the company town -- 2/10/15

Today's selection -- from The Devil Is Here In These Hills by James Green. In many parts of America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there was only one business, and that business created a town to house its employees. The people in that town became both dependent on and controlled by that business, often being paid in "scrip" rather that U.S. currency which could only be used at the company store. Such was the case with the coal industrialists in West Virginia:

"Because pioneer [coal] industrialists ran their businesses on very narrow margins, they often depended on the profits from their company stores to make up for losses in an unpredictable coal market. And because they had to pay higher transportation costs and absorb the expense of building collieries and whole communities in remote mountain sites, these businessmen depended upon keeping labor costs down so they could sell their coal at low prices and gain an edge in the national market. The operators' insistence on retaining this advantage led them to resist unionization with an extraordinary degree of force and determination.

"Small collieries proliferated in West Virginia during the 1890s, but after the turn of the century, syndicates of northern industrialists, bankers, and other investors built modern industrial operations that employed three hundred or more laborers. Like infantry units of an invading army, these well-endowed companies conquered rough terrain, laid down miles of track, opened dozens of mines, erected tipples and company stores, recruited laborers, and constructed entire villages often in less than a year's time. ...

The large white building at the upper left is the company store.
The two story building in the center is the hotel and boarding house.
The miners' board and shacks are built close to the foot of the hill.

"Because industrialists needed to construct new towns in wilderness locations, more West Virginia miners lived in company housing than in any other section of the country -- nearly 79 percent, as compared with 24 percent in Ohio. These workers were not ordinary tenants, however, for the state courts had ruled that the mine owner's relationship to his renters was not that of a landlord to a tenant, but rather that of a master to a servant. Therefore, the law allowed the owner to summarily evict families and to inspect miners' houses without a warrant.

"The mine operator's power extended over almost every other facet of life as well. He hired and fired his hands at will. He built the schools and selected the teachers, built the churches and selected the ministers, built the store and selected the store manager. He owned or leased every acre of land in and around his town except the creek and the railbed, where a railroad owned the right-of-way. He controlled access to the town and all activity within it, and he hit down with a heavy hand on any activity that might menace his business.

"Mining companies constructed their own stores in most West Virginia coal towns and made sure no independent merchants opened shops to compete with their highly profitable mercantile enterprises. ... Congressional investigators later found that in remote locations, company store prices ranged from 5 to 12 percent more than they were in towns where independent stores existed nearby. [One operator] recalled that his fellow operators 'charged all the market would bear' so that profits on their merchandise would offset losses they often suffered when coal prices fell.

"West Virginia mine managers issued their own private currency, called scrip, redeemable only at the company store. Scrip was initially offered as a convenience to miners who could use it to acquire necessary items without having cash in hand and without paying interest on a loan. However, companies would not buy back scrip at face value, and if miners sold it, traders or independent merchants would buy scrip at 25 to 30 percent less than its dollar value. This system generated resentment among many miners, who complained about having to pay high prices at company stores and about lacking the freedom to spend their cash wages freely and buy goods from local farmers and independent merchants.

"Company-owned mining communities were unincorporated towns with no elected officials. County sheriffs, commissioners, state representatives, and judges could exercise some legal authority over the area in which the mining camps were located, but these officials generally respected the coal towns as private property and allowed owners to govern the communities they owned. ...

"The creeks that flowed near the miners' cabins were polluted by mine runoff, manure, and human waste from outhouses. Since hillside privies drained into the streams, bacteria easily invaded bodies and caused diseases like dysentery and smallpox. ...

"Mine operators constantly complained about the persistence of 'backward traits' among their employees, especially among the single men who had only themselves to feed. Managers were vexed by what they called the 'shiftlessness and orneriness' of local folk who did not respond readily to commands or to the lure of earning 'big money.' Mountaineers accustomed to passing the time hunting, fishing, and visiting did not shed these habits like dead skin when they entered a new industrial world where 'time was money' and where time should be 'spent' and not 'wasted.' "


James Green


The Devil Is Here in These Hills: West Virginia's Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom


Atlantic Monthly Press


Copyright 2015 by James Green


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