The Working Life: Company Towns

By David A. Fryxell Premium

Did your ancestors live in a “company town”? If so, their occupational records could reveal more than just a few genealogical tidbits. For people in towns such as those run by the Stearns Coal & Lumber Co. in south-central Kentucky, their jobs really were their lives. The Stearns towns — comprising schools, churches and stores built by the company beginning in 1902 — provide a rare surviving glimpse into that way of life, in part because the Blue Heron coal-mining town lies within Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area <>.

You can ride the Big South Fork Scenic Railway <>, as your coal-mining ancestors would have, from the tiny town of Stearns to the Barthell Coal Mining Camp. The first of 18 Stearns company towns and once home to 350 people, Barthell has been privately restored to show the history of coal mining. You even can spend the night in a reconstructed “company house” — with modern conveniences inside <>.

Next, the train takes you to Blue Heron, where “ghost houses” re-create company-town life. These wall-less structures house cutouts of their former residents; press a button and you’ll hear stories of family, courtship and recreation. “You were not a normal person living at Blue Heron,” says one girl’s recorded voice.

After returning to Stearns, explore the historical buildings and artifacts at the McCreary County Museum (606-376-5730). The museum maintains the company archives, including records of those who once worked — and lived — in its towns.

For more on company towns, see Building the Workingman’s Paradise by Margaret Crawford (Verso), The Company Town by John S. Garner (Oxford University Press) and Coal Towns by Crandall A. Shifflett (University of Tennessee Press).
From the April 2005 Family Tree Magazine