Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Wandering the company town of Roebling

Back in the days before suburbanization, when a company built its manufacturing facilities in the countryside, it had to consider where the factory's workers would come from. There generally wasn't enough suitable labor locally, so the company would take on the role of developer and landlord and build a whole town for the workforce it would recruit from elsewhere. The typical company town would spring up just outside the factory gates: company-owned housing, stores, schools, fire and police protection, you name it.

The John A. Roebling's Sons company took this approach in 1905 when locating its new steel mill on the banks of the Delaware River south of Trenton. Today, the factory is gone, but many of the buildings and homes still stand in the tidy community of Roebling. Using a map provided by the Roebling Museum, I took a walking tour of a five-block by two-block section of this neat little enclave, which is now a part of Florence Township.

Row housing in Roebling.
During my visit to the museum, I'd learned that the living conditions and rules for the Roebling community had set it apart from many other company towns. First, the housing was constructed under the basic premise that workers and their families deserved decent and modern homes. A variety of brick structures was available depending on a worker's family situation: a 'bachelor hotel' for unmarried workers, row housing for couples and small families, duplexes and single-family houses that were mostly reserved for middle and upper management. Each was equipped with full plumbing, electricity and gas, which was unusual for the area at the time. The museum docent explained that the size of the home didn't necessarily equate with the employee's status in the company. One laborer, for example, had 13 children and was provided with a larger house to accommodate them.

At first, where you lived was also determined by your ethnicity. The company actively recruited recent immigrants from Central Europe, so you would see a Hungarian enclave, a block of Lithuanian families, and so on. That practice changed over time as youngsters of different backgrounds met, got married and had their own families while remaining in town, working at the factory as their fathers did.

The Roebling factory store in the center of town
is now a deli and convenience store.
The company store still stands as a small market and deli in the center of town, not far from the statue of Charles Roebling that was dedicated just a few years ago. Unlike the usual practice in similar towns, however, factory employees were paid in cash rather than company scrip, so they were able to buy their food and other staples anywhere they wished. Two things Roebling didn't have were churches and drinking establishments, but residents didn't have to go far to satisfy their thirst for salvation or distilled spirits: literally just across the railroad tracks at the edge of town, are seven houses of worship and 14 bars.

Today, community pride is clear from the tidy lawns and well-cared for exteriors of the homes and public buildings. When I visited on a sunny weekday afternoon, a few people were out and about, but mostly, it was very quiet, with little traffic on the streets. No doubt, most residents were at work or school, and the streets would get busier at late afternoon. It wasn't hard to imagine that 50 or 100 years ago, the residential area would have been enveloped by the not-so-distant noise of the Roebling factory in action. If you blocked out the modern cars from sight, you might even be able to envision workers streaming down the main road from the factory gate at quitting time, making the short commute to their homes.

I needed to make the reverse walk to get back to my car, which was parked inside the factory gates beyond the museum. On the way, I passed a small vestige of the days when the whole town was privately owned: an otherwise easily-overlooked obelisk that once held part of a chain that blocked the street from traffic one day a year. It's a little-known fact, but in most jurisdictions, if you allow the public to use part of your private property as a thoroughfare for 365 consecutive days, it reverts to the public domain. Thus, to retain property rights to the road system, Roebling would block off the town's streets for one day per year by stringing lengths of rope (made from Roebling wire, of course) between obelisks like the one in the picture to the right. Rockefeller Center management used to do the same thing with the drive between 30 Rockefeller Plaza and the ice rink, usually on Christmas or New Years, I think. Pretty wild, eh?

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