One of the more successful company towns in Arkansas was Bauxite in Saline County. For over a half-century, it was vibrant and diverse. Residents were saddened when Aluminum Company of America closed the town in the late 1960s.
It takes its name from the mineral bauxite, which itself was named for the French town of Les Baux de Provence where it was identified in 1821. Although bauxite deposits in Arkansas were first described in 1842, it remained for state geologist John C. Branner to properly identify the mineral in 1891, based on a sample from Pulaski County.
According to J. Michael Howard, author of the entry on bauxite mining in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, "the Arkansas bauxite region covers about 275 square miles in the northern part of the West Gulf Coastal Plain and is divided into two mining districts. One area is in Pulaski County, south and east of Little Rock, and the other is in nearby Saline County, northeast and east of Benton."
The area that became the town of Bauxite was originally known as Perrysmith, named after the two men who bought up large swaths of bauxite deposits soon after they became known. Ownership changed hands at least twice before the Pittsburgh Reduction Co. -- later known as Alcoa -- became the major landowner in the area. The Bauxite post office opened in 1900.
Pittsburgh Reduction built a large ore-drying plant in Saline County in 1903, the first structure in what would become the town of Bauxite. Housing was scarce, and the company decided to provide inexpensive houses for the workers. This was not corporate generosity, but helped mollify the poorly paid workers.
Company-owned Bauxite Mercantile Co. was an early addition to the growing community. Before long, schools were constructed, along with recreational facilities and churches. A 1,000-seat theater offered live entertainment, and later, moving pictures.
World War I dramatically boosted mining in the Bauxite area, with production ramping up from 375,910 long tons in 1916 to 506,556 in 1917. Increased production brought more people to the town. Developed without a master plan, housing was grouped into neighborhoods. Crumbia Town, Church Row, Peaceful Valley, Africa, Mexico and Italy were some of the 16 residential areas in 1920.
The neighborhoods of Africa, Mexico and Italy were areas where Black and immigrant workers lived in segregated and inferior housing. By the end of 1920, 85 Hispanic families lived in the Mexico neighborhood, two families per tar paper-covered house. Black and Italian families also lived two per house. Schools were segregated.
In 1917, Alcoa hired its first company doctor, S.N. Hutchinson. A hospital was added, open to employees and their families upon payment of a small monthly fee. This was the first regular medical care received by many of the workers and their families.
Recreational opportunities abounded, with the company providing tennis courts, a boxing club and ball fields. The Bauxite All Stars baseball team provided entertainment throughout the long summers. Children could join the Scouts, and a Mothers League supplied social opportunities for women. A community house was built in 1926. An ice plant opened in 1904. Other facilities and businesses included a bank, a shoe repair shop, and after 1940, a Southwestern Bell telephone exchange.
According to some residents, social distinctions were noticeable. Steve Perdue, a retired educator and authority on Saline County history who grew up in Bauxite, recalled in an interview that Maple Street was the town's Silk Stocking Row, and those who lived there tended to attend the Methodist Church.
At the other end of the social spectrum were the residents of the segregated ethnic enclaves. By December 1920, about 170 Mexican families lived in 85 company houses. The company-owned newspaper, The Bauxite News, included a page with news and advertisements published in Spanish.
At the same date, some 53 Black families and 140 Black single men lived in the Africa community. A large bunk house and two small structures housed the single Black workers. The enclave named Italy was the smallest of the ethnic neighborhoods.
Despite all the amenities, many workers chafed at the low wages. In 1915, a strike was met with strong resistance from the owners, with replacement workers being brought in from Alabama. In 1918, general laborers were paid 22½ cents per hour. Child laborers were paid $1.50 for a 10-hour day.
The Great Depression was rough on the aluminum industry, and Bauxite saw large numbers of layoffs. Work was reduced to two days per week, and wages were cut.
But the company deserves credit for trying to keep its workforce together. Rents were reduced or in some cases discontinued. Electrical service was maintained even if families could not pay. The company provided substantial subsidies for employee medical service throughout the 1930s. A large vegetable garden, as well as a four-acre turnip patch, were open to all employees.
The coming of World War II quickly pulled Bauxite out of the Depression. Alcoa expanded greatly, with three shifts of workers keeping the mines humming around the clock. Reynolds Metals Co. opened the large Hurricane Creek Alumina Plant in 1942. Arkansas bauxite enabled the U.S. to build 350,000 airplanes during the war. By the end of the war, more than 12,000 people lived in Bauxite.
Production declined after the war, and international competition grew. Alcoa announced in 1967 that the town of Bauxite would be closed and the buildings sold. Mining for aluminum ceased in 1982, and Reynolds closed its plant the same year. Small-scale mining continues for non-metal uses.
The historic town survives mostly in the memories of those who grew up there, although two schools and the community center remain. Steve Perdue wistfully recalled his hometown as "Mayberry-esque."
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected] An earlier version of this column was published Oct. 12, 2014.