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Appalachia’s other company towns 

German rayon manufacturing plants American Bemberg Corporation, top, and North American Rayon Corporation (originally American Glanzstoff), foreground, began production in the 1920s in Elizabethton, Tennessee. Most of the company homes built for employees and constructed by Bemberg still dot neighborhoods near the now-closed plants. Some of the “Bemberg City” homes are visible in this image, upper right and adjacent to a ball field. (Photo courtesy of the Archives of Appalachia.) 

By Thomas E. Wagner and Phillip J. Obermiller     


The Industrial Revolution led corporations to build towns near their factories, sources of power, or raw materials. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, industrialists founded some 2,500 purpose-built towns in the United States. About 500 of these were in counties that would eventually comprise the Appalachian Region. These towns were widely dispersed across the region — each of the 13 states with Appalachian counties at one time hosted one or more company towns. Some are still vibrant communities while others are mere traces of their former selves where vacant houses and shuttered production facilities are like dry bones, signs of what once was a vibrant life.   


University of Illinois professor John S. Garner defines a company town as “a settlement built and operated by a single business enterprise.” He notes that the term “company town” came into use in the late 19th century to describe the mining camps and smelters in the Appalachian region. This may be the basis for the common misperception that the typical company town in Appalachia was centered on extracting and processing coal.  

Many company towns, such as Wheelright, Kentucky, were indeed engaged in mining and coking coal (carbonizing it into coke for making steel). But there were many towns in Appalachia built and owned by companies involved in other industrial enterprises. Examples include cotton (Cabbagetown, Georgia), textiles (Peltzer, South Carolina), aluminum (Alcoa, Tennessee), chemicals (Saltville, Virginia), apparel (Woolrich, Pennsylvania), footwear (Endicott, New York), pulp (Cass, West Virginia), paper (Canton, North Carolina), and lumber (Electric Mills, Mississippi). The federal government created two towns from scratch in Tennessee, Norris, and Oak Ridge.

A bit of background is in order before discussing these towns. A “model company town,” as defined by Garner, “was one in which the paternalism of the owner extended beyond the bare bones architectural requirements of factories or mines.” These communities featured some combination of company-provided homes, paved streets, clean water, electric lighting, recreational facilities, schools, libraries, theaters, churches, and medical facilities.    


The amenities for residents varied from town to town, but in every case were contingent on corporate tolerance. Daily life was closely controlled by companies that could, for example, make job and church attendance mandatory, prohibit alcohol, or pay workers in scrip redeemable only at the company store.    


The benefits offered by company towns, model or otherwise, were not based on pure benevolence. Owners needed to attract and keep workers in an era when labor was relatively scarce, workers were highly mobile due to the availability of railroads, and many operations were in remote locations far from population centers. Nonetheless, few company towns offered all of the amenities found in model towns, which are thought to have constituted only two percent of all such corporate communities.   


Some combination of corporate amenities, a practice broadly known as welfare capitalism, was provided not only to attract and retain workers, but to ward off unionization. Or so the owners thought. “Bloody” Harlan County, for example, was the site of some major community investments by U.S. Steel and International Harvester’s Wisconsin Steel subsidiary. Corporate benefits may have helped to delay unionization there, but after nearly a decade of fierce struggle the miners in this Eastern Kentucky county achieved unionization.   


Social structure   


The social dimensions of Appalachian company towns followed national patterns in which age, gender, race and ethnicity were factors. Breaker boys were used in mines to guarantee uniform coal size and to remove debris, while others worked as “trappers” opening and closing doors to regulate airflow belowground. Families were hired as a unit in textile mills with women and children operating spinning jacks, carding machines, and power looms. Women often found work throughout the region in textile mills, factories making apparel or footwear, and government projects.    

As far as Jim Crow laws allowed, many of the region’s company towns had integrated workforces. Nonetheless, Black and white workers lived separately outside of the workplace, and labor integration was not practiced at all in some company towns in the South. William H. Turner, who was born and raised in a company town, describes life there as, “living tolerably well.” Turner’s book, The Harlan Renaissance, describes African American life in Lynch, Kentucky, and chronicles the success of many Black families due in part to company-provided programs and services.    

European immigrants also found employment in company towns, especially those located in the northern tier of the region. Some companies paid labor brokers in American port cities to recruit new arrivals from Wales, Germany, Ireland, Italy, and the Slavic countries. Most were provided with a train ticket and a glowing description of their destination. Left unsaid was that once hired they often had to work off the cost of their transportation.   


Despite a basic uniformity of approach, the focus of company towns in Appalachia involved many variations. Examples include:   


Coal towns   


The Elk Horn Coal Company opened a mine called Wheelwright in Floyd County, Kentucky, in 1916 to produce coal destined for use in manufacturing steel. After Inland Steel bought the mine in 1930, it appointed E.R. “Jack” Price as the supervisor of operations. Price, a strong advocate of welfare capitalism, set out to build a model coal town. In addition to improving production facilities, Price constructed homes, schools, recreation facilities, a medical center, a golf course, and a solid community infrastructure. In later years Wheelwright was often referred to as “the town that Jack built,” but the improvements Price made could not hold back the tide of unionization rolling across the Kentucky coalfields. After the local mines were shuttered in the 1970s and the town abandoned, the Kentucky Housing Corporation purchased the housing stock, refurbished it, and sold it to the residents. In 1940, Wheelwright’s population stood at 2,027 residents but had declined to 509 by 2020.  

The downtown business district and company housing is shown in Wheelwright, Kentucky, circa 1940s. (Photo by Russell Lee, National Archives.)


Mill towns  


In 1901, the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company constructed a railroad to bring timber harvested on Cheat Mountain down to Cass, where it provided 52 houses for workers employed in the company’s lumber mill and railroad repair shop. Abandoned in 1960, this small company town has been restored as a part of West Virginia State Parks. 

Restored mill houses are shown on Main Street in Cass, West Virginia in 2008. (Photo by Brian M. Powell, Wikimedia Commons) 


The Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill set up its Cabbagetown textile processing plant in 1881. Although just outside of the region, and now encompassed by Atlanta, it is included here because the company recruited the majority of its workers from the Appalachian Mountains of North Georgia. According to photojournalist John Spink, in addition to housing, the company provided “security, medical, dental, a library, nursery services, even the occasional ‘picture show.’” Nonetheless, the Cabbagetown strike of 1914 involved some 500 workers and lasted almost a year before failing. Closed in 1957, the mill property has since been gentrified into a gated community called “The Fulton Cotton Mill Lofts.”   


With its proximity to the Pigeon River and local stands of spruce trees, Canton, North Carolina, was selected as the site of a pulp and paper mill by the Champion Fibre Company, a subsidiary of Champion Coated Paper Company. The mill opened in 1908 with some 1,000 workers but the company built only 60 homes “for employees” in the town’s Fibreville neighborhood — clearly Fibreville was a management ghetto. After changing ownership several times, the mill was closed in 2023.   


The Champion Fibre Company paper mill in Canton, North Carolina, was operating when this photograph was taken in 2019. (Photo by Warren LeMay, Wikimedia Commons.) 


Manufacturing towns   


A house built in 1926 is among many constructed by the Watuga Development Corporation for employees of American Bemberg Corporation, a rayon plant in Elizabethton, Tennessee. (Photo courtesy of Archives of Appalachia.)

North American Rayon Corporation and American Bemberg Corporation, once major employers in Elizabethton, Tennessee, are depicted in the lead photo for this story. The plants manufactured “artificial silk” or rayon, starting in 1926. The Watauga Development Corporation was chartered in the 1920s to build “Bemberg City,” also known as “German Town,” providing housing for employees.

Named for the Aluminum Company of America, Alcoa, Tennessee, was founded in 1919 as the site of a major aluminum processing plant. The town’s history, however, began in camps near the Little Tennessee River where an Alcoa subsidiary built the Cheoah Dam. Construction workers there lived in tents but had access to a hospital, schools, stores, and clean water. At the same time, Alcoa was constructing a smelter and 150 houses for employees some 30 miles north on farmland known as North Maryville. Maryville planned to annex that area, but Alcoa had other ideas. It deprived Maryville of a much-needed additional tax base by incorporating the area as the town of Alcoa and retaining all tax revenues for itself. Alcoa’s 2021 population was about a third of that in Maryville.    


The City of Alcoa pedestrian bridge spans the Alcoa Highway in Alcoa, Tennessee. (Photo by Brian Stansberry, Wikimedia Commons.)


First called Factoryville, the town of Woolrich, Pennsylvania, built and controlled by the Rich family, centered on the production of woolen goods. In the mid-1800s the family had found a niche in the local lumber-based economy by selling woolen products to lumberjacks and their families. In a 2011 article in Pennsylvania Center for the Book, published by The Pennsylvania State University, Megan E Baker writes that the Rich familybuilt homes around the mill and a close-knit community developed. “The relationship between the Rich family, the Woolrich Company, and the town that sprang up around the mill has been much more intimate than merely a typical ‘boss and workers’ relationship,” Baker said. “The Woolrich Family…put together the Woolrich Employee Benefit Association to work on behalf of the workers and the rest of the community of the home plant.” After growing internationally, the company closed its last U.S. factory, located in Woolrich, Pennsylvania, in 2018.   

The Woolrich factory in Woolrich, Pennsylvania, circa 1887. (Wikimedia Commons) 


Founded in 1899, the Endicott-Johnson Shoe Company established manufacturing plants in the “Triple Cities” of Binghampton, Endicott, and Johnson City, all located in Appalachian New York’s Broome County. At its peak in the 1920s, the company employed 20,000 workers who enjoyed company-financed homes, a profit-sharing program, and factory-funded health care and recreational facilities. In the hopes of preventing unionization, the owners personally sponsored libraries, theaters, a golf course, swimming pools, carousels, parks, and food markets. Despite these blandishments, Endicott-Johnson experienced intermittent strikes, protests, and walkouts before announcing the closing of its last manufacturing plant in The Triple Cities in 1998.   


The Endicott-Johnson Worker’s Arch is a physical symbol of the Welfare Capitalist policy of the Square Deal instituted by the management of the Endicott-Johnson Corporation during the first two decades of the 20th century. The arch, one of a pair, was designed by T.I. Lacey, a noted Binghamton architect, and constructed in 1920 with funds contributed by the E.J. workers. The arches were dedicated to George F. Johnson, general manager of the company. 

The Endicott-Johnson Workers Arch, in Endicott, New York, is a physical symbol of the Welfare Capitalist policy of the Square Deal instituted by the management of the Endicott-Johnson Corporation during the first two decades of the 20th century. (Wikipedia Commons.) 

Railroad towns   


There are numerous railroad towns throughout Appalachia. Unlike the model towns constructed by corporations, these communities were deeply affected by but not directly managed by the companies. Erwin, Tennessee, located about 23 miles from Elizabethton, experienced a strong period of manufacturing after

Examples of homes in Erwin, Tennessee, constructed by Clinchfield Railroad and later sold to Southern Potteries are shown in this photograph from 1933. (National Archives, Lewis Hine (TVA) collection.)

the Carolina, Clinchfield and Ohio Railway was completed in 1915. Clinchfield Railroad became the town’s largest employer and inspired the establishment in 1916 of Southern Potteries, relocated to Erwin from operations in Ohio. Both Southern Potteries and the railroad were unionized. “In the spirit of welfare capitalism, the railroad had begun construction of a model community (in Erwin) planned by the New York architect Grosvenor Atterbury for its employees,” according to the Tennessee Encyclopedia. “Forty-five residences were completed in 1917, and the railroad sold two-thirds of those houses in 1920 to Southern Potteries, which first rented them and then sold them to employees in the 1930s.”

Another Tennessee railroad town is Etowah, Tennessee, constructed by the Louisville and Nashville Railroad (L&N) in 1906. The railroad needed a more direct route between Cincinnati and Atlanta that bypassed the Great Hiwassee Loop in the rugged north Georgia mountains. The Etowah location was selected as the midpoint between the two cities for maintenance facilities to service railcars and change crews. Homes were built for families and soon businesses came in to meet the new community’s needs. An attractive depot was built and today houses a railroad museum. The population in 1910 was 1,685 residents. In 2020, the population was 3,613.    


Historic L&N Depot near completion in 1905 in Etowah, Tennessee. 

(Photo courtesy City of Etowah.)  

Government towns   


Although not technically businesses, government entities constructed purpose-built towns in Appalachia. Oak Ridge and Norris, both in Tennessee, are most notable and fit well within Garner’s parameters for both a company town and a model company town.   

TVA housing in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, showing flat-top units in the foreground.  (Wikimedia Commons.)  


Meant to be a temporary site for developing atomic weapons during World War II, the town of Oak Ridge was built from scratch on 60,000 acres in 1942 along the Clinch River by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In addition to the nuclear facilities, the Corps built homes, schools, shopping centers, and dining halls along with sports and recreational venues for the town’s 80,000 workers. As with many company towns, security was tight — not to counter unionization in this case but to prevent espionage. In 1959, Oak Ridge became an independent, self-governing city and by 2021 had nearly 32,000 residents.  


The Tennessee Valley Authority built the planned community of Norris for the 5,000 construction workers building the Norris Dam on the Clinch River in the early 1930s. According to TVA historian Patricia Bernard Ezzell, the planners of Norris “created a greenbelt, or a belt of rural land, around the town as a way to preserve the character of Norris.” In essence, the government planners substituted their greenbelt design for the fencing that secured many company towns from unwanted intruders. Norris was a “sundown city” as well, one that did not tolerate the presence of African Americans after sunset.   

Community Center in Norris, Tennessee. (Wikimedia Commons.) 


During World War II, Norris served as a bedroom community for workers at Oak Ridge, and at the war’s conclusion became surplus to the government’s needs. In 1948, the TVA sold the town for $2.1 million to a group of Philadelphia investors who sold off the housing. They resold the remaining real estate in 1953 to town residents who had formed the Norris Corporation. Norris had a population of just over 1,500 in 2021.   


Company towns decline 


The 1930s saw the gradual diminution of company towns. The Depression caused companies to cut their labor forces along with the expenses involved in subsidizing these corporate communities. The concomitant success of the labor union movement made the towns less appealing to their owners as bargaining focused on wages and benefits that did not include worker housing. New Deal policies on salaries, hours of work, health care, and safety also made company towns less appealing to workers and owners alike.   


To cut costs and raise capital, many companies sold their housing stock to occupants willing to buy. Others simply abandoned their towns. The Stearns Coal and Lumber Company, for instance, built the once thriving coal-mining town of Blue Heron, Kentucky, in 1937 and abandoned it in 1962. Blue Heron has since been incorporated into a national recreation area.    


Increased worker mobility also contributed to the decline of company towns in Appalachia. The road-building programs of the New Deal along with the popularity of the automobile gave workers a much wider choice of places to work and live. Factory work in the north was perceived as less strenuous and dangerous than the extractive work performed by workers in many company towns. At the same time, urban life afforded more freedom of choice than more rural corporate communities.    


From manufacturing clothing and shoes in the region’s northern tier, to mining in the central coalfields and producing textiles in the Piedmont, to generating hydropower and initiating the Atomic Age in its southern counties, Appalachia, often dismissed as largely rural and agrarian, was an integral part of the American Industrial Revolution (1870s-1940s) thanks to its many and diverse company towns.   


Tom Wagner is a university professor emeritus in the School of Planning at the University of Cincinnati. Phil Obermiller is a senior visiting scholar in the School of Planning at the University of Cincinnati.


For further reading:   

  • “The Rise and Fall of Company Towns,” Aayush Singh, pp. 10-13 in Econ Focus, 23, third quarter, 2023.   

  • The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills That Shaped the American Economy. Hardy Green. Basic Books, New York, 2010.   

  • Building the Workingman’s Paradise: The Design of American Company Towns. Margaret Crawford. Verso Books, Brooklyn, New York., 1996.   

  • The Company Town: Architecture and Society in the Early Industrial Age. Edited by John S. Garner. Oxford University Press, New York, 1992.   





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