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. These clusters represented different sections of the town, which were given names such as Crumbia Town, Alexander Town, Alabama Town, Church Row, Caseyville, String Town, Peaceful Valley, Battle Row, Norton Town, Adams Hill, Mexico Camp, Africa Camp, and Swamp Poodle. As in most company towns, a definite hierarchy of housing types existed for different classes and ethnic minority groups.
Members of ethnic minority groups were first brought to Bauxite in significant number to meet a great demand for labor following World War I. The company began to recruit Hispanics from southern Texas (whether or not they were natives of Mexico, they would be known in Bauxite as Mexicans). On March 20, 1920, 357 Mexican workers, including thirty-- one families, arrived in Bauxite from Fort Worth.5 Over the next year Mexicans continued to arrive in Bauxite, and by October 1920 they numbered 655, including 530 laborers and 73 families.6 Because more workers came more quickly than expected, the company faced a housing shortage and had to quickly build housing for the new arrivals. While mounting an extensive building program, the company solved the immediate problem by setting up fifty-one tents which "for several weeks. . . made the town of Mexico."7
The area chosen for the camp was about a mile south of the main part of town but very close to the mines. The first permanent structures were the commissary and a mess hall with a kitchen. Two bunkhouses, a recreation hall, an administration building, and a bathhouse were added before construction crews erected eighty-five family houses, which were placed in a grid about twenty to thirty feet apart. The total cost of building the camp was given as $5,600.(8)
In addition to the recruitment of Mexicans, the company began to increase the number of black employees in 1920. After completing Mexico Camp, the company began another extensive building program for black housing in an area called Africa Camp. Africa Camp was constructed with a mess hall, a kitchen, a bunkhouse, a dance hall, and family houses identical to those in Mexico. By the end of 1920, 53 families and 140 single men lived in Africa Camp.9
A small group of Italian immigrants lived in a section of town known as Italy. Italy was much smaller than Mexico Camp or Africa Camp and consisted of two-bedroom, two-family dwellings. Although the Italian laborers were reported to be good workers, the company found the language barrier to be more of a problem with them than with other ethnic groups, even, apparently, the Mexicans.10
Ethnic workers were employed in a variety of jobs, generally those that were less desirable and more dangerous, such as underground mining, waste dump maintenance, and building ore car tracks. Wages were typically lower than those for white unskilled workers, and the payrolls were usually handled separately. The Bauxite News reported:
After a three weeks trial at paying the Negroes at the camps once a week, the former system of paying them every day was returned to. Mr. V. A. Rucker, whose experience in handling Negro labor makes him well qualified for this work, has been put in charge of the field time keeping.11
The company was concerned about criticism from the surrounding community for hiring Mexican workers instead of using only "Americans." In a 1923 newspaper article, Assistant Superintendent Rucker responded:
We have been criticized some for using Mexican labor. We may have made a mistake, we don't know. We needed common labor work and advertised for men but could not get them. We had a meeting and raised the wages of common laborers to $2.25 per day but still we couldn't get them. This was more than is paid in most places in the state for common labor wages. We then decided the only way out was to get a few Mexicans.
No American is ever turned down who wants employment and only in close times for labor have we employed Mexicans, and when we need them no longer we pay their way back from where they came.
Many Bauxite mines are being opened in British, French, and Dutch Guiana where labor can be obtained for 50 to 75 cents per day and we have to compete with this strong competition and it was impossible to pay higher wages and keep the industry in Arkansas going and the only way we could see out was to get a few Mexicans.12
Mexico Camp existed as a Mexican housing area throughout the 1920s when bauxite production remained relatively stable. During the depression of the 1930s, however, production nearly came to a halt, and the Mexican workers were the first to be laid off. This event is recounted in an article titled "The Story of Mexico Village," published in a 1945 company newsletter:
For a dozen years the colorful newcomers lived contentedly under the sympathetic management of Mr. C. F. Perron. They were provided with neat houses; they accumulated tidy bank balances; and a special school was provided for their children. The Bauxite News printed a section in Spanish for their benefit.
The Arcadian existence came to a sorrowful end on May 23, 1932. Our mining program had been slowed down almost to a complete stoppage. We could not give employment even to our own native workers. So the Mexicans had to go.
In a great exodus the weeping people of the village, with their household possessions, their livestock, and their pets, were loaded into trucks and sent away on the long trip to Laredo, Texas. There, an agent of our Company remained with them for a while to assist in placing the men in suitable employment on farms and ranches and in industries.13
In contrast to this treatment of the Mexicans as cheap and disposable labor, the company offered strong, paternal protection for white workers during the Great Depression, prompting a sense of gratitude among them. One resident remembers:
"The Company" really proved itself a benevolent, paternal organization. Weekly work got down to only 8 hours at one stage, meaning only $2.40 a week wages for common labor. Even with rock-- bottom Depression prices, that wasn't enough to even begin caring for a family. However, when it is realized that housing, water, and medical care were provided; that free firewood was available for the cutting; and that a huge community vegetable patch was planted and cultivated by "The Company" for our free use, our families could make it much easier than most Americans at that time. Certainly no one went hungry and families pitched in to help one another whenever crises came up.
I clearly remember Christmas 1932, when the town was really on its knees financially .... There was an annual Christmas Tree at all the churches where everyone received a sack containing hard candy, apples, oranges, nuts of all kinds and maybe a small gift for the kids. "The Company" had always provided this, and 1932 was no exception. However, this year they added a new "wrinkle." On Christmas Eve Day, Company trucks went to all the houses and delivered bushel baskets of food.14
After the Mexicans were sent away, black workers were moved into their houses, so that the Africa Camp could be closed down and the area mined. Blacks remained in the houses in Mexico Camp until 1953, when the structures were put up for sale and removal.15 The entire town of Bauxite was closed by Alcoa in 1966, and the locations of most of the residential areas have since been mined.
Comparisons with other company towns show that Bauxite was not unusual either in the presence of ethnic minority groups or in the way they were segregated from white workers. For example, the coal mining town of Gamerco, New Mexico, was planned in 1921 with a separate area for Mexicans. A company official explained the separation in Coal Age:
One of the features to be considered in this field is the diversity of races. In addition to the usual nationalities common to the average mining camp, we find the Mexicans in large numbers and the Navajo Indians ranging in numbers from 1 to 5 percent of the total. The Mexicans prefer to live in more or less segregated quarters, and a Mexican village has been started somewhat apart from the main camp. The Navajos build their own "hoogans" and the solution of their housing problems does not rest on the mine owner.16
Linda Gordon's study of the Arizona copper company towns of Morenci and Clifton shows similar patterns of segregation applied to Mexicans.17
Bauxite seems to have been a bit unusual, however, in that the company actually provided houses for ethnic minority groups. The general trend, especially in the mining regions of the southwest, was to have Mexican workers build their own houses in designated areas of company land. A 1920 U.S. Department of Labor survey of company housing reports:
Conditions in the Mexican section of the towns are distinctly inferior to conditions in the American quarters. Mexican laborers lease land from the companies and build their own "shacks" of waste lumber, box materials, and scraps of corrugated iron. . . . The houses are crowded close together as a rule, space being greatly limited in the small alleys and defiles of a rugged country. Yards and streets are not so scrupulously policed as in the American quarter.18
In providing shelter for Mexicans and blacks in Bauxite, the company wished to produce houses considered to be of appropriate standards quickly, efficiently, and at minimal cost. The company construction reports boasted of the rapid rate of the building program: "Mexico is booming again. The construction department received an order on September 24 to build twenty-three houses by October 8. We are going to do it, but it is goin' to push us mighty hard."19 There were reports of one crew finishing a house in seven hours, and, overall, the department averaged five houses per day with a total of forty men working.20 Another article reports:
Mexico had the mushroom growth of one of the old western mining camps. "Jap" Waggener won't say anything about it himself, but he did make things fly at Mexico. He put up the family houses at the rate of 1.3 a day. We have our eye on him to see his record when the construction at Africa is started.21
The same article explained that the company's construction department had been relatively small, but that for this housing effort men had been transferred from other jobs to increase the carpentry crew to seventy-five.
There was also a crew that ran a company-operated mill about two miles from town to provide lumber for the buildings.
The houses measured twenty-two by twenty-four feet and were divided longitudinally down the center by a partition so that each could house two families. Each half consisted of two rooms. This type of plan, with its linear arrangement of rooms, was similar to the "shotgun" houses that were common throughout the South. The houses were built with wood frames on brick pier foundations, sheathed horizontally, and then covered with one-ply roofing paper. The floors and interior walls were left as rough wood.22
This type of construction was used in other company towns, especially for temporary residential areas. In Alcoa, Tennessee, in the 1910s, blacks were housed in "two- and three-room temporary tar paper shacks" in a section of town known as "Black Bottom." The town was built around a reduction plant that converted bauxite into aluminum and was run by the Aluminum Company of America, which later owned the town of Bauxite.23
Similar areas were described in the Department of Labor's 1920 survey of company housing, although the names of the specific companies were withheld. In a Virginia company town, classified under "miscellaneous industries," some of the semi-permanent housing areas were described as "rubberoid villages."24 Rubberoid was a patented tar paper designed to last about seven years. Cottages for black workers were described as:
hastily constructed two-room affairs, built of sheathing on frame, covered with rubberoid, ceded up inside, and having one door and two windows each. A carpenter and a helper could erect them at a rate of one every eight days. They were meant to be used by young married Negro workmen. They are located within a wire fence just outside the plant.25
A comparison of the housing provided to ethnic minority groups and white workers in Bauxite reveals the social hierarchy of the town. Unskilled white workers lived in areas that were located near the mines, and their houses were derived from rural southern prototypes. Underground miners typically lived in houses each of which had a living room, a bedroom to one side, and an attic loft which could be used as another bedroom and was accessible by ladder. The kitchen was to the rear, and most houses had barns and garages. While hooked up for gas and electricity, most houses relied on outhouses until the 1940s. The yards were fenced, and many of the families tended gardens and kept chickens, cows, and pigs. Rent for these cottages ran about $3.50 to $4.50 per month in the early twenties. A longtime resident described the living room of one of these houses as "large, but [it] seemed crowded with a piano, couch, chairs, dining table, buffet, and six dining chairs."26
White plant workers, construction workers, and lower level management employees were generally provided with four-room bungalows. Many of these were built around 1920 and included large front porches, fenced yards, fireplaces, and gas and electricity. These houses rented for about $12 to $15 per month in 1923. Construction reports indicate that they were built at a rate of one every eight days in the area just north of Battle Row.27 This four-room bungalow type was common in other southern company towns, and it was noted for its easy convertibility to a two family house, although there is no indication of such conversions in Bauxite.28
While white families enjoyed larger living quarters, the company exerted pressure on the Mexican workers to live in more crowded conditions. An article published in Spanish in the Bauxite News in 1920 said:
We want at least 300 families in our camp. We are ready to receive them but we don't have sufficient vacant houses presently.
In the existing houses, two families could be accommodated-one on each side. If these same houses are used by single men, eight could be accommodated. As they are now, many houses have two men on each side, and for this reason there is no vacancy for families.
Many Mexicans have asked for arrangements to have their families brought up from Mexico, but it can only happen when there are eight men per house. Only when you move and live together at eight per house, then there will be enough space for your families.29
A similar difference in housing available to whites and Mexicans was apparent in the Phelps Dodge town of Tyrone, New Mexico. Mexican houses were invariably twenty by ten feet and consisted of two rooms, while "American" families could choose between three-room thirty by twenty foot structures or four-room thirty-seven by twenty-four foot homes.30
Not only were blacks and Mexicans given a different type of housing, they were also physically separated from Bauxite's white populations. Mexico Camp and Africa Camp were the most distant housing areas from the center. The social lives of the blacks and Mexicans were also separated from the white community. Both Mexico Camp and Africa Camp had their own recreational facilities, branches of the company store, and schools. Rather than having these groups use the company hospital, doctors held regular office hours in the camps. The Mexicans attended Catholic masses in the Community Hall at the center of town, while the blacks held their own religious services in an area called "dirtdauber hill," where they often used the water that collected in open pit mines for baptisms. All church and ethnic groups shared the one active cemetery in town, but blacks and Mexicans were buried in designated sections on the east side.31
Often the black women had the most contact with the white community, working as maids for management employees. Most of these managers lived on Maple Street, or "Silk Stocking Row" as it was called by the workers. The management houses were mostly the four-room bungalows, but they had small one-room servants houses in the rear where maids could stay with their children for several days at a time to avoid the daily walk to and from the camp.32
Segregation and double standards existed in many parts of the United States and were not peculiar to company towns. It could be argued that the company towns provided more services and better conditions for minority groups than they might have received in other situations. On the other hand, the rigid social order of company towns probably reduced the opportunities for any real advancement towards equality.
The segregation that existed in Bauxite, however, was more than an expression of that era's Jim Crow ethos, which demanded at least a symbolic separation of the races and classified Mexicans as non-whites. The town's racial and class stratification also fulfilled the specific needs of the company and the circumstances of the aluminum industry.
The status of minority residents in Bauxite very much depended on the cycles of demand for aluminum. A very notable quality in the construction of the minority houses in Bauxite was their temporary nature. This suggested that the company regarded these groups as disposable, a point borne out when the Mexicans were sent away during the Depression without any thought of the attachments they might have developed in their twelve years in Arkansas. The temporary nature of these houses must have discouraged the inhabitants from developing a rootedness in the area. For example, little was done to embellish the areas around the houses, such as the planting of shrubs.33
The fact that the company expected to employ workers from minority groups only as long as demand remained high was also reflected in the layout of the houses in Mexico Camp and Africa Camp. The rigid grid of houses with no real streets between them gave the area a very impermanent, camp-like feel. The grid of houses imposed on a gentle slope contrasted sharply with the more wandering, naturalistic layout of the town's white areas.
The rigidity and closeness of the black and Mexican housing areas also suggest management's desire to impose discipline on these groups. This discipline can be seen in the paternalistic attitude with which these groups were addressed. The company seemed to show its solicitude for minority workers by publishing articles in Spanish and Italian in the Bauxite News, but much of the content was directed at promoting assimilation, deference, and complacency.
One article, in Spanish, reminded Mexican workers: "He who has money in the bank is to society a man of honor, solvent, who spends money by checks like a great capitalist... and has credit everywhere." Later in the article there was a section written by a Mexican employee entitled "A Mis Compatriotas," which recommended humble behavior to the Mexicans:
We workers should appreciate the benefits that are given to us by the Company .... Before we turn to violence, we should resolve our problems .... Let's be submissive, obedient and constant in our labor, as those are the virtues that give merit to all men on earth who have noble ideas and that want to be good citizens to the fam
ily and the nation .... Let's watch out for those who are enemies of good order and well-being.34
Another article in Spanish read:
Here in our "Mexico" of Bauxite, we have everything that is necessary to keep our sanity and nobility during our forced uprooting.
First, we have "work" which ennobles the poor worker....
Secondly we have "dwellings" that cover our being and offer us a place to rest....
Third, we have "doctors" that attend to our sicknesses for free....
Fourth, we have a "priest" from our sacred Catholic religion....
What else do we need to be relatively happy in a foreign nation?35
The location of the Mexican and black housing areas relative to the rest of the town also reflected company needs. The town plan appeared somewhat haphazard, evolving from around 1900 to 1920. But the new construction intentionally placed unskilled workers close to their workplace to increase efficiency. The management and office workers lived near the main part of town, the plant workers lived in houses just southeast of the mill, and the unskilled labor, including Mexicans and blacks, lived in areas to the south and to the east, in the direction of the mines. The stratification of the community by class and ethnicity may have helped to maintain social peace by reinforcing the segregation that permeated every aspect of society, but it was also shaped by the company's interest in insuring that workers would not have to travel far to go to work.
Compared to other company towns, Bauxite had many typical qualities, but in many ways it was relatively progressive. The tone of the reports in Bauxite News about the housing provided for Mexicans and blacks suggests that the company was proud of its efforts to house its workers in clean and appropriate settings. The fact that one of the houses in Africa Camp was featured on the cover of the September 1920 issue indicates that the company wanted these camps to be seen by other companies and the general public. Also significant was the company's emphasis on families and family dwellings for the minority workers.
In spite of the very clear segregation, the small size of this company town probably allowed for more racial interaction than occurred in other southern towns. Many residents recalled little tension between classes and ethnic groups, and that even black-white relations were less strained than in other areas. One former Bauxite resident remembered:
Meeting the Mexican children and learning more about their customs was fun .... I was blonde, and they enjoyed rubbing my head to bring good luck to themselves and me. I can't recall any particularly good luck that followed these sessions or whether I rubbed their heads or not, but we were probably lucky just to know each other.36 other.
Another resident remembered Bauxite for its diversity:
I remember Bauxite as a unique-only one of its kind-town with a cosmopolitan flavor not usually found in small towns. Many
People were there from different parts of the country and from foreign countries as well, with varied backgrounds.37
Many company towns of the early twentieth century developed in the context of the growing complexity of world and national commercial and industrial systems. Rural lands became increasingly less autonomous and more integrated into the economic activities of urban centers.38 Just as company towns were at the periphery of an increasingly centralized, commercialized urban core, ethnic minority groups were at the periphery of an American society that was confidently defined by a white upper class. Bauxite and other rural company towns reflected the prevailing attitudes of Americans toward ethnicity. The organization and social structure of company towns clearly illustrate how minority groups, such as blacks and Mexicans, were isolated from mainstream society. But, as Bauxite shows, this separation was not just the product of white attitudes but also of the practical needs of large corporations using ethnic labor to fill the lower tiers of the workforce in their quest for greater productivity.
1 Arnold R. Alanen, "The Planning of Company Communities in the Lake Superior Mining Region," American Planning Association Journal 45 (July 1979): 257.
2 For a history of Alcoa and the aluminum industry, see Charles Carr, Alcoa, An American Enterprise (New York: Rinehart & Company, 1952), and George David Smith, From Monopoly to Competition: The Transformations of Alcoa, 1888-1986 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
3 Mackenzie Gordon, Jr., et al, Geology of the Arkansas Bauxite Region, Geological Survey Professional Paper 299 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1958), 154.
4 Ibid., 158; Bureau of the Census, Fourteenth Census of the United States, vol. 1, Population: Number and Distribution of Inhabitants (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1921), 351; Bureau of the Census, 1950: Census of the Population, vol. 2, Characteristics of the Population, part 4, Arkansas (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1952), 17.
5 Bauxite News, June 1920, 21.
6 Ibid., October 1920, 23.
7 Ibid., June 1920, 6.
8 Book of Photographs, Bauxite Museum, Bauxite, Arkansas.
9 Bauxite News, December 1920, 20.
10 Gordon Bachus, "Background and Early History of a Company Town: Bauxite, Arkansas," Arkansas Historical Quarterly 27 (Winter 1968), 347.
11 Bauxite News, October 1920, 20.
12 Conway Weekly Times, October 2, 1923.
13 Pick and Shovel (Bauxite, AR), October 1945, 5.
14 Ethel Lewellen Morden, Bauxite, The Last Stop Before Heaven (Bauxite: n.p., n.d.), 6.
15 Pick and Shovel, July 1953, 5.
16 James B. Allen, The Company Town in the American West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966), 102.
17 Linda Gordon, The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), esp. 174-175.
18 Leifur Magnusson, "Housing by Employers in the United States," Bulletin of the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics 263 (October 1920), 125.
19 Bauxite News, October 1920, 13.
20 Ibid., November 1920, 9.
21 Ibid., June 1920, 6.
23 Russell D. Parker, "The Black Community in a Company Town; Alcoa, Tennessee, 1919-1939," Tennessee Historical Quarterly 37 (Summer 1978), 207.
24 Magnusson, "Housing by Employers," 189.
25 Ibid., 190
26Joyce Cross, interview with author, Little Rock, Arkansas, March 1989.
27 Bauxite News, November 1920, 23.
28 Leifur Magnusson, "Sanitary Aspects of Company Housing" Monthly Labor Review 3 (January 1919), 298.
29 Bauxite News, trans. Armando Vasquez, November 1920, 19.
30 Gordon, The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction, 175.
31 Sally Donner, interview with author, Little Rock, Arkansas, September 1988.
33 Pat Cross Keltner, interview with author, Little Rock, Arkansas, March 1989.
34 Bauxite News, October 1920, 24, trans. Armando Vasquez.
35 Ibid., December 1920, 24, trans. Armando Vasquez.
36 Morden, Bauxite, 9.
37 Ibid., 7.
38 Dell Upton, "The Imperial City," lecture, University of California, Berkeley, April 5, 1989.
Robert W. Keltner is an architect with Cromwell Architects Engineers in Little Rock. He wishes to dedicate this essay to the memory of his grandparents, Bob and Joyce Cross, who lived in Bauxite from 1926 until 1966.…