In the early days of phosphate mining in Florida (1880 to 1920), there were a dozen or so major phosphate mining companies operating in the Bone Valley region of Polk and Hillsborough counties. Most of these companies owned villages, which provided housing for employees. The houses were one and two stories, arranged for one and two families, with water, bathrooms, gardens, fruit trees and other modern conveniences. There were village swimming pools, company hotels and hospitals.
These phosphate villages were built simultaneously with mine washing and drying equipment and other mine structures because the mines were isolated and workers needed to live near their jobs. There were not enough houses for all the workers so long waiting lists sometimes existed. Since the houses were for employees only, workers had to move when they retired, according to an article about living in company towns written by Freddie Wright in the March 1981 edition of the Polk County Historical Quarterly Newsletter.
“One former inhabitant described life in the village as ‘country club living.’ There were morning coffees, afternoon card parties and neighborhood barbeques. Everybody knew everyone else, even the names of all the children and pets. Children walked to school, there were no locked doors. It was a wonderful time for families with small children but more difficult for teenagers who wanted more than the limited diversions of a company town,” according to Wright.
Rent was very low and all services such as electricity, water and garbage collection were provided for a nominal fee. In most communities it was the responsibility of the tenants to improve and maintain their own yards, while the companies kept up repairs and painting.
Mike Lloyd, Chemical Processing Research Director for the Florida Institute of Phosphate Research and a collector of local lore, likes to tell the story of the company manager’s early morning visits to the homes in a company town. It is said that it was not unusual for the company manager to visit homes announced early on a weekday morning and run a white glove through the house, inspecting the quality of the housekeeping.
The towns began in the early 1900’s and reached a peak in the 1920’s.
Perhaps the earliest of these villages was at Tiger Bay near Fort Meade, which was built by the Palmetto Phosphate Company. Probably the largest of the company towns was Brewster with 163 company houses and a reported population high of 2,500. The town of Nichols, built by the Virginia-Carolina Chemical Company, consisted of about 120 houses and dates to the 1920s. Other company installations included Pierce, built in 1906 by the American Agricultural Chemical Company; Ridgewood, built by Davison Chemical Company; a group of houses near Bartow built by Armour Fertilizer Company; and a large number of homes near Mulberry, built by International Minerals and Chemicals Company (IMC). IMC Phosphates in 2004 joined with Cargill Crop Nutrition to become Mosaic, now the world’s largest producer of phosphate rock and phosphate crop nutrients.
Company towns were an integral part of Polk County life until the mid 1930’s when unions negotiated their first contracts with phosphate companies, leading to the elimination of company commissaries and villages. The villages did not completely phase out, however, the 1950’s when phosphate mines expanded operations rapidly and men no longer worked near the villages, according to Wright’s article. Families began to move to nearby cities where there were more opportunities. As the need for company towns waned, the companies sold the houses to workers at reasonable rates and moved the homes to nearby communities.
Brewster was the last of the villages to close, according to Wright. In 1959, Arthur Crago, Mayor of Brewster for 15 years, wrote in the company newspaper:
“I am sure many people will witness the passing of the company town with regret. There is, however, one advantage that will occur to many people. They will have an opportunity to purchase a home at a very nominal figure and as time goes on, will realize that owning a home excels living in a company owned dwelling. Also when retirement age is reached, workers will not be faced with need to find a new home.”