“Owe my soul to the company store” — some like it that way.

My friend Reid Parkinson sent me a Newsweek article last week about a company town called Scotia, California. It’s the last of a dying breed of community — a one-industry town completely owned by a company.

Scotia, California - the last company town? (photo by Newsweek)

Reid knew I’d be interested because a couple of years ago I made a documentary film called “Welcome to Coalwood“, about the dying former company-owned coal mining town of Coalwood, West Virgina.

Before I got involved with Coalwood, I’d never thought much about the idea of a company town. I had a vague recollection from my childhood of “Sixteen Tons”, the 1954 hit song by Tennessee Ernie Ford that painted a simple, negative picture of a type of community where residents were completely controlled by a company that owned everything – including the only store in town, to which the coal miner was forever and inextricably indebted.

If for no other reason, watch this video (introduced by Dinah Shore at some sort of banquet — probably in the 1980s) for its cool, RatPack-style, finger-snapping vibe.

One of the surprising things I learned during my first visit to Coalwood in 2005 was that most of the old-timers remembered the company-owned days with fondness and nostalgia. Sure, the coal company owned everything, they said, but in many ways that made for a better community.

There was virtually no crime, they said, because criminals would be banished from living there. They had good schools, because the company made sure they hired good teachers and had a good school building. There was no city government bureaucracy, because there was no city government (and also no property taxes). People kept up their properties because there were fines and the threat of losing their house if they didn’t. They didn’t mind buying everything from the company store because it had everything they needed — at least they thought so at the time. The town was clean because the company sent around people to tag people for having trash in their yards, polluting the creek or other public health risks. There were competitions for most attractive house and yard. Whether it was out of fear or pride, the residents of town worked together to keep out the riff-raff and they were proud of their community.

Coalwood in the 1930s - "Everything we needed, we had right here", according to life-long resident Red Carroll. From left to right in the photo, the doctor's office, "clubhouse", post office, company store, offices, school. (photo courtesy of David Goad)

The coal company in Coalwood began selling the houses to individual miners in the 1960s. This, one of the people I interviewed for the film says, “was when the town started to go down”. Another woman said that when the company stopped doing everything for them, they “felt like orphans”.

This surprising irony was one of the main reasons I decided to make a documentary about the town of Coalwood.

Coalwood, West Virginia during the 1920s -- company houses being built during a boom era for coal. (photo courtesy of David Goad)

Scotia, California - lumber is king here (photo by Newsweek)

At one time, there were thousands of these company towns all across the U.S. This phenomenon peaked in the 1930s, but as workers became more organized and became less willing to be dependent on the company for making all their decisions for them, these towns began to disappear and transform. Coalwood’s coal mine closed in the late 1980s and it declined steadily into the near ghost town it is today.

The idea of a company town, at least in the strict sense that Coalwood was, seemed like such a throwback to another era, that I didn’t really think that such a place still existed. Then Reid sent me the piece about Scotia. It’s an interesting read. Even today, people there say many of the same things the older people of Coalwood do.

For more information about my film, “Welcome to Coalwood”, go here.