson argues that the enduring feature of the towns in her study were those that persisted for several decades. Company Towns in the Pacific Northwest attempts to capture the community spirit of those settlements, the “sense of how the townspeople lived their daily lives, both in ordinary times and in periods of war and Depression”(13).

Such findings seem reasonable and defensible given the sources listed in Carlson’s bibliography, but they also reflect a suspect and limited segment of company town experience. There is a methodological problem with this approach that is true of most company town histories; scholars customarily cite the testimony of longtime community residents, individuals favourably disposed to the settlements where they chose to spend a good part of their lives. This book leans decidedly towards a positive story line, sometimes without supporting evidence. In that sense, the remembrances of married residents skews the profile of the people who lived, sometimes temporarily, in company towns. In logging and mining camps, numerous studies indicate that the majority of residents were single and often transitory male workers, a sturdy cadre of labourers who protested against poor food and living conditions and low wages by “going down the road.” 

As might be expected, company towns were bastions of anti-unionism, especially in those communities where workers were required to live in company-owned housing. In some corporate-owned towns, notably in Washington’s coalmining settlements, companies played the race card by bringing in African-American workers to break the efforts of white miners to organize unions. Carlson rightly cites the example of local executives who were rewarded for their efforts in keeping union organizers out of the community. North Idaho’s paranoid Potlatch Corporation – part of the Weyerhaeuser syndicate – dismissed suspect union sympathizers on the spot. In the face of what it deemed a more severe threat from the militant Industrial Workers of the World (iww) at the onset of the First World War, Potlatch deployed a local militia to deter union organizing. Potlatch also informed its employment agency intermediaries of its preference for Nordic workers. 

More careful attention to copy-editing would have helped eliminate some of the repetitiveness and the author’s propensity for awkward sentence constructions (“Like at logging and mining camps, servings were unlimited” [51]). This book will likely have the greatest appeal to people whose families lived in one of the communities featured in it.