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Company's Coming: Wisconsin's Industrial Towns

Kohler, Wisconsin. Kohler company housing for employees (1920-1930). From the Wisconsin Historical Society Archives Collection. (Place File Kohler, 6)

Rapid industrial growth in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries spurred Wisconsin businesses to look for new ways to retain a stable and dependable workforce. One means to achieve these ends was to create company towns and company housing. Planned communities not only provided housing for the employees, but also, in the eyes of the employer, improved employee productivity and ensured their health and morality by establishing a company-dictated social order.

Several of these communities sprang up in the Lake Superior mining region, which attracted a transient workforce of recent immigrants with no permanent roots in the locality and who also needed housing. In Montreal, a mining company built an entire town, imposing order on a previously haphazard mining settlement. The company owned housing drew families, ensuring a more reliable and stable workforce. Interestingly, a new plan for Montreal in the 1920s eliminated backyard farm plots and outbuildings, and established planting plans for trees, shrubs and flowering plants, resulting in a more suburban landscape.

Other companies established entire planned communities in places like Laona and Goodman, where none had existed. In 1913 the Kohler Company moved its factory from Sheboygan into the countryside. A company-built village of single and two family homes, a school, a village hall, and a dormitory for unmarried workers surrounded their new plant.

In more populous areas of the state, housing was built to attract workers. At the Paine Lumber Company in Oshkosh housing units were provided to new immigrant laborers, who were willing to trade lower wages for housing. Other examples include the Fairbanks Flats, a rare example of segregated company housing constructed to house the influx of African-American workers in Beloit during World War I.

Nationwide, the construction of this type of housing declined in the 1920s as more transportation options opened to workers. While many company towns remained, the ownership of the housing passed from the companies to private owners.

More examples from the National Register:

Montreal Company Location Historic District, Montreal

Fairbanks Flats, Beloit

Paine Lumber Company Historic District, Oshkosh

Kohler Company Factory Complex, Kohler

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