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Twenty-five Years of Co-operation in Superior, Wisconsin. The Story of the People's Co-operative Society

"The Co-op" is a well-known institution in Superior. But it was not always so. In fact, for many years it was as insignificant to the most of Superior as the "grain of mustard seed" in the parable. Then like the mustard seed it began to grow and "shoot forth great branches".

Altho this seed was planted by one foreign-born group, the Finnish-Americans, the sturdy tree which has grown from it in the last 25 years now shelters people of all the many nationalities residing in the city. Thus it illustrates the proudest claim of co-operators, namely, that Co-operation unites all people of all nations, races and creeds under the peaceful banner of mutual aid.

Wm. Peterson Makes a Motion

The first move to organize a "People's Co-operative Society" was made on January 24, 1915, at a meeting of a local Finnish-American society. One William Peterson made a motion that a "worker's store" be established. There was considerable debater, in which some argued that the "times were too bad for a business venture". But the motion carried by a vote of 17 to 12, and the meeting elected an organization committee consisting of William Peterson, Matti Tenhunen, John Tarkiainen, Victor Laakso, Albin Ukkonen, Fred Sahlman, J. B. Lantto, Antti Nissinen, and E. V. Latvala. Of these pioneers, only John Tarkiainen still resides in Superior.

Share-selling began, but progress apparently was very slow. (Could it be because among the solicitors was one "Ed Delay"?) Opening of the store had to be postponed several times. Finally, over a year later, it was reported that 114 shares had been sold, at $5 each, producing almost $600. Of this amount the board used $400 to buy a second-hand Ford "jalopy" for delivery purposes, which gave endless trouble. A store on Fifth Street between Hughitt and Hammond avenues was rented, and William Juntunen, of Embarrass, Minn., was hired as manager. Ivan Lanto, a spruce young lad who later became sales manager of the Central Co-operative Wholesale, was appointed to guide the Ford.

The board at this time consisted of William Marttila, president; Ahti Salo, vice president; Vaino Lahti, secretary; G. H. Lundberg, treasurer; J. B. Lantto, Matti Tenhunen, and Alex Sevo.

A Plot (?) Miscarries

It was decided to open the store on July 3, 1916. Now enters the villain. On the morning of the 3rd, a Swedish worker, walking to his job, noticed a suspicious package lying against the wall of the building which was to house the new co-op store. Upon examination, the package was found to contain 10 sticks of dynamite, plus cap and fuse. The police were promptly called and the infernal machine was taken to the station for official scrutiny. Who planted the explosive, or why, is still a mystery. Could it have been some private store competitor seeking to blast this baby co-op in its very cradle? One can only speculate.

The store opened on schedule. It was a small store; on November 25, nearly five months later, its inventory of goods totaled only $650.85.

Little is known of the society's first three years. Then in 1919 the shipyards closed - and the co-op lost 60 patrons. The next few years were black indeed. To make matters worse, a co-op creamery in which the society had invested some of its scanty funds failed. At one time during this period the store did not dare to hang out its sign, because that would have attracted creditors as molasses attracts flies. Managers during these years included John Niemela, Hjalmar Dantes, Charles Sunnarborg, and A. Nissinen.

Twice the store had to be moved, finally landing up in the tiny shop at the northwest corner of Fifth Street and Tower Avenue which is now occupied by a barber. Here the manager for a time was Mrs. Tyyne Usenius, now Mrs. Ilmar Kauppinen, wife of the manager of the Workers Mutual Savings Bank.

The minutes of the period showed that it was difficult to get anyone to serve on the board of directors of an institution which had only $580 in assets (far from liquid) to meet liabilities of some $8,000.

In August, 1921, the Coop Wholesale, to which the struggling society owed the most money, served notice that $260 must be raised immediately or else ... It was the crisis. Now the faith of all who believed in the ideal of co-operative self-help was tried to the utmost. A gallant few, including Eskel Ronn, later general manager of the Wholesale, and John Tarkiainen, came forward and put up the $260. The co-op was saved. Then, to ward off further crises, the faithful few went out and sold more shares, and the creditors were persuaded to scale down the amounts owed them and to give the society a respite in which to get on its feet.

It should be remembered that 25 years ago any co-operative was organized under much greater difficulties than is the case today. Before 1917 there was no Central Co-operative Wholesale to help with advice, and even for several years after that date the Wholesale was too weak to be of much aid to local societies. Experienced cooperative managers were practically non-existent.

The bookkeeping of those days was often primitive indeed. Aaro Kaipainen, now clothing salesman of the CCW, who became manager of the Peoples Co-op in 1923, states that when he asked the outgoing manager for the books, the latter pointed to a toast box under a table. In it Kaipainen found a jumble of invoices; those constituted "the books".

In desperation, Manager Kaipainen sought the aid of Martin Mattila, now a co-operative auditor, in opening a set of real books. Mattila recalls that in doing this he found that the previous manager had done such extraordinary things, apparently, as to "sell two gallons of vinegar in a one-gallon jug". But better days were dawning.

The store had been moved out of the barber shop niche and into larger quarters at 1308 Fifth Street. At this time it had but one telephone, and that on a party line!

At the time Kaipainen took the reins, the sales were only about $1,000 a month, but as confidence in the new management spread the sales doubled, and in a few years tripled and quadrupled. Within three years all of the debts had been paid, and the little band of co-operators could throw back their shoulders and look the world in the eye. Meanwhile, the store was moved again, into the quarters now occupied by Branch No. 2, at Fifth Street and Cumming Avenue.

As an example of the broad social interests of the co-operators it should be noted that in 1926, when the British coal miners were on strike, the society voted to send them $10.

"Come On In, the Water's Fine"

At about this time, too, the society began to reach outside the Finnish group for members. From the minutes of a board meeting we read: "Voted to send out letters to Swedish and other English-speaking people, inviting them to join the store." That this and similar, later efforts were successful is indicated by the fact that well over half of the membership now (1940) is of non-Finnish descent.

Kaipainen resigned in 1928 to become manager of a co-op in Gilbert, Minn. His place was taken by Wilfred Keskinen, who in turn was replaced two years later by the present manager, Jalmar Nukala.

In September, 1929, a meat department was opened in the co-op store, and Mike Schmidt, union meat cutter, was hired. Mike is still presiding over the meat block at Fifth Street.

Late in 1929 a group of Communists tried, by methods which Hitler was later to make famous, to seize control of the co-operative movement of this region. The reaction of the People's Co-operative Society was prompt and decisive. Without losing a day, Hjalmar Davidson, then president and still a director, called a meeting of the board, which declared itself utterly opposed to political domination. Alfred Backman, an employe known to sympathize with the Communists, was promptly fired, and Communist influence was purged out of the society for good and all.

In 1932 the co-op entered the retail coal business. Immediately the Superior coal docks refused to supply it. The society promptly went to Duluth for its coal, and today it has access to any and all Superior coal docks. One of its real services to Superior consumers was to pioneer in encouraging cash payment for coal by giving a 50 cents per ton discount for cash.

In 1930 came the depression. By 1932 the unemployed were walking the streets of Superior, as of every other city, in despair, pleading for work and bread. Not unmindful of their cries was the co-op, strengthened now by the advent of many new members.

When the Superior Federation of Labor, anxious for the welfare of Superior working men, called mass meetings at the Workers' Hall to discuss the crisis, it was the cooperators who proposed that a central kitchen and relief commissary be set up. The People's Co-op, as well as the Central Co-operative Wholesale, gave food to help stock this commissary, and co-operative employes gave one day's pay per month to support the community's relief effort.

This social-minded attitude by the co-operators worked wonders in making the People's Co-operative Society known and respected thruout Superior. More and more new faces appeared in the co-op store and at the membership meetings. The men's Co-operative Club, a city-wide organization, was formed, and the wives of Co-operative Club members swelled the membership of the Women's Co-operative Guild.

But the step which most strikingly symbolized the broadening of the People's Co-operative Society into an all-Superior institution was the opening, early in 1934, of the store at 1717 Belknap Street, commodious and centrally located. To help finance this bold expansion, many hitherto non-co-operators bought shares in the society, and the opening of the new store took on the aspect of a popular community undertaking. Superior at last realized that "The Co-op" was an institution for all the people, to benefit all and to hurt none. From then on, one expansion step followed another.

The Co-operators' Credit Union was established. Here members may deposit their savings, receiving a generous rate of interest, and when they need a loan - perhaps to pay an unexpected hospital bill - the credit union stands ready to loan it to them at rates much lower than those of loan companies.

For several years the co-op dispensed gasoline and oil from pumps back of the Fifth Street store. Then in 1936 a modern auto service station was built at the corner of Winter Street and Banks Avenue.

Allouez Gets a Break

In 1937 a third grocery and meat store was opened at 320 39th Avenue East to serve the many members living in Allouez and vicinity, who for a decade had been demanding a branch store. Delivery is provided from all stores.

But the co-op stores handle more than foods. Since this society is an organization of consumers, it is not interested in merely selling that line of goods which will yield the largest profit. Rather its aim is to supply the consumers with all of the necessities of life. If it can save them money and get them better quality in coffee and prunes, in all likelihood it can also save money and get better quality in electrical refrigerators, paints, overalls, etc. Hence there is practically nothing - except style apparel, drugs, and a few other items - which cannot be purchased thru the co-op stores.

In 1939 a feed and farm supply store to serve rural members was opened by the society at the corner of Winter and Ogden.

The policies of the society are fixed by the membership, who hold their annual meeting in March and a semi-annual meeting in September, and are carried out by the board of directors of 11 members, who are elected at the annual meeting.

Important among these policies is the policy of hiring union labor. All employes of the Society belong to their respective unions. And the union policy was not forced upon the Society thru strikes or threats of strike; on the contrary the Society, being made up largely of union workers, has always looked favorably upon organization of its employes, For example, the co-op clerks were the first to join the Retail Clerks' union in Superior and were instrumental in establishing this union.

The Society now employs 20 workers, among whom are persons of many nationalities - Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, German, Irish, Yankee. The total payroll is about $30,000 a year.

Not a Closed Corporation

Anyone can buy at the co-op. If the buyer is not already a member, his purchase rebate, or share of the earnings, is applied on the purchase of a share, which makes him a full-fledged member.

The People's Co-operative Society is not merely engaged in store-keeping. It also has an educational and social program. Thru study groups, lectures in the schools, educational movies, etc., it tries to awaken the consumers to a consciousness of their important role in economic life and how they can play that role most intelligently.

Much social activity is also carried on thru the auxiliary organizations - the Women's Co-operative Guilds, of which there is one for the Finnish-speaking women as well as one for the English-speaking; the Co-operative Youth League, and the Co-operative Juniors.

The sales volume exceeded a quarter of a million dollars in 1939. The net earnings, which in a co-op are converted into savings for the consumers by being returned to them in proportion to their patronage, totaled $9,576 in that year, so that a savings return of 2½ % of sales was made possible.

The society which once had to hide from its creditors now is on a sound financial footing and looks forward to a future of ever-increasing usefulness to the people of Superior and Douglas County. All consumers of this area are cordially invited to join and pool their buying power thru the People's Co-operative Society. By so doing they help not only themselves but their neighbor-co-operators, since increased volume of business means increased economy of operation, and therefore greater savings for all-thru Consumers' Co-operation.

Published in 1940, 7 p.

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