Closely Controlled Spaces: Company Towns, Military Bases, and the Undemocratic Organization of Economic Landscapes

Endorsed by the OAH-Japanese Association for American Studies Japan Historians’ Collaborative Committee, Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA), and the Business History Conference (BHC)

Friday, April 16, 2021, 2:15 PM - 2:45 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Business and Economy; Labor and Working-Class; Social and Cultural


This panel explores how company towns and military bases used spatial controls to contain democracy in the workplace. It focuses on sites where the governance of the workplace was inseparable from employers’ attempts to simultaneously govern private social lives and the economic landscapes of whole communities. By grouping together American factory towns, foreign plantations owned by American corporations, and overseas military bases that the United States operated, this panel expands how we define and understand “company towns” as sites of production and social reproduction. As this panel argues, company towns and military bases found new ways to organize closely controlled spaces – as sites of tourism, refuge, incarceration, and colonial fantasy – that allowed for continued economic, political, and environmental exploitation. Company towns have always put considerable stock in their images. In Catherine Koonar’s paper, the spotlight is on how the Hershey Corporation, which founded an eponymous company town in Pennsylvania in 1903 and maintained landholdings and sugar mills in eastern Cuba, opened its operations to tourism. As Koonar argues, Hershey used tourism to burnish an image of its workplaces as modern and harmonious, thereby diverting attention from workers’ challenges to the company’s paternalistic controls. In Andy Urban’s paper, focus shifts to Seabrook Farms, a frozen foods agribusiness in southern New Jersey. During the Second World War and its aftermath, Seabrook Farms sponsored, employed, and housed more than 2,500 paroled Japanese Americans from camps in the West, as well as hundreds of Eastern European Displaced Persons from occupied Germany. Seabrook Farms publicly touted the opportunities and refuge that it offered to dispossessed groups, even as it took advantage of workers’ legal inability to pursue employment elsewhere. Historically, company towns and military bases have exploited both land and labor. Jennifer Klein looks at Iberville Parish in Louisiana, a layered site of history that has housed at different times a Houma Indian village, sugar plantations, freetowns for African Americans, a women’s prison farm, and a federal prison. Since the 1940s, Iberville Parish has been a hub of the petrochemical industry and a capitalist landscape where the disposal of toxic waste has become a key source of employment for locals. As Klein explores, the corporate and political institutions that control Iberville have endeavored to both limit workplace democracy, while also empowering corporations and prisons to pollute without restraint. Lauren Hirshberg frames the U.S. missile research program at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands as a site where American foreign policy during the Cold War led to the creation of a suburban-styled military base that served as a company town for the engineers and scientists employed in this initiative. As Hirshberg argues, U.S. military facilities led to the physical displacement of the Marshallese on Kwajalein and their segregation to the adjacent Ebeye Island. Hirshberg examines how the U.S. military, as both colonial occupier and employer, created an idyllic residential workspace for its middle-class, American employees while allowing conditions on Ebeye, which housed its segregated Marshallese service sector, to become marked by extreme poverty and density.

Papers Presented

Sponsoring Refugees, Recruiting Workers: Seabrook Farms and the Exploitation of Statelessness, 1943–1952

Founded in 1913, Seabrook Farms was an agribusiness and company town based in southern New Jersey. At peak production during the Second World War, the company employed 6,000 laborers in its fields, factories, and trucking fleet, and was a major supplier to the U.S. military. Faced with recurring labor shortages, Seabrook Farms partnered with the federal government to recruit stateless workers. Most prominently, this included 2,500 Japanese Americans who, after their forced removal from the West Coast to concentration camps, were given the option of taking a loyalty test and being paroled to government-approved employers. Following the war’s end, Seabrook Farms added Eastern European Displaced Persons from occupied Germany to its workforce, as well as Japanese Peruvians interned by the U.S. as enemy aliens and facing deportation to Japan. Seabrook Farms took advantage of laborers’ captivity, legal status, and need for asylum to construct a workforce that it believed could be more easily controlled and pitted against each other when necessary. Part of a larger book project, this paper will examine Seabrook Farms as a historic case study in how private employers have profited from displacement. At a time when pro-asylee voices cite industrialized nations’ ageing workforces and labor demands to back refugee resettlement, there is abundant need to critically engage with the economic factors that have driven humanitarian policies in the past, and to contend with the ways in which company towns are structured to exploit workers through sponsorship programs.

Presented By
Andrew Urban, Rutgers University–New Brunswick

Labor and Freedom in the Absence of Democracy: Working for U.S. Military Empire in the Pacific

In the 1960s, U.S. scientists and engineers migrated to the Central Pacific to support missile research at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. During the Cold War, the Marshall Islands was administered by a U.N.-sanctioned, colonial bureaucracy called the Trust Territory of Pacific Islands Government that enabled military use of the region for national security. To recruit scientists and engineers to move their families to the Pacific, the Army built a suburban landscape on Kwajalein while displacing Marshallese living and working on the island to nearby Ebeye Island. Here, Marshallese would live under segregated conditions. As Kwajalein became an idyllic family setting for U.S. workers, Ebeye suffered dire conditions of poverty under U.S. colonial neglect. These conditions, alongside unjust U.S. leasing practices, spurred Marshallese protests by the 1980s. This paper considers how a hybrid workforce supporting the Army’s mission on Kwajalein, comprising scientists and engineers, U.S. manual laborers, and colonized Marshallese service workers all navigated this moment of rupture in U.S. colonial control. We can imagine Kwajalein as a company town during the Cold War—the company as Army and Trust Territory governance—two arms of one imperial body. Most workers lived on Kwajalein (if American) or Ebeye (if Marshallese) and navigated their labor conditions through a maze of military and Trust Territory governance with a significant private contractor presence, buttressing the U.S. military industrial complex. This paper explores the bounds of worker freedoms in a space devoid of democracy, and one in the midst of Marshallese struggles for sovereignty.

Presented By
Lauren Hirshberg, Regis University

St. Gabriel and the Long Arc of Coercion, Confinement, and Waste in Southeastern, Louisiana

This paper focuses on St. Gabriel and its environs in Iberville Parish, Louisiana. Over time, St. Gabriel and Iberville Parish have been home to a Houma Indian village and trading site, sugar plantations, a women’s prison farm, the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women, the Louisiana Home For Lepers/U.S. Leprosarium, the Hunt Correctional Institute for Men, and a U.S. federal prison. Owing to overcrowding at Angola State Penitentiary, women were transferred to St. Gabriel prison farm in 1961, a hundred year-old prison farm growing cotton that then shifted to garment production. Several of these towns were historic African-American freetowns. 

I’m seeking to define this territory not just in terms of the two phases of dominant economic production: sugar plantations and the post-World War II chemical industry. It was also a social landscape shaped by institutions that classified, circumscribed, and used people in particular ways. These institutions reworked and extended forms of unfree labor, dispossession, and loss of liberty. Moreover, the end of the 20th century, Louisiana would hold the notorious distinction of having the highest rate of incarceration in the United States. 

The area functioned as a repository of expulsion and waste--chemical, medical, social. Thus I also examine the development of a dense petrochemical production landscape using Iberville Parish as a case study. The final section of this paper looks at the emergence of the new industry of hazardous waste “treatment” and concentrated hazardous waste disposal in and around St. Gabriel.

Presented By
Jennifer Lisa Klein, Yale University

Labor, Tourism, and Corporate Control in the Hershey Company, 1903–1937

In 1903 the company town of Hershey, Pennsylvania, was established to house chocolate factory workers and their families. Over the first two decades of the twentieth century, the Hershey brand quickly expanded nationally and Hershey became America’s largest and most popular chocolate-maker. Company founder, Milton Hershey, sought to control the space, people, and resources that were essential for chocolate production and brand consolidation. With regard to resources, the company established dairy farms around Hershey, Pennsylvania, that almost exclusively served the chocolate factory and, in 1916, Hershey bought and leased large swaths of land in eastern Cuba from which to grow, refine, and export Hershey sugar to the Pennsylvania factory. The Hershey Company designed its towns both as spaces for workers to live as well as places tourists would want to visit. Tourism was also closely linked to the labor of chocolate and sugar-making with visitors touring the chocolate factory in Pennsylvania and the sugar mill in Cuba. These tours served to promote the Hershey brand as well as to portray modern and orderly workplaces. This paper examines the experience of Hershey workers, residents, and visitors in both Pennsylvania and Cuba between 1903 and 1937. It investigates questions of workplace democracy, sovereignty, and freedom, analyzes the role of tourism in constructing corporate and popular narratives about both Hershey, Pennsylvania, and Hershey, Cuba, and outlines the ways in which workers pushed back against paternalist control.

Presented By
Catherine Koonar, University of Toronto

Session Participants

Chair and Presenter: Andrew Urban, Rutgers University–New Brunswick
Andy Urban is an Associate Professor of American Studies and History at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. He is a historian of migration, labor, capitalism, and empire. His first book, Brokering Servitude: Migration and the Politics of Domestic Labor during the Long Nineteenth Century (NYU Press, 2018), examines how federal immigration policies and private intermediaries shaped labor markets for domestic service in the nineteenth and early-twentieth century United States, and dictated the contractual conditions under which migration occurred. His current book project focuses on the history of Seabrook Farms, a frozen foods agribusiness and company town in southern New Jersey that recruited incarcerated Japanese Americans, guestworkers from the British West Indies, and European Displaced Persons and stateless Japanese Peruvians during the 1940s. Central to this project is an exploration of how different migrant groups’ loss of rights, citizenship, and the liberty of contract was seized upon by the Seabrook Farms company as an opportunity to exploit vulnerable classes of workers while also simultaneously presenting itself as a refuge for the dispossessed. Looking toward the present, this book will argue that refugees and asylum seekers, as global migrants, have always been seen as a potential labor supply – even if the scholarship on their governance has tended to ignore this dynamic in favor of emphasizing these groups relationship to changing humanitarian policies.

Andy has been involved in numerous public humanities and pedagogical projects. He worked with Rutgers students and staff from the Rutgers libraries and New Jersey Digital Highway to curate the exhibition. “Invisible Restraints: Life and Labor at Seabrook Farms.” In 2018, he led a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute on Seabrook Farms, which brought 30 high school teachers from across the country to Rutgers, where they participated in workshops and seminars on how to teach histories of incarceration, internment, relocation, and resettlement during the World War II era to K-12 teachers. Andy currently serves as a historical consultant to the Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center as it revises its narratives and content related to the history of Seabrook Farms. During the spring 2019 semester, Andy held the position of Fulbright Lecturer in American Studies at the University of Klagenfurt in Austria, where he worked with students on a public humanities project exploring the history of local World War II-era Displaced Persons camps, and their place in Austrian collective and national memory.

Andy’s scholarly writing has appeared in the Journal of Asian American Studies, Journal of American Ethnic History, Journal of American History, Journal of Policy History, Gender and History, The Public Historian, and American Studies. His opinion pieces have been published by the Washington Post, Newark Star-Ledger, Public Radio International, and Inside Higher Ed, among other outlets.

Presenter: Lauren Hirshberg, Regis University
Lauren Hirshberg is an Assistant Professor of History in the Department of History, Politics and Political Economy at Regis University. She earned her Ph.D in History from the University of Michigan and her research focuses on U.S. and Pacific History during the Cold War. Her first book project (University of California Press) looks locally at labor and segregation on Kwajalein Atoll within a broader global context of Cold War imperialism framing the history of a U.S. missile testing in the Marshall Islands. Pieces of this book project have been published in LABOR journal, History and Technology, the OAH Magazine of History, and the New York University Press edited volume Making the Empire Work: Labor and United States Imperialism.

Presenter: Jennifer Lisa Klein, Yale University
Jennifer Klein is a Professor in the field of 20th Century US history. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Virginia and first came to Yale as a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation fellow in Health Policy.

Klein was the winner of the 2014 Hans Sigrist Prize awarded by the University of Bern (Switzerland) and the Hans Sigrist Foundation for her contribution to the field of “Women and Precarity: Historical Perspectives.”

Professor Klein’s research spans the fields of U.S. labor history, urban history, social movements and political economy. Her publications include Caring for America: Home Health Workers in the Shadow of the Welfare State (Oxford, 2012), co-authored with Eileen Boris, which was awarded the Sara A. Whaley book prize from the National Women’s Studies Association; and For All These Rights: Business, Labor, and the Shaping of America’s Public-Private Welfare State (Princeton, 2003) which was awarded the Ellis W. Hawley Prize in Political History/Political Economy from the Organization of American Historians and The Hagley Prize in Business History from the Business History Conference. Writing about the intersection between labor politics and the welfare state, she has written articles on the history of health care policy, Social Security, pensions, collective bargaining and New Deal liberalism, including “The Politics of Economic Security: Employee Benefits and the Privatization of New Deal Liberalism,” published in the Journal of Policy History. She is co-director of the Initiative on Labor and Culture with Michael Denning and is affiliated with the History of Science & Medicine and Women’s Studies programs.

A labor history of home health care workers from the 1930s to the present, Caring for America: Home Health Workers in the Shadow of the Welfare State (Oxford University Press, 2012) co-authored with Eileen Boris, explores the links between public welfare, health care, social movements and employment law. Their articles on home care workers, long term care and labor organizing include: “Organizing Home Care: Low-Waged Workers in the Welfare State” in Politics and Society (March 2006); “We Were the Invisible Workforce: Unionizing Home Care” in The Sex of Class: Women Transforming American Labor, ed. Dorothy Sue Cobble (ILR/Cornell Press, 2007), “Laws of Care: The Supreme Court and Aides to Elderly People” in Dissent (Fall 2007),“Organizing the Carework Economy: When the Private Becomes Public,” in Rethinking U.S. Labor History: Essays in the Working-Class Experience, 1756-2009, Donna Haverty-Stacke and Daniel Walkowitz, eds. (Continuum, 2010), “Frontline Caregivers: Still Struggling” in Dissent (Winter 2012) and “Home Care Workers Aren’t Just Companions,” New York Times, July 2, 2012.

She is Senior Editor of the journal International Labor and Working Class History. She edited a special issue of ILWCH, The Class Politics of Privitization: Global Perspectives on the Privitization of Public Workers, Land, and Services No. 71 (Spring 2007).

In addition to academic publications, her articles on labor, low-wage work, care, and social policy have appeared in Dissent, The New York Times, The,, American Prospect (, New Labor Forum, Labor Notes, and Democracy.

Presenter: Catherine Koonar, University of Toronto
Catherine Koonar is a doctoral candidate in History at the University of Toronto. Her project, “The Chocolate Crossroads of the World: The Hershey Company, 1903-2003,” investigates the history of US capitalism through the lens of the Hershey Company. Her research unearths the story of struggle between the Hershey community and the chocolate company, conflict between workers and management, enduring debates over Milton Hershey’s legacy, and the company’s relationship to international commodity chains and consumer markets. This social and cultural history shows how ideas about the nature of chocolate as a joyful rather than a necessary commodity shaped identity formation among the residents of Hershey, Pennsylvania and corporate narratives about the Hershey Company. Her project also elucidates the ways in which Hershey, Pennsylvania, and the Hershey Company are embedded in a global story of modern capitalism. Catherine is broadly interested in histories of capitalism, consumer culture, and food studies. Her work has appeared in International Labour and Working Class History, Atlantic Studies; Global Currents, and the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography.

Commentator: A. Naomi Paik, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign