Lesson 1 The Company Town


Lesson 1: The Company Town: An Investigation in Public and Private Governance

"Beneath These Hills" by Dustan Creech and Zandile Moyo

Docena, Alabama, was a company town.  Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Co. (TCI) founded Docena as a coal mining camp, building the residential housing, the local church, the local school, a health clinic, and a company store close to the coal mine.  The term "welfare capitalism" was adopted to describe efforts by large American corporations to provide social services to their workers.  During the Progressive Era in which government laws were enacted to outlaw child labor, regulate safety in the work place, and regulate wages and hours, industries created systems to support their employees. The motivation was to create worker loyalty, reduce turnover, and generate higher productivity.  Unlike later social reforms introduced as part of The New Deal, the social safety net established in a company town like Docena, Alabama, was contingent upon being an employee in good standing at the TCI mines.


Residents describe the care and services provide by TCI, fondly recalling the close-knit community and the quality of life in the past.  In their accounts, the paternalistic structure of the TCI town is described with nostalgia and longing.  A more critical and questioning tone emerges in the accounts of the residents' grown children.  The film examines what happened to Docena after the mines closed.

Beneath These Hills by Dustan Creech and Zandy Moyo from UAB Media Studies on Vimeo.


Discussion Questions

Comprehension

  • What is a company town?   
  • What kind of services did Tennessee Coal, Iron and  Railroad Co. (TCI) provide the residents?
  • What happened when TCI closed the coal mines?
  • What is the attitude of the residents toward TCI? Toward Docena?  In what ways do their reactions challenge or confirm your expectations?
  • Analysis

  • TCI is a corporation, a private entity, yet it provided many services to the town's residents that are typically provided by government, a public entity.  What is the difference between public and private governance in the case of Docena?
  • What recourse do residents have when a company leaves the town it founded?  Describe the options residents in other kinds of municipalities have? 
  • Describe the obligations corporations have to the communities in which they are doing business? 
  • What was the impact of a monopoly on the town of Docena?  How would a more diversified economy have benefitted the town?
  • Other Resources

    Articles

    Ricard, Marlene Hunt.  "George Gordon Craw: Man of the New South." The Alabama Review, Vol. XXXI, No. 3 (July 1978).

    --"An Experiment in Welfare Capitalism: The Health Care Services of the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company."  The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 45, No. 2, The Tasks of Economic History (Jun., 1985).

    Films

    Achbar, Mark and Jennifer Abbott and others. The Corporation. 1 DVD (145 min.). Zeitgeist Films, 2004.

    Michael Moore and others. Roger and Me.  1 DVD (90 min.). Warner Home Video, 1989.

    Books

    Brandes, Stuart D. American Welfare Capitalism, 1880-1940.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

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

    Hicks, Alexander. Social Democracy & Welfare Capitalism. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1999.

    Tone, Andrea. The Business of Benevolence: Industrial Paternalism in Progressive America.  Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1997.

    Wilson, William Julius.  When Work DisappearsThe World of the New Urban Poor. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.