Sunday, March 25, 2012

Company Towns of the Pacific Northwest—Linda Carlson

In federally supported towns like Coulee Dam and Richland, Washington, government subsidies eased the way to independence. Especially in Richland, where townspeople didn't even have to change their own light bulbs as late as 1946, the change was a shock...The actual incorporation didn't take place until 1958, after the Atomic Energy Commission promised partial funding for another ten years. Although Richland residents disliked the AEC's rigid control, they were astounded by the costs of self-government and private ownership... (204)

This was a remarkably well-organized and constructed book. (The content of the book was so beautifully culminated by a "gazetteer" which included a paragraph about each of the company towns in the Pacific Northwest.) I feel as though these features shouldn't be a surprise to me, but they are, sadly. On a semi-related side note, I read a book about the role of medicine in the Lewis and Clark expedition, which would have been fascinating had it not been for the fact that it was so poorly edited, disjointed, repetitious, and filled with personal anecdotes from the author (who was not a member of the expedition). Hence my need to praise this selection.

As I carried this book with me to work, I received some questioning glances. Since I started this blog I've taken to making notes in my books, and especially flagging certain pages if they have potential quotes, as I always like to include that portion at the beginning of each post. With a history book, this flagging system becomes a bit more advanced. You can barely see the edges of the book at this point. If I ever get back into academic writing, I'm sure this flagging system will advance to the next level, with the flags actually color-coded to specific subjects or thesis lines. At this point, it's more a hodge podge of not only flags marking good quotes, but also sticky notes with larger questions and observations - again, in the event that I were to ever again have the energy to write a research paper.

This book was especially poignant for me. I'm a Pacific Northwesterner, and my maternal grandfather was actually from Roslyn, Washington, one of the mining towns mentioned fairly frequently in the book. His father, I believe, was the mayor at some point. Some of you may be more familiar with Roslyn as the site where they filmed Northern Exposure - Roslyn filled in for the fictional town of Cecily, Alaska. (If you're interested in more trivia about well-known films and famous figures who visited these mining towns, you should definitely read the book. I never knew that Elizabeth Taylor was in Washington State for the filming of one of the Lassie movies, or ALL of the numerous movies that were shot in and around the area.)

Like many others who have been given a bare-bones history of company towns, I imagined that they mostly consisted of dictatorial businesses who owned everything purely as a means of staff retention and a means to gain more revenue . They didn't care about their employees, and paid them the minimal amount, sometimes paying them in scrip, which could only be used at the company store. However, this book tells a much different story. While there were some company towns like the awful ones I pictured, they were few and far between. Rather, more were actual communities, communities that banded together in good times and in bad.

The majority of these towns were in existence from the late 1800s into the mid 1900s. While the rest of the country was struggling during the Depression, companies in the Northwest were looking to take care of their workers. While they weren't able to pay employees to work full-time, they tried to ensure that each man had a few shifts a week. This meant that they were always certain to have some pay at the end of the month. Additionally, since companies owned everything, many of them were incredibly lenient, if not entirely forgiving, of rent that had to go unpaid as a result of the financial hardships. Several of them lowered the prices in the company stores as well.

Also present are stories of communities collaborating to send their young'uns to college. Often, this included the financial support of the company, contributed through several different avenues. The support for education seems to have been rather astounding, leading one to consider how to replicate that support in our current climate.

Religious tolerance also seems to have been a theme. "In Britannia, Beach, B.C., owned by the same copper-mining company that developed Holden, Washington, volunteers built a church with an entrance on each end and a wall down the middle so both Catholic and Protestant congregations could meet at the same time." (73) One of the main reasons for this was most likely due to the social nature of church in general. As the book mentions, congregations were usually the first to establish social activities in the community, regardless of the denomination.

Most obvious was the amazing sense of community these company towns inspired in their folk. Due to the isolation, mostly as a result of transportation obstacles and the other aspects mentioned above, these communities were really more like extended families - caring for their sick, sending their children to college, even staying in touch decades after the town had been shut down and they had all gone their separate ways. The families in these towns went out of their way to take care of each other. As the book says, "At Grisdale, Washington, when the young son of the school principal, Lou Messmer, and his wife, Ann, faced surgery, the loggers donated enough money to cover the medical bills...At Holden, miners had a voluntary payroll deduction program for making donations to a grieving family." (156) A voluntary payroll deduction program. These men, who were not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, voluntarily gave portions of their pay in order to help out their neighbors, cousins, friends.

I'm not sure where that sense of community has gone, and why more often than not our society has an "every man for himself" mentality. I don't understand why we try to mask this inhumanity under the guise of capitalism. I don't understand why any attempt to help those who are struggling is often hatefully lambasted as a move towards socialism. We could all stand to learn something from them.