Company Towns

My father’s New Jersey home was bought by the railroad in the mid-1930s and torn down to make way for a new road running parallel to the tracks.  The family got a good price for the old house and moved to a much nicer part of town.  Still, it must have been strange for my father driving over that road, his vanished living room, kitchen, and bedroom hanging like ghosts above the pavement.

It’s not unusual among family histories to find an old home bulldozed into oblivion to make way for a parking lot, highway or a new, more contemporary home.  While historians and preservationists may see it objectively as another assault on our cultural heritage, the families that used to live in the home experience a different, very personal and isolated sense of loss.  Their lives are changed forever, while down the street, across town, and a few blocks over, life goes on as usual.  But what if all the homes in the neighborhood were leveled?  What if the entire town became a tear-down?

In 1984, I was part of a television news crew documenting the last days of a small Oregon company town high up in the Coast Range.  Valsetz, Oregon, was founded in 1919 to harvest and mill the towering stands of Douglas fir that flourished in the cool, wet climate of the surrounding forests.

At its height of productivity during the 1940s, over a thousand people called Valsetz home.  The workers and their families lived in company houses, bought their food and supplies at the company store, and sent their children to the company schools.  But by the early 1980s the country was deep in a recession, with the timber industry particularly hard hit.  Owner Boise Cascade decided to shut down the sawmill and turn the entire area into a tree farm.  The mill was dismantled and hauled away, along with anything the company could salvage.  The homes of the workers, however, never got a chance at a new life someplace else.

All the old buildings were torn down and turned to rubble.  Valsetz, home to generations of hard-working timber families, ceased to exist.  All that remains today of this once thriving community is the tree farm, an annual town reunion and a website that keeps the memory of Valsetz alive.

But not all company towns that outlive their economic usefulness meet a similar fate.  The 100-year-old sawmill in Bonner, Montana, closed down in 2008, but the old company homes were never destroyed.  New owners recently bought the property and plan to renovate the old houses and rent them out as part of their overall economic development project.  Click here and here to read about how two local men with a plan for the future are breathing new life into this old company town.


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