Tar Paper Shacks in Arcadia: Housing for Ethnic Minority Groups in the Company Town of Bauxite, Arkansas

Article excerpt

IN THE EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY, company towns existed in great number in all parts of the United States, serving many different types of industry. The term "company town" has been applied to a wide range of settings, but generally it can be defined as a community that existed to support the operations of one particular firm, in which that firm owned all of the land, houses, and other buildings and provided most public services.

Firms began to develop these communities out of economic necessity. If a firm established a mine or mill in a remote location, it had to provide housing in order to attract workers. Often the firms feared selling land to those who would build privately-owned residences, because that might hinder future development. Firms therefore had to provide the systems of community regulation and services required by a residential population.

Company towns often recruited workers from ethnic minority groups, such as blacks, Hispanics, and recent European immigrants, to fill the need for inexpensive labor. In most U.S. cities and towns, members of minority groups were usually forced to accept lower standards of housing and services. But in company towns, because of the complete control with which they were planned and operated, the place of ethnic minorities was particularly easy to manipulate. The housing types, layout, and social structure of company towns were very clearly stratified by class and ethnicity. This reflected the attitudes of many Americans in the early twentieth century, but the arrangements that companies made for minority housing also reflected specific corporate strategies to improve productivity and maintain social peace.1

The Pittsburgh Reduction Company established Bauxite, Arkansas, as one of these company towns just after 1900. Located about twenty-two miles southwest of Little Rock, the state capital, and about five miles from Benton, the Saline County seat, the town centered upon the mining and processing of bauxite, the ore used in making aluminum. Over the years, the company underwent several reorganizations and mergers, and at different times it was known as the Pittsburgh Reduction Company, the Aluminum Company of America, the American Bauxite Company, the Republic Mining and Manufacturing Company, the Alcoa Mining Company and, finally, Alcoa. These changes had little effect on the town, however. The only name used by the residents was "the Company."2

The growth of Bauxite was not steady, but varied according to the economics of the aluminum industry. The town almost closed in 1907 when a world-wide depression brought bauxite production to a halt in Arkansas, but operations resumed a year later.3 The town began to grow steadily around 1912, and then rapidly as World War I suddenly increased demand for aluminum. After the war, orders declined, but production picked back up in 1920 resulting in another burst of rapid growth in Bauxite. In 1921, demand for Arkansas bauxite suddenly dropped, due, in part, to imports from South America. Production returned to a steady level in the midtwenties, however. Production was predictably low during the depression years of the early 1930s, but skyrocketed again during World War II. With the exception of the war boom, the community's population fluctuated between 2,000 and 2,500 from the 1920s through the 1950s.4

A typical company town, Bauxite operated with efficiency, productivity, and social order as its primary goals. The company had a strong paternal presence in the town and sought to reduce labor discontent by fostering community spirit and providing services for employees, such as housing, schools, and medical care. The layout of the town was not professionally planned, but its seemingly haphazard arrangement was not atypical of rural company towns. The main part of town, which included the mill, offices, stores, and churches, was not centrally located, and there was a random network of streets connecting clusters of houses. …