Capitalism and the Company Town


Writing in The Wall Street Journal, former Reason staffer Bill Kauffman reviews Hardy Green's new book The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills That Shaped the American Economy. Though Green's focus is mostly on private municipal enterprises like Hershey, Pennsylvania and Gary, Indiana (named after U.S. Steel Chairman Elbert Gary), Kauffman highlights Uncle Sam's destructive contribution as well:

Although Mr. Green ignores Washington, D.C., the company town that never recedes, he shines a harsh light on Oak Ridge, Tenn., created by the feds via "arguably the United States' most astounding and disruptive exercise of eminent domain." Thrown up in 1943 as a laboratory for the Manhattan Project and populated by 80,000 newcomers, Oak Ridge was a case of government gone wild, as thousands of Tennesseans—including families who had farmed the land for generations—were booted out by Uncle Sam with two weeks' notice. Oak Ridge was a monument to statism, with informants, armed guards, "federally financed schools" and cheaply made public housing. Workers ate "mediocre food served in grim cafeterias" and toiled without "any sense of participation in the larger win-the-war effort," since the Manhattan Project was conducted in the strictest secrecy.

The sootiest coal camp sounds like paradise by contrast. As Mr. Green writes, company towns, whether run by "utopian paternalist or exploitative despot," were constrained to some degree by the market. Oak Ridge, wholly a creature of the federal government, was beyond any such discipline.

Read the whole thing here. Reason reviews Kauffman's Ain't My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle-American Anti-Imperialism here.

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  1. “The sootiest coal camp sounds like paradise by contrast.”

    Somehow, I doubt that working at Oak Ridge, even with those hideous “federally funded schools,” was as bad as working in a coal mine. I doubt if a single person at Oak Ridge ever wished for a second that he was working the pits. As for the guards and informants, well, it was a top secret wartime project. You’ve heard of the atomic bomb, haven’t you?

    My dad served in WWII with a refugee from the West Virginia coal towns. Pulling KP duty in the Marines was his idea of heaven, because he got to eat “mediocre” Leatherneck chow nine times a day.

    1. Can you keep on offending Vanneman so that he doesn’t come back? Fucking Vanneman.

  2. I knew someone who grew up there. she said school was weird because all of a sudden, the farmers’ kids were competing with kids whose parents had triple PHd’s.

    1. I know people from there too. Seems things have changed. Their school was a county (city?) school and had lots of great, advanced, programs. No idea of private schools around there.

  3. Oak Ridge is an interesting story. There were some strange appropriations “borrowings” done in the name of the Bomb. My favorite was the appropriation of something like 1,000 tons of silver from the US Treasury for EM coils on ORNL’s calutrons to enrich U.

  4. Considering we were fighting freaking World War II at the time, this would be a perfectly reasonable (albeit large) example of eminent domain.

    1. What a non sequitur.

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