Company towns are communities characterized by the control of one commercial enterprise, often a mining, lumber, or railroad company, over all or virtually all employment, housing, public utilities and services, business, and organized social activity in that town. In the West, and throughout the United States in general, company towns were widespread throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Since that era, a number of factors have led to their decline, and now only a few remain in operation in any part of the country. Especially in the West, their existence was often justified by the need to extract resources in locations sufficiently remote from larger settlements so as to make any kind of commute to and from those settlements impractical. As the West grew more settled, however, distances between towns and cities shrank; the development of modern highway and freeway systems played a part in reducing the isolation of many company towns, as did a rise in the availability of inexpensive automobiles to working-class families, thereby eliminating much of the need to operate company towns as such.1 Company towns typically met one of two fates. When the commercial enterprise that created them terminated production at the local mine or mill, they survived as independent communities, or they became ghost towns.

Holden, Washington, ultimately met neither fate. The town is located in the North Cascades at an elevation of 3,200 feet, approximately 10 miles west of Lake Chelan by Forest Service Road 8301. The surrounding peaks range between 7,000 and 9,500 feet. The nearest incorporated town is Chelan, at the southern end of the lake, more than 50 miles away. Holden’s only neighbors are the unincorporated communities of Lucerne and Stehekin, the former being nothing more than a cluster of cabins and a ranger station on the lakeshore, and the latter being a somewhat larger resort community at the northern end of the lake. Holden is not connected to any highway system, and can only be reached by taking the lake ferry or a float plane to Lucerne and then driving up the road, by helicopter, or by foot trail. The townsite stands on land leased from the Forest Service, and is roughly a mile away from the boundary of Glacier Peak National Wilderness.

From 1937 to 1957, Holden was the site of the largest copper-mining operation in the state of Washington. It was owned and operated by Howe Sound Company, which had its headquarters in New York. The average yearly population was between 600 and 700, and when the mine closed, many of the residents were compelled to abandon homes of between 10 and 20 years. After standing vacant for three years, the main townsite was donated to the Lutheran Bible Institute of Issaquah, Washington. It then became an independent, non-profit, Christian retreat center, called Holden Village. It survives today in this form.

A present-day visitor to Holden Village sees much of what its former residents, the miners, saw. The townsite consists of six two-story, dormitory buildings (one now converted to other uses), fourteen chalet-style houses, a recreation hall, the Hotel building, which holds the dining hall and village bookstore; a former hospital building, now a living unit; and a school building. Except for one of the chalets, all are original structures, built between 1937 and 1938. The Forest Service road, which divides the rec hall, the school, and two of the dormitory buildings on the south from the rest of the townsite on the north, forms the town’s only street (“Main Street”). Martin Ridge looms above the village on the north. Across the creek, on the south side of the valley, Buckskin Mountain and Copper Peak dominate the view. Three enormous mounds of orange mine tailings border the creek, and three smaller heaps are visible on Copper Peak’s lower slopes. To the west of the larger tailings piles stands the rusting skeleton of the ore milling structure, which is flanked by slopes covered in additional waste rock material. On the level of the mine portal, just uphill from the mill, foundations mark where shops and office buildings once stood. Beyond the sealed portal there are 58 miles of tunnels, now mostly underwater.2 (Holden Village structures on this side of the creek include the current maintenance garage and an abandoned museum building). Only traces remain of the larger physical community that existed during the mining years, which included two neighborhoods populated mainly by families and young couples, Winston Camp and Honeymoon Heights. Winston Camp consisted of 101 homes; it stood a few hundred yards to the west of the townsite. Honeymoon Heights consisted of 15-20 homes; it stood on the lower slopes of Copper Peak, not far from the mine portal. In the case of both neighborhoods, only foundations remain today.

On the surface, Holden Village bears little resemblance to the community that preceded it, except in the fact that it occupies the same site. It is a non-profit hospitality organization, rather than a commercial enterprise. Its resident staff consists largely of students, recent college graduates, young families, and retirees, many of whom work and live in the village as unpaid volunteers. Most guests and staff members only stay for brief periods; two years is considered a long stay, although some directors, managers, and village pastors have stayed for five or more years.

Nevertheless, Holden Village, too, might be considered a company town. The evidence for this lies in the many parallels between Holden Village and its predecessor community. First and foremost among these parallels is (1) the fact that employment and residency were and are inextricably linked in both communities. While many of Holden Village’s workers are unpaid, those who live there year-round (and, as of 2012, an increasing number of shorter-term residents) receive stipends and health benefits, and can therefore be considered employees. (Moreover, volunteer staff members receive payment in the form of free room and board). In the mining community, any time an employee was dismissed, for any reason, he had no choice but to leave the community. In the village community, while those who are dismissed are usually permitted to return after a time, they, too, must leave. Another important parallel is (2) the rough segregation of the community by housing situation into zones that are reflective of status in the community’s unifying enterprise and, generally, length of residency. This segregation was more evident during the mining years, due partly to the existence of Winston Camp and Honeymoon Heights, but exists today at Holden Village in the division between long-term staff members and managers, who live in the chalets, and short-term volunteer workers, who live principally in two dormitories. Further parallels include (3) limited self-government characterized by the leadership of a select group of managers or directors who report to a board or other superiors on the “outside”; (4) limited self-reliance with regard to public utilities and services (with the notable exception of electrical power in the case of the mining community); and (5) the unifying enterprise’s support of and involvement in a variety of communal activities and programs, including sports, education, and religion. (In the case of Holden Village, religion is a core element of its unifying enterprise). Similarities less critical to the argument that Holden Village is a company town but relevant to an accurate characterization of Holden include (6) the vulnerability of both communities to the dangers of the surrounding environment, especially the threat of forest fire, (7) a lack of strong racial diversity, and (8) strong feelings of attachment to the physical community on the part of the residents, often experienced most strongly after leaving or moving away.

At least one conclusion, largely self-evident, may be drawn from these parallels: setting plays a major role in determining the character and composition of any community, and especially one as small and isolated as Holden. It is the remote setting that is most responsible for the similarities between Holden and Holden Village. The location created a range of challenges to both operations, and it played an important role in shaping both communities. This fact need not work against the argument that Holden Village is a company town. Especially in the West, remoteness was a key characteristic of most company towns.

It is partly ambiguity in the modern scholarly definition of what constitutes a company town that leaves room for Holden Village to be interpreted as one. There is no exact definition. In their introduction to Company Towns in the Americas, Oliver Dinius and Angela Vergara identify the town’s dependence on a sole industry and that industry’s ownership of all or nearly all property as prime characteristics, adding geographical isolation, residential segregation, and company control over public services, education, and recreation as other key factors. In his 1966 book, The Company Town in the American West, James Allen also included the presence of a company store as an important factor. However, as Dinius and Vergara point out, “company towns often met several of these criteria, but only a few model towns met all of them.” There were numerous fundamental differences between heavily planned communities near major urban areas, such as Pullman, Illinois, and rough logging camps located deep in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, among them the projected longevity of the community and the gender ratio of its population.3 Holden during the mining years lay somewhere between these two extremes.

Other modern scholars, such as Hardy Green, author of The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills that Shaped the American Economy, explore whether some of today’s major corporate campuses might be considered company towns, such as Federal Express’ huge facility in Collierville, Tennessee, or Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California. Among other amenities, the latter features free meals, exercise facilities, and places for employees to sleep, which effectively encourage them to live at their place of work and blur the lines between their private and professional lives. These facilities are more like company towns than Holden Village insofar that they are owned and operated by for-profit enterprises. However, they would still be non-traditional company towns, and if accepted as such, they would support an expansion of our understanding of what constitutes a company town – potentially opening the door for Holden Village (where the division between work and play is also somewhat blurry) and similar communities to be viewed in the same light. To be sure, Holden Village’s status as a non-profit organization would mark it as a highly unusual company town, but that status alone should not exclude it, as the exact nature of the unifying enterprise has not been among the foremost criteria in scholarly definitions of the company town. (Green also speculates whether tourism might become the central industry in a new generation of company towns. Holden is not a tourist destination, but many of the services its resident workers provide are not so different from what one would pay for at a commercial resort, especially one in a remote location).4

The purpose of this thesis is to argue that Holden Village could be viewed as a company town by further exploring the parallels listed above, not to provide a general history of the two communities. Such a history would properly include many elements that lie outside the scope of this writer’s experience, such as the mining methods that helped establish Holden as a successful operation. Readers interested in this aspect of Holden’s history might look for articles and theses published by some of Howe Sound’s leading men, such as Holden General Manager John J. Curzon, who figures prominently in this thesis for other reasons. Additionally, this thesis will not delve deeply into the theological subjects covered by the generations of visiting summer lecturers who have come to Holden Village since 1961. Readers interested in these subjects may find many of the lectures in the Holden Village Audio Archive, which is gradually becoming available on the Holden Village website, and is currently accessible in the Holden library.

This thesis expands on the existing literature by comparing Holden and Holden Village. Although no one has yet attempted to write about both communities in detail, a number of general histories already exist. Dr. Nigel Adams’ 1976 PhD dissertation, The Holden Mine: From Discovery to Production, describes the discovery of the copper ore body by J.H. Holden, his attempts to develop the claim, and Howe Sound’s early works at the site. An abridged version of this dissertation was published as a book in 1981. Adams’ work highlights the importance the Holden mine had for Chelan, which had sunk to an economic low in the 1930s and benefitted from the business Howe Sound brought to town. Having spent part of his childhood at Holden, Adams probably would have produced the authoritative history of Holden during the mining years, but he died before he could complete such a volume. However, there is a Washington State University master’s thesis that focuses on one of Holden’s “neighborhoods,” An Ethnoarchaeological Study of Honeymoon Heights, written by Dr. Christine Plimpton, who also spent part of her childhood at Holden.

The only widely available secondary resource on the mining years is Linda Carlson’s Company Towns of the Pacific Northwest. Though it is a survey of conditions in many company towns throughout Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, it makes extensive reference to Holden. Carlson does an excellent job of pointing out aspects of community life that were common to Holden and many other company towns. James Allen’s book was among the resources Carlson used. It makes brief reference to Holden, but only to comment on its unusual fate.

Literature on Holden Village is limited to what the retreat center itself has produced. The semi-official history is Charles Lutz’s Surprising Gift: The Story of Holden Village, Church Renewal Center, published in 1987. There is a copy of this book in every village guest room. It devotes one chapter to a summary of the mining years, but its main purpose is to chronicle the first 25 years of the retreat center’s history. It is a good source of both general and specific information, and anyone interested in studying Holden Village history should use it as a starting point. In 2012, as part of the celebrations marking its fiftieth year as a retreat center, Holden Village published a collection of personal recollections written primarily by former village directors, managers, board members, and pastors, titled Holden Village: 50 Years of Memories, and edited by board member Lola Deane. The Holden Village website also includes pages on village history, and on the history of the mining community.

This writer found only one reference to Holden in general histories of the Lutheran church in the United States, in Maria Erling and Mark Granquist’s The Augustana Story: Shaping Lutheran Identity in North America, which sheds light on the character of Wilton Bergstrand, one of Holden Village’s early leaders. This and other church histories provided insight into the interesting changes that were taking place within the various Lutheran church bodies during the 1960s, some of which may have influenced Holden Village’s direction in its formative years.

Holden’s lack of a definitive history is somewhat made up for by its rich oral history collection, and by the materials available to guests and staff in its Portal Museum. The former resource includes recorded interviews of both Holden and Holden Village residents. It is interesting to note that the recollections of former miners and their families contained within these interviews are almost universally positive, which challenges the prevailing negative image of the company town model in contemporary culture. (Crandall Shifflet makes a similar observation in his 1991 book, Coal Towns: Life, Work, and Culture in Company Towns of Southern Appalachia, 1880-1960).5 The Portal Museum includes memoirs, letters, staff photo albums, and newspaper clippings. Both the Chelan Valley Mirror and the Wenatchee World paid close attention to events at Holden. The Mirror even featured a regular column on Holden for a few years. Additionally, Holden had its own weekly newspaper, The Holden Miner, founded in 1948 by miner Frank Brogan. After Brogan left town in 1950, the paper was written, edited, and published by Howe Sound timekeeper Cortland Bell.6 In the late 1980s, a former resident resurrected the paper as a newsletter for and by survivors of the mining community. It regularly includes many interesting and entertaining stories. As of 2012, although almost all the former employees and their spouses have died, many of their children are alive and well, among whom Bill Phillips and Linda Powell Jensen are most active in preserving Holden’s history and sharing their stories with today’s residents.

Among the primary resources, none is as extensive as the Howe Sound Company files from the Holden operation, which are preserved at the University of Washington in the Allen Library’s Special Collections wing. They were discovered at Holden in the 1960s and saved through the efforts of Portal Museum curator Dr. Rudy Edmund, Holden Village Business Manager Werner Janssen, and Dr. Nigel Adams. They include correspondence between General Manager J.J. Curzon and his superiors in New York, internal memos, insurance information, minutes of negotiations between striking union members and company officers, fire reports, and much more. It is clear from the content of these files that Curzon was not solely interested in the success and productivity of the mine itself, but also took a keen interest in the well-being of his workers, their families, and the community as a whole.

There are several living individuals who may be considered Holden history experts, including Bill Phillips, Linda Powell Jensen, Dr. Christine Plimpton, Werner Janssen, former director Paul Hinderlie, and current Portal Museum curator Larry Howard. All have been of great assistance to this writer, who has generally deferred to their recollections of what life was like at Holden when they lived there. The writing of a definitive history of Holden is properly left to one of them.

While this thesis is not intended as a general history, one of its purposes is to provide an overview of Holden’s history during the mining years that may be useful as a guide to other researchers, and as an illustration of life in a conventional company town. This overview forms the content of the first chapter. The second chapter consists of an overview of the history of Holden Village up to 1980, by which time the community had, in a number of fundamental ways, become what it is today. Much of this history has already been chronicled in greater depth in Lutz’s book; therefore, it is relatively brief overview, though it does include some minor details that have not appeared in previous village histories. The third chapter describes life in the village today and analyzes the most important parallels (and differences) between Holden and Holden Village in greater depth. This chapter summarizes the argument that Holden Village is a company town. The conclusion touches on some less tangible similarities between the two communities, asks and attempts to answer questions regarding Holden’s identity and future, and includes suggestions for further research.


1 Margaret Crawford, “The ‘New’ Company Town,” Perspecta, 30 (1999): 48-57, 55.
2 Brent Diamond, email correspondence with author, 22 December 2012.
3 Oliver J. Dinius, and Angela Vergara, eds., Company Towns in the Americas (Atlanta: University of Georgia Press, 2011), 6-7.
4 Hardy Green, The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills that shaped the American Economy (New York: Basic Books, 2010), 191, 202.
5 Crandall A. Shifflet, Coal Towns: Life, Work, and Culture in Company Towns of Southern Appalachia, 1880-1960 (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1991), 145.
6 Linda Carlson, Company Towns of the Pacific Northwest (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003), 137; Linda Powell Jensen, email correspondence with author, 21 December 2012.


Holden Village Copyright © by highline and Mattias Olshausen. All Rights Reserved.

Share This Book