Andrew Molloy and Tom Urbaniak, eds. Company Houses, Company Towns: Heritage and Conservation. (Sydney: Cape Breton University Press, 2016)
By Andrew Parnaby
A colleague of mine recently purchased a house in Sydney, Nova Scotia. While the sale went smoothly, insuring the property proved tricky. If the new dwelling was in the vicinity of a company house, his insurance broker reported, premiums would be higher and quite possibly no policy would be issued. There are hundreds of company houses on Cape Breton Island. They were built in the late 19th and early 20th century for coal miners and steelworkers in the emerging industrial zones of Glace Bay, New Waterford, Sydney Mines, and Sydney. Many are still inhabited, sometimes by descendants of the original working families who bought them, but many more sit neglected and empty. And in that state, according to my colleague’s insurance provider, they represent a significant risk to owners of adjacent properties. In this view, company houses are not just worthless; they are significant liabilities, like the amperage of an electrical service or the potential for sewer backup or flood. The editors and contributors to this collection of essays, not surprisingly, hold an altogether different perspective. They posit that company houses not only embody a history of industrialization, immigration, and community formation, but also provide the raw materials for thinking about heritage, public policy, social entrepreneurship, and economic development in post-industrial contexts.
Constructed by employers to attract and retain workers, often in remote and inhospitable environments, company houses served an important ideological function historically: a better built environment, so the argument went, could bevel the hard edges of class antagonism. Yet as the authors of this volume illustrate, paternalist gestures of this kind assumed different forms depending on the employer, employees, and geographical setting. This is the collection’s dominant theme; the case studies dedicated to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and Bell Island, Newfoundland introduce it well. In both examples, the Dominion Steel and Coal Corporation (and its corporate predecessors) was key. It mined iron ore on Bell Island and shipped it to Cape Breton where it was combined with locally sourced coal to make steel. As the essays by Richard MacKinnon and Gail Weir reveal, modest company houses were built in both locations by the same company, with similar architectural styles popping up in Wabana, Sydney, New Waterford, and Glace Bay.
As iron ore, coal, and steel production expanded, immigration swelled; Newfoundlanders were especially mobile within the region. In time, diverse working-class cultures took root in these purpose-built communities. Company houses became family homes. Yet by the early 1960s, DOSCO’s industrial complex had collapsed as domestic markets for steel, coal, and iron ore contracted sharply. The downward spiral of deindustrialization on either side of the Cabot Strait was underway. Never built to last in the first place, company houses on both islands (with few exceptions) entered into a period of neglect, decline, and eventual abandonment. Across the country, a similar pattern of boom and bust unfolded in the mid-to-late 20th century, including in Elsa, Yukon. Once home to one of North America’s largest silver deposits, this company town, as Barbara Hogan et.al. demonstrate, was dismantled after mining ceased there in 1989. Only “vestiges” remain, part of a depleted frontier landscape that contemporary Cape Bretoners and Bell Islanders might easily recognize.
Yet in other parts of Canada, company towns and company houses traced out different trajectories. As Alex Forbes argues, the unique history of Marysville, New Brunswick, can be attributed to Alexander “Boss” Gibson, a local industrialist who amassed (then mostly lost) a fortune through logging, railway, and cotton interests in the mid-to-late 1800s. Importantly, Gibson belonged to an early generation of capitalists who not only retained sole control of his commercial empire – no board of directors, no shareholders – but whose dedication to enterprise was shaped by a deeply set attachment to a local community and belief in Christian charity. Under Gibson’s paternalist gaze, Marysville took shape. Company houses, schools, churches, community halls, hotels, and a massive cotton mill were meticulously planned by him and made with high quality materials, notably brick. That mill employees were recruited as family units and thus not easily replaced also influenced these design and architectural decisions. Gibson’s attachment to place and his related acts of benevolence were legendary. When he died in 1913, some journalists and workers praised his soul and spirit. No one mourned DOSCO that way. The community of Marysville and the cotton mill survived long after Gibson’s death. Eventually both were incorporated into the expanding capital city of Fredericton. The company houses became desirable urban homes. The cotton mill was converted into government offices after it ceased textile production in 1973 and it was designated a National Historic Site in 1986.
Elements of the Marysville experience are evident in the history of Arvida, Quebec, which was founded in 1925 under the guidance of Arthur Vining Davis, president of the Aluminum Company of America. While Boss Gibson’s paternalism drew heavily on his Christian sense of community, Davis’s vision for Arvida was grounded in applied science and welfare capitalism. Arvida was thus a far more comprehensive undertaking from the very start, a “socio-industrial utopia” – in the words of Lucie K. Morisset and Jessica Mace – that was constructed to support what was then the world’s largest aluminum smelter. The cultural importance of modernism in this example, both as a mode of thinking and range of practices, is striking. It’s there in the comprehensiveness of the original urban planning; in the company’s presumption of dominance over nature; and in the wide range of products produced from aluminum itself – airplanes, skyscrapers, electrical cables, and appliances. Paradoxically, as the authors point out, this modern project yielded an intense local interest in heritage and heritage preservation. These desires flowed in part from ALCOA’s painstaking attention to the quality of local life and its use of restrictive deeds to ensure that a conservation ethos was transmitted over time by homeowners. Arvidians themselves, the authors relate, also appropriated the company’s ideas and used them for their own heritage-building initiatives. A campaign for a UNESCO designation is underway. Pruitt-Igoe this wasn’t.
The final essay in this collection returns to post-industrial Cape Breton. It describes a project undertaken by a university-led community coalition to salvage an abandoned company house in the former coal mining town of Glace Bay. This contribution is written by Andrew Molloy and Tom Urbaniak, who also edited Company Houses, Company Towns and penned its introduction and conclusion. Importantly, the “bumpy, hopeful campaign to 50 Mechanic Street” – built in 1901and abandoned in 2008 – was infused by a broad, catholic understanding of heritage preservation that sought not only to save a piece of the built environment, but also to address a range of serious social issues, many unique to post-industrial places: prolific abandonment, slum landlords, declining property values and municipal tax revenues, lack of affordable housing, environmental sustainability, absence of locally owned businesses, and outmigration. Inspired in part by the Antigonish Movement, which had deep roots on the Island, and strengthened by a partnership with Habitat for Humanity, the coalition successfully rebuilt and retrofitted the former company house. A fortunate low-income family now lives there. Gentrification did not triumph in Glace Bay.
Coming at the end of this fascinating collection, the fate of 50 Mechanic Street reminds the reader of the interpretive importance of class, a theme implied in many of these essays, but never forced fully out into the open for sustained consideration. Indeed, after reading these case studies, it is hard to avoid the blunt conclusion that the long-term viability of company houses and company towns as heritage is tied directly to the historical political economy of heavy industry and its exploitation of both workers and natural resources. The contrast between Bell Island, Arvida, and the Polish community of Kaszuby, Ontario (which is examined by Urbaniak in a standalone contribution) makes the point well. A heightened engagement with class might also clarify the range of emotions that working families felt toward their company houses and purpose-built communities. Dense webs of family and occupation emerged in these places and gave them strength, a point made evident by many of the authors. Yet a kind of rage and a deep-seated desire to leave took root there as well. The anonymity of larger cities came as a relief to some residents, especially the young. Acknowledging this emotional ambivalence may have the added benefit of warding off a tendency to romanticize what life was like in company towns before the mines and factories bid farewell. Lawren Harris’s paintings of company houses look the way they do for a reason.
Taken as a whole, this collection of essays highlights the importance of viewing heritage and conservation as a form of social entrepreneurship. When this type of community engagement is oriented by an appreciation of the aesthetic value of vernacular places, dedicated to breaking down barriers between issues and institutions, and buoyed by the hope that marginal places may live to see another day, the possibilities for political change multiply. In other words, in the view of the contributors to this volume, the direction of change for working-class communities in post-industrial settings need not always be down and out. My colleague’s insurance broker may never understand this notion. Readers of this collection certainly will.
Andrew Parnaby is an associate professor of history and department chair at Cape Breton University. His latest publication is “`Growing Up Even More Uncertain’: Children and Youth Confront Industrial Ruin in Sydney, Nova Scotia, 1967,” in Steven High, Lachlan MacKinnon, and Andrew Perchard, eds., The Deindustrialized World: Confronting Ruination in Post-Industrial Places (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2018).