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Looking Back After 25 Years

Frank Aaltonen

First Full-Time Manager

United Co-operative Farmers has asked me to write an article on the early years of the association for its 25th anniversary celebration. This is a difficult task for me at present when my time is so limited as to prevent me from doing full justice to the assignment and, furthermore, I was not in on the early phases of UCF development more than 25 years ago.

I came into the picture in August 1929 when UCF took its initial step into business. Before that time the activity had been centered on propagandizing for the co-operative idea and trying to get farmers to join the small locals from which UCF was formed. At the spearhead of this important pioneering work were the actual founders and pioneers of co-operation of whom most sharply remain in my memory, Matti Maki, Frank Raitanen, Harry Nelson, Carl Blomfeldt, and the father of the present UCF manager, the late Emil Hangar, who were all from New Ipswich. In Westminster there were Otto Leino, Wenner Mayranen, Antti Hamalainen, Otto Hanninen and Vaino Sillanpaa. From Hubbardston I recall Frank Mackie, Hugo Puntanen, Vilho Salminen, Otto Sutela and Victor Olli. In Ashburnham there were Uuno Tirronen and Vilho Markkanen. And Troy (N. H.) John Syrjamaki and Herman Vinnurva. Of course there were many more farmers who did their share in helping to organize UCF and their names appear in the records of the early days, but the names of the above-mentioned have remained with me through the years because they were the ones whom I met when I arrived from Michigan in June 1929 to assume my duties as UCFs first full-time manager. I remember they were ever ready night and day to perform the countless difficult or mental tasks that we faced in those days.

These co-op pioneers had been engaged in educational work among the farmers for more than two years before any regular business activity was undertaken. Meetings, educational programs, and of course the inevitable Finnish dances were held in the communities surrounding Fitchburg. Small sums of money were raised by these activities. All this was done with the purpose in mind of building support for the co-operative movement among Finnish farmers. Even a set of by-laws was drafted with the aid of the well-known Finnish-American cooperative leader, William Marttila, and the new federation was given the grand-sounding name of United Co-operative Farmers, Inc. And so an organizational basis was laid for this baby of the Finnish farmers.

The setting up of the business was not so easy. The Finnish farmer, no more than the average Finn generally, was not a business man and few had qualifications for carrying on a business. Rather, his thinking relative to business tended to be on the negative side. These are the inherited qualities of the Finns which date back hundreds of years into Finnish history when the Swedes and other foreigners completely dominated Finnish business and trade. The Finns in that period were peasants, tenant farmers, farm hands, hired men and servant girls, and in the cities mostly shoemakers, tailors, and various small craftsmen, who were not considered to be able to take care of their own business affairs. It is apparent that the Finnish people had adopted this appraisal of their abilities which is made so clear in their saying: "Let the shoemaker stick to his last."

Sayings such as this evidently reflected the fact that the whole of the Finnish nation had lived in a kind of spiritual caste system, which prevented people from moving from one type of economic endeavor to another, and kept workingmen as workingmen and farmers as farmers. For these psychological reasons the farmers were timid and had little confidence and trust in themselves and each other. Cooperative business methods were discussed widely and were supported in principle. Endless hours were spent at meetings but getting down to practical steps was intolerably slow and difficult. The smallest practical matter was often voted only after long, tiresome and bitter debate, and sometimes the farmers rescinded action favorable to themselves and to UCF by a referendum vote. Investment in the co-operative was restricted to $5.00 per family and with that the co-op had to get along.

Under these conditions and against this background United Co-operative Farmers, Inc. was to set out on its business undertaking. Its capital was nothing to speak of and there was no possibility of obtaining it from the membership through normal channels. This I noted as soon as I arrived from Michigan and I realized that the economic success of UCF depends on a business operation that could be immediately gotten underway on a paying basis to produce a net savings. The capital was to be slowly built out of such net savings. It was the only possible way but one that demanded self-sacrifice from those who had to do the actual work in the co-op. In those days we had no time to watch the clock or total up the number of hours we worked, which during the busy season ran to eighteen and sometimes twenty hours a day. During the blueberry picking season our doors were open from seven in the morning until three the following morning, when the blueberry trucks were loaded and began to roll to the Boston and New York and other markets. For a six-day week, truck drivers were paid $25.00 and the co-op manager was paid $35.00 for a "full" week.

But despite these sacrifices it is doubtful if UCF could have gotten on its feet without the financial assistance the Workers Credit Union gave during the first two years. The treasurer of the Workers Credit Union, the late John Suominen, frequently helped us out of our financial difficulties with the gibe, "What, again?" He believed in the future of agriculture in the Fitchburg area and always managed to find a way to help surmount the difficulties that arose. He understood, too, that without an effective farmer co-operative movement in the area, individual farmers would continue to exist from hand to mouth. The middleman and speculator would see that the farmer would not get ahead.

I served UCF for 2½ years as its first full-time manager, years that proved to be the most extraordinary experience of a long life of rich experiences. At that time co-operatives had few loyal friends but these few people tackled their tasks completely without sparing themselves. Because of their mission, the image of these men and women will remain with me as long as I live. I remember them with the greatest of respect because it was through their toil and vigor that the farmers' first co-op business venture succeeded, which was so crucial to the future development of UCF.

From the early steps which I have described above, United Co-operative Farmers has steadily progressed and grown, but that later development does not belong within the sphere of my article. It should be borne in mind, however, that together with the progress made by UCF, individual farmer members themselves have forged ahead, and some have been amazingly successful. Their co-operative has been an excellent school to them and its influence has helped them to overcome the characteristic weakness of their Finnish heritage. Thus the entire membership has developed into better businessmen and -women. Without this experience many of them might have lost their farms. A successful farmer must perform many skills and the most important is that he be able to manage his own business so that he may enjoy the fruits of his labor.

Published in Twenty Fifth Anniversary 1928-1953, a Supplement to "The Co-operative Farmer", August 1953. 1953, p. 8-9.

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