Mendocino Redwood Company


Company Towns

Fifty years ago, James Allen made a pioneering effort to study company towns in western United States. He was interested in how company towns developed, what industries spawned them, what the advantages and disadvantages of these towns were for the companies and for the employees, how they affected the economic and social history of America, and why they are disappearing. Some of these towns were coal-mining towns, oil towns, and, of course, lumber towns. "A dramatic illustration of the changing patterns of the lumber industry and its effect upon company towns," writes James Allen, "is seen in the story of Rockport, California" (Allen, 25).

About 25 miles north of Fort Bragg on the rocky Mendocino coast, Rockport, also known at one time as Cottoneva, began as a lumber camp. With its mill right on the coast, timber could be shipped directly south to San Francisco. When Rockport Redwood Company closed the mill in 1957, the population of Rockport was about 500 (Allen, 25).The town included a company store, a community town hall, and a company doctor, in addition to employee housing. The linked map (jpeg 4 MB) shows the layout of the town as it appeared in 1945; use a digital imaging program to enlarge and view the detail. Today only a few of the original houses remain. One of them, remodeled and called the Rockport guest house, is used by MRC employees as a vacation retreat.

"The rise and decline of the town of Rockport," Allen concludes, "uniquely demonstrates the evolution of the lumber industry, from the early days of a cutting and shipping operation to the present management of sustained-yield forests" (Allen, 25). He adds that the consolidation and development of large timber corporations may be a third factor in the elimination of company lumber towns. The emerging corporations, not wanting to get involved in community management and services (like overseeing water, sewers, street lighting, police protection, routine medical care, and road maintenance) urged employees to purchase homes in nearby towns and relegated the company logging town to oblivion. Of course, there were much larger social impacts at play as well. John Kenneth Galbraith (1958) coined the term "the affluent society" to describe Americans after World War II. As part of that affluence, more Americans had access to automobiles and a growing span of highway. They quickly fell in love with drive-in movies, drive-in restaurants, shopping malls, suburbs, and Sunday drives in the country. Moreover before World War II, few women had careers; their traditional role was wife, mother, and homemaker. Those who did work outside the home were generally secretaries, nurses, and teachers. However, with millions of men needed for the war effort, women took their place in weapons factories, offices, and stores; they became machinists, railroad engineers, and lumberjacks. At the same time, labor unions steadily organized workers in industry after industry, giving them, for the first time, power in negotiations with company owners.

With new mobility, larger aspirations, and bigger paychecks, many found there was much more to life than just the company town. Interestingly, Tennessee Ernie Ford released a record in 1955 of a Merle Travis song about a coal mining town, "Sixteen Tons," with this soulful refrain:

You load sixteen tons an' what do you get?
Another day older an' deeper in debt.
St Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go:
I owe my soul to the company store.

In 11 days this flip-side single sold 400,000 records; in 24 days, 1 million copies; and in less than 2 months, 2 million copies. At the time it was the fastest-selling single in the history of Capitol Records. Clearly this song that even its producers did not expect to be a hit resonated with many Americans. Often workers in company towns, like Rockport, received advances against their salaries with "scrips" that could only be redeemed at the company store. Bernie Agrons, the last general manager of Rockport Redwood Company, talks in a 2007 interview about the Rockport company store in the mid-1950s ( wmv 4 MB). At that time, Jimmy Foreman, who lived with his wife Alice in one of the Rockport staff houses, was the store manager and butcher.

By the 1950s, the timber industry and its workers had changed, along with American society and attitudes. The big timber corporations no longer needed to create company towns in isolated areas in order to keep a workforce and many employees no longer wanted to live a company life. Apart from its importance as a company town, Rockport illustrates the perils and uncertainty of timber investors.and timber workers. With its ups and downs, its natural and financial disasters,its transfer from one owner to the next, from small landowners to out-of-town corporations, Rockport's story is reminiscent of many in Mendocino County.

According to records on file at the Bancroft Library, the first sawmill at Rockport was built by William R. Miller around 1877. With a double circular saw, edger, and planer, the mill had a daily capacity of 20,000 board feet (Timberbeast,18). One of the outstanding features at the mill site was a 270 ft wire suspension bridge,built in 1877 by Pacific Bridge Company of San Francisco, that reached from the shore to a small islet in the ocean, sometimes referred to as Pelican Island. Logs were transported by rail to this islet for loading on ships bound for San Francisco.

When he retired in 1886, Miller sold the mill to the Cottoneva Lumber Company. That mill was eventually destroyed by fire in 1900. Around 1907, the Dusenbury family, who owned the New York and Pennsylvania Redwood Company, acquired Cottoneva. They planned to build a new mill at Rockport but their plans never materialized. By 1925 Finkbine-Guild Lumber Company out of Jackson, Mississippi bought Cottoneva Lumber Company. Facing financial ruin, they too abandoned operations in 1927 and their assets were acquired by the Great Southern Lumber Company of Bogalusa, Louisiana to form the Southern Redwood Company.

Within two years, Southern Redwood Company also shutdown. In 1933 the Dusenbury family foreclosed on the original defaulted bonds of Finkbine-Guild and chartered the Cottaneva Redwood Company. Ralph Rounds of Wichita, Kansas, in 1937, took a lease to operate the Cottaneva Redwood Company. The company was renamed Rockport Redwood Company in 1941. Operations at that time included a sawmill, a company town, and approximately 36,000 acres of timberland. The Rockport mill finally fell to competition and closed its doors in 1957. Following Rounds death in 1960, the mill was dismantled and auctioned off. That same year, the Rockport Redwood Company certified the timberlands as the Ralph M. Rounds Tree Farm, selling timber to neighboring companies. The term "tree farm" originated two decades earlier in the 1940s, as the timber industry introduced the concept of sustainable forestry and continual stewardship. Farming implies continuous nurturing and commitment to a "crop" year after year. Tree farming was the polar opposite of the "cut-out and get-out" strategy of some timber industrialist.

Ralph C. Round, the elder's heir, sold the Ralph M. Rounds Tree Farm and the town of Rockport to Georgia-Pacific on July 30, 1968. In 1973 the Rounds Tree Farm, the Georgia-Pacific timberlands throughout northern California, and the former town of Rockport was spun off into Louisiana-Pacific. MRC purchased the Louisiana-Pacific lands, including the Rockport townsite, in 1998.

Author: DMS

Primary Source

Rockport Redwood Company Records, BANC MSS 70/184 c, The Bancroft Library (Berkeley, CA).

Secondary Sources

Allen, James B. The Company Town in the American West. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966.

Columbia River and Pacific Northwest Timberbeast, Pacific Lumber No. 29.

Westport. Mendocino Historical Review (Summer 1978), vol. 4, number 4.

Photo Credits

Rockport Mill, Robert J. Lee Collection, Held-Poage Research Library (Ukiah, CA).

Rockport coupon book, Robert J. Lee Collection.

Cottoneva Hotel (c. 1900), Robert J. Lee Collection, Held-Poage Research Library (Ukiah, CA).

Photo Links

Rockport guest house, photo by Doris M. Schoenhoff (2005).

Rockport suspension bridge and rails. Robert J. Lee Collection (Ukiah, CA).


Video interview of Bernie Agrons, Rockport Guest House, 6 May 2007, conducted by Doris M. Schoenhoff

Linked Map

A copy of the 1945 flood map of Rockport was discovered (2007) in the MRC vault by Roger Krueger, an MRC consultant.


 Mendocino Redwood Company - Ukiah, California