Pullman, Illinois

photo by: Library of Congress

July 1, 2014

In Good Company: Company Towns Across the U.S.

A coast-to-coast tour of company towns, America's twist on the feudal village.

The gleaming campuses of Google and Facebook may seem like the newest thing, but they descend from a line of company towns that stretches back almost to our nation's founding. Lowell, Massachusetts, one of the earliest, began in the 1820s as a planned industrial community. At the height of the company town era, between 1880 and the 1930s, single-enterprise mill towns, mining camps, and factory settlements dotted the landscape.

Echoing the European feudal system, the typical company town represented an assertive strain of corporate paternalism — one that was not always benign. In the contemporary imagination, the term sometimes evokes the famous folk song “Sixteen Tons,” which portrays a coal miner, trapped in a cycle of debt and servitude, who “owes [his] soul to the company store.”

Some industrialists sought a more humane approach. Following in Francis Cabot Lowell’s footsteps, George Pullman, Milton Hershey, and others built model company towns offering comfortable housing, state-of-the-art community plans, and an array of amenities and services that made them the Googles and Facebooks of their day. This enlightened strategy, they hoped, would inspire loyalty and productivity in their workers and — not incidentally — would preempt labor unrest.

Results varied. Some model company towns failed after a single generation, while others operated for more than a century. None exist today in their original form. But notable examples, such as the four we've chosen to highlight, survive in bricks and mortar.

Pullman, Chicago, Illinois

In 1884, economist Richard Ely visited Pullman, Ill., the acclaimed model industrial town George M. Pullman had established four years earlier to house his rail car manufacturing company and its workers. Ely found a lot to like. Unlike the squalid tenement districts where most factory workers lived, Pullman offered fresh air, picturesque Queen Anne–style architecture, and an impressive array of public amenities. “Even the humblest suite of rooms ... is provided with water, gas, and closets,” he wrote in the February 1885 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

The larger houses, intended for factory managers and professionals, included indoor baths. All were within blocks of the company's stately factory building. The market hall rented stalls to butchers, bakers, and other vendors; the glass-roofed arcade held offices, shops, a bank, a library, and a theater.

Before directing his formidable energies to urban planning, George Pullman had already revolutionized rail travel. His lavishly appointed Pullman Palace rail cars offered a rare taste of uppercrust luxury for the price of a train ticket. Service was provided by the iconic Pullman Porters, a group whose subset, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, would later form the country's first African-American-led labor union. While none lived in the company town, Pullman Porters were a mainstay of African-American communities in or near cities with major rail stations in the burgeoning post-Civil War railroad network, and would play a significant role in the Great Migration and the civil rights movement.

To better control the passenger experience and maximize company profits, Pullman cars were built and operated independently of the railroad companies. George Pullman took a similar approach to the town he established in 1880 on the shores of Lake Calumet, then 13 miles south of Chicago. Pullman believed that a safe, clean setting, far from the squalor and resentments of a rapidly industrializing city, would attract skilled workers and diminish labor strife.

But as Ely observed, there were already cracks in the facade. Pullman ran his town the way he ran his business, with total control and a sharp eye on the bottom line. The company maintained ownership of the real estate, which it rented to workers and shopkeepers. Although alcohol was served to visitors at the luxurious Hotel Florence, taverns were banned. The company acted in lieu of local government and saw no need for a local newspaper. Front porch sitting was prohibited. “Here is a population of eight thousand souls where not one single resident dare speak out openly his opinion about the town in which he lives,” Ely wrote.

A row of houses in Pullman

photo by: Cynthia Lynn

Executive Row homes on 111th Street.

Faced with falling demand due to an economic crisis in 1893, the company cut workers' hours and pay, but refused to lower their rent. The ensuing strike, supported by Eugene V. Debs’ American Railway Union, shut down rail traffic across much of the country, required federal intervention, and resulted in at least 30 deaths. Pullman successfully resisted workers' demands, but the events turned public opinion against him. In 1898, the year after George Pullman died, the Illinois Supreme Court ordered that the company sell all its non-industrial property. By 1907, Pullman was no longer a company town.

But that wasn't the end of the Pullman story. In the following decades, even as the town was absorbed by a growing Chicago, its distinctive character fostered loyalty among longtime residents, who in 1960 fended off an urban renewal plan that would have razed much of the area. Pullman also began to attract newcomers. “In the mid-1960s, [architecture] faculty members at the Illinois Institute of Technology started to bring classes out here,” says Michael Shymanski, an architect and urban planner who first visited Pullman as an IIT student. A Pullman resident since 1967 and president of the Historic Pullman Foundation, Shymanski is reminded every day of the qualities that first brought him here. “The original fabric of the residential area still works and creates a very strong sense of place,” he says.

Pullman's original plan rested on principles repopularized a century later: walkable scale, mixed uses, and a diversity of housing types. “They had different price points and sizes that all worked together,” says Chicago architect and planner Douglas Farr. “They would compose a block of town houses with six or seven facade types, setbacks, and roof shapes, so when you looked down the block, you never saw the repetition.”

Galvanized by their success in fending off the wrecking ball, Pullman residents turned their attention to the community's historic legacy. They restored their houses and evangelized friends and investors. By 1972, the volunteer Pullman Civic Organization had secured the neighborhood's listing on the National Register of Historic Places and its designation as a city, state, and national historic landmark. The Historic Pullman Foundation bought the Hotel Florence and later sold it to the state of Illinois, which also purchased the factory and administration building and invested $26 million into the entire site. In 1995, the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum opened its doors in the neighborhood to help tell this essential piece of the Pullman story.

“Park designation would shine a light on what is really one of Chicago's hidden gems. It would bring new people to Pullman while serving as a model for how urban national parks can help revitalize historic neighborhoods.”

Jennifer Sandy, senior field officer with the National Trust

Pullman's grassroots activism remains strong today. The Civic Organization's Beman Committee is named for Solon S. Beman, who, with landscape architect Nathan Barrett, designed the original town. With support from a National Trust for Historic Preservation grant, the committee recently completed a six-year project to document every residential facade in South Pullman. Architectural drawings and historically correct paint colors are available online, and the organization awards up to $1,000 in matching reimbursements for facade restorations. And in addition to efforts by residents, review by the City of Chicago's historic preservation division and the Commission on Chicago Landmarks helps to ensure that the 336 buildings in the Pullman Historic District are preserved.

Soon the community could gain greater recognition: The National Trust, the National Parks Conservation Association, and other groups are pressing for National Park status for Pullman. In January 2014, U.S. Senators Richard Durbin and Mark Kirk and U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly introduced bills that would designate the neighborhood as a National Historical Park. That recognition is richly deserved, says Jennifer Sandy, a senior field officer with the National Trust, which has named Pullman one of its National Treasures. “It's very, very intact, incredibly so,” she says. “That makes it really unique. Park designation would shine a light on what is really one of Chicago's hidden gems. It would bring new people to Pullman while serving as a model for how urban national parks can help revitalize historic neighborhoods.”

One imagines George M. Pullman raising an eyebrow: The town he founded as the ultimate expression of top-down corporate paternalism and laissez-faire 19th-century capitalism owes its survival to the efforts of homeowners, nonprofit organizations, and government. But it’s also his vision that makes this place worth saving. Like other model company towns, Pullman embodied a distinctive philosophy and succeeded on its own terms — at least for a time. And it bears witness to the timeless appeal of beautiful architecture, sound urban planning, and a place with a story to tell.

Hershey, Pennsylvania

Like George Pullman, chocolate-maker Milton S. Hershey envisioned his company town as a model industrial enclave, removed from the corrupting influences of the city. But Hershey's brand of corporate paternalism was more open-handed than Pullman's. A sign above his desk read, “Business Is a Matter of Human Service,” and he seemed to take the slogan to heart.

From Hershey's founding in 1903 in what was then Derry Church, Pa., Milton Hershey spent lavishly on the town, providing well-equipped houses for workers to buy, free education through junior college, and even a zoo. “We kind of grew up insulated from the outside world,” says Carole Hite Welch, 78, whose father worked in the company's machine shop. “We had a Hershey water company, a Hershey electric company, a Hershey phone company.

“There was no [Great] Depression in Hershey,” Welch continues, “because Milton Hershey said that the way out of a depression is to give people jobs.” Accordingly, many of the town's landmark structures — the Mediterranean-style Hotel Hershey (a Historic Hotels of America member), the ornate Hershey Theatre, and the structurally innovative Hersheypark Arena — date from the 1930s.

The 1930s also brought union representation to Hershey workers and, along with Milton Hershey's death in 1945, a gradual unwinding of the relationship between company and town. But the patriarch's investment in public works — especially an amusement park, now reincarnated as a flashy theme park, and the hotel — paved the way for Hershey's transition to its current incarnation as a hybrid of company town and tourist destination. And while the original factory building, which is being converted to company offices, is no longer available for tours, the air still smells of chocolate.

Steinway Settlement, Queens, New York

Commuters on New York City's Queens Boulevard subway line may know that the Steinway Street Station takes its name from Steinway & Sons, which still manufactures pianos in the neighborhood. But few could tell you that the neighborhood itself was first established to provide a home for the company and its employees. It was called the Steinway Settlement.

In 1870 William Steinway bought 400 acres of land in rural Astoria, N.Y., with plans to relocate his family's factory far from the crowding and labor agitation of Manhattan. Along with production facilities, the Steinway family also built worker housing, an extensive public transportation network, a retail district, a church, a library, and the North Beach amusement park and beer garden. But unlike other model industrial towns of its time, Steinway welcomed outside investors, developers, and residents. “They put out brochures saying, 'Come to Steinway! It's on the waterfront! Clean air, good schools, a great place for you and your family!’” says Bob Singleton, executive director of the Greater Astoria Historical Society.

Many Settlement-era structures remain, for those who know where to look. “Along 20th Avenue, there are two or three blocks of brick row houses [built by] Steinway,” Singleton says. “The Steinway Reformed Church is essentially unaltered. Steinway Street, the main commercial street, is still pretty much the way it was in the 1880s.”

Because of the Steinways' inclusive ethos, however, the company enclave today is woven nearly indistinguishably into the vibrant urban fabric of Astoria (now part of Queens). Perhaps ironically, this most loosely conceived example of a utopian company town also hews closest to its founding vision: a thriving, multi-ethnic neighborhood where the builders of the world's best pianos can still walk home after work.

Scotia, California

Built in the 1880s, Scotia, Calif., began as little more than a lumber camp. Its owner, the Pacific Lumber Company, provided housing and basic services out of simple necessity. In the redwood country 250 miles north of San Francisco, there was no alternative. Despite its humble origins, however, Scotia developed into a comprehensive company town, functioning with remarkable stability into the 21st century.

Nestled in a valley along the Eel River, Scotia appears today much as it did in its heyday. A compact commercial center lies close to the mill complex, anchored by the Scotia Bank (now a museum) and the Winema Theater, their elaborate facades rendered in unpainted redwood. Nearby stands the gracious Scotia Inn, built in 1923. Tidy wood-frame bungalows in company-approved pastel colors line the residential streets.

The quaint setting mirrors the memories of company town-era veterans. “It was a close-knit community,” says Steve Deike, a Pacific Lumber employee from 1966 to the company's dissolution in 2008. The company controlled all of the real estate in Scotia, but its paternalism also kept social ills at bay. “Our kids walked to school,” Deike says. “On the weekends they played in the river.” Social life centered on the volunteer fire department. “We had something like 65 members,” he says, “with a waiting list.”

As controller for the Town of Scotia Company, LLC, Deike now works to make Scotia more like other towns, by subdividing its real estate for sale to private buyers. It's a necessary step, but one that turns the page on a small-town way of life that's disappeared not only from Scotia, but largely from the country as a whole. “Pacific Lumber Company treated everybody right,” Deike remembers. “Everybody knew your business, [but] if anything happened, boy, you had the whole town's support. Not a lot of people get to enjoy that kind of community.”

Bruce D. Snider is an architect, writer, and editor based in Belfast, Maine.

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