© 2024 WVIK
Listen at 90.3 FM and 98.3 FM in the Quad Cities, 95.9 FM in Dubuque, or on the WVIK app!
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Company Town

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Young Ralph Jackson worked in the coal mines around Cable, Illinois until the Coal Valley Mining Company did him a favor and brought him into their company store to learn clerking. Several years later he was able to return the favor and teach the company a lesson.

Company towns were a familiar sight along the Mississippi Valley seventy years ago. The Rock Island Railroad built company towns like Silvis for its employees; company towns clustered around coal mines and even at larger logging operations and sawmills. Employees lived in company houses and bought high-priced food and supplies at company stores. They owed their souls, the song goes, "to the company store."

By 1917, the United Mine Workers had begun fighting the company store monopoly with a brand-new concept, the co-op store owned by workers rather than the company. They asked Ralph Jackson, now trained to run such a store, to come to Matherville and manage a co-op there.

The company store in Matherville was called the Cable Mercantile Company after the mine owners. The company store had a way of increasing their profits. They would order produce, then reject it on grounds that it did not meet standards until the shipper had to sell at the company price or lose everything.

That's how Ralph Jackson came across the carload of potatoes on the siding at Matherville. The company store had rejected them as substandard and was waiting until the price came down to half. Jackson made the shipper a fair offer, then asked the local bank for a four-day loan to cover the cost.

The potatoes never even made it into the Union Co-op store. When word got out about the cheap potatoes for sale, the mining families flocked down to the train siding and bought them right out of the box car. They sold out in two days, leaving Jackson with enough money to pay off the loan and make something in addition. The company store was left with no potatoes, no customers, and no profit.

It was the last time Pete Connor, manager of the company store in Matherville, pulled that trick—or any other. He wasn't eager to find out what else Ralph Jackson had learned about managing a store.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.