In preparation for our 40th Anniversary Celebration this year, we cast a wide net and gathered as many relics from our past that member-owners were willing to share. One day during this gathering phase, we received a VHS tape from a former member-owner named Beverly Red, now living in California. VCRs are hard to come by these days, so this mystery tape sat idle for a time as we speculated about what we might find upon viewing it. Was it a recording of an annual meeting? Or maybe a clip from a festival or celebration at the Co-op? The opportunity finally came to solve this fun little mystery when the fine folks at Ilsley Library offered to help us convert this tape to a digital format. Eager with anticipation, we popped in the tape and discovered a gem: a glimpse into a day in the life of our Co-op nearly 20 years ago! Did you know that Glenn used to be our Produce Manager? Do you recognize anyone else? With so many familiar faces and themes, it became apparent that while many things have changed over the years, the heart and soul of our Co-op remains very much the same. We hope you enjoy this as much as we did!
Oooh….just look at those beauties! The Co-op is celebrating our 40th Anniversary with limited edition mugs from Sunset Hill Pottery in Neenah, Wisconsin. Sunset Hill received recognition as “America’s Cleanest, Greenest Pottery” last year. Follow this link to find out just what changes they’ve made at their facility to make their pottery better for their workers and for the environment.
Our new mugs are available, for a limited time, in four gorgeous glazes and styles:
Fresh Awakening – for those of us who need a few extra ounces in the morning
Traveler – for the busy bee who needs their cup to stay hot until they can get to it
Whole Lotta Latté – for the “sit and sip” crowd (great for soup and chili, too)
Pot Belly – for anyone – just because it’s so cute!
Stop by and pick up yours (or one of each) while they’re still here. They make great gifts, too!
Our 40th Anniversary Celebration Continues! Every month, we’ll post another story and photos from some of our long time Co-opers. Here’s another contribution to our historical archive from Jeremy Singley. Jerry and Pauline Singley are long time Co-op members, starting from when we were just a fledgling buying club. They were instrumental in helping acquire and renovate the original Co-op Storefront at the Old Train Depot on Seymour Street. Listen to what Jerry has to say about their history with the Co-op and our metamorphosis into the much larger and successful organization that we’ve become.
A History with the Co-op from Jeremy Singley
Pauline and I joined the Middlebury Natural Foods Coop in 1974, not long after its debut. At the time the Coop was a sort of bulk foods buying club of like-minded folks. The group met monthly to engage in a friendly auction amongst themselves, each committing to purchase increasing or decreasing portions until their individual orders added up to, say, a whole wheel of cheese or a 50 pound bag of flour. These goods would then be ordered at wholesale rate, and stored in Jane and Marshall Eddy’s barn in Middlebury. Upon arrival the bulk goods were broken down into portions by a revolving body of member volunteers. Cheese wheels, for example, would be reduced to individually wrapped and labeled wedges and stacked in the group’s fridge. Members who had made purchases were encouraged to be timely in picking up their orders.
Over time sub-groups grew up in a number of vicinities, each overseen by a “coordinator.” Pauline and I represented the East Middlebury/Salisbury region, at which time I also became a Coop Board member. By then the group had grown large enough that meetings were no longer necessary. In lieu of meetups, members filled out a monthly “pre-order” form. The total number of members in all the sub-groups combined guaranteed that enough food would be pre-ordered in any given month to support bulk purchases. There were scraps left over of course—a wedge of cheddar, for example—but the selections that were on offer in those early days were goods that would keep until the next order, at which time they could be offered again. Or that was the theory.
Two issues cropped up.
The first was the leftover problem. That didn’t always work out. Plus, members craved a wider selection, but how do you handle, say, lettuce, on a long-term basis. So [Board member?] Charles Adams rented the abandoned train station on Seymour Street and started a “store front.” Now anyone could walk in and buy, not only that orphan cheddar wedge, but a growing list of new direct-sale offerings, displayed in bins and buckets with spunky hand-written labels.
The second problem was the work we coordinators had to do. We were in charge of sending out the order sheets, tallying the members’ orders, bulk ordering, rousting up four or five volunteers and setting up a “breakdown” day—where the bulk goods would be re-packaged to fill the individual member orders—hanging around until all the member orders had been picked up, and then delivering or storing the ones that weren’t.
When the store front had matured to the point that it offered everything the pre-orders did, and more, available throughout the month, I published a suggestion that we terminate pre-order and just focus on the store. This was not at first a popular idea. Many members enjoyed the camaraderie of the breakdowns and the whole-earth feel of the process. But the majority realized they preferred to be able to buy what they wanted when they wanted. So Charlie, myself and a stalwart crew of volunteers tore into the train station, replacing the floor, improving the lighting, building shelves and, eventually, even installing a walk-in fridge! The budget was tight. We’d begun with a tackle box as our cash exchange. Then one of those old Ka-ching! cash registers turned up from somewhere. I built a checkout counter in my woodshop.
The store grew so fast it was decided a digital cash register was needed to help keep track of the flow. This was a big deal. The board did not have that much to spend. But I had an idea. After checking with my bank, I approached a number of members—mostly respected business owners—and asked if they would counter-sign a loan. They all agreed. The cash register was in.
When the store outgrew the station and moved to its present location (but much smaller than today!) my wooden counter went along. Eventually, so did our kids. In the late 80’s to early 90’s Gwen worked as cashier, stocker, and made intricate illustrated shelf labels. Emily also cashiered and stocked, as well as helping to manage the HABA (health and beauty aids) section, now called the Wellness Department.
My homemade checkout counter worked well for years, even as it was gradually surrounded by multiple factory-made counters and registers. Every time I walked in—as a shopper now, no longer a board member—that counter reminded me of the old days, and I was awed by how far Charlie’s brainchild had grown.
Wow, how time flies! It’s hard to believe that our Co-op is turning the big 4-0 this year. We’ve enjoyed strolling down memory lane in preparation for this big birthday celebration, and we’ve gathered some beautiful stories from Co-op member-owners that have been with us since the very beginning. While many have shared personal anecdotes and fuzzy memories about how the Co-op came to be, and we had a general idea of how it all began, we were still lacking detailed written records to help us understand our beginnings — until we reached out to Charles Adams. He shared this vividly detailed account below, complete with photos. There is an old Abenaki adage which suggests that identity is a function of how well one understands their history. In this way, the gathering of our history has led to a rediscovery of our identity as a Co-op, and for this we are truly grateful.
My Years with the Middlebury and Vermont Co-ops
By Charles Adams of Newport, Rhode Island
Like dividing the wheat and other grains from the fields in times of old, each month the Loaves & Fishes Trucking Company would deposit the bulk order of foodstuffs at a rented house on Weybridge Street. On a given Saturday, the neighborhood coordinators from all the outlying towns would converge and with the help of Middlebury Co-op organizers, David Tier & Foxy, each 50# bag of flour, wheat berries, oats, or powdered milk, each wheel of Cabot cheese, each pail of molasses, cooking oil, peanut butter, or honey, and bags of dried fruits, nuts, and seeds would be measured out into smaller containers and driven back to the neighborhoods according to their monthly order sheet.
Dave & Foxy mimeographed and distributed the order sheets which were then distributed to individual families. Once a month the coordinators would collate their neighbor’s orders and return to Dave for collation. Only whole size bags, pails, or cartons of goods could be ordered and efforts were made to minimize leftovers since there was no ability to preserve or store excesses. Middlebury’s orders were then submitted and combined with those of the other 12 Food Co-ops around the state with the Plainfield Co-op as the central leader. Once a month, Carl from the Loaves & Fishes Trucking Co. in the Northeast Kingdom would drive a tractor trailer to the Boston and New York warehouse districts to collect the food haul for Vermont. Then he would drive around to each of the co-ops from Bennington in the south to Derby Ctr. in the north dropping off foodstuffs. Each co-op provided labor to assist with the pickups and deliveries in rotating order. I went on several such trips, including one that suffered a breakdown on the way back from New York with all of Vermont’s food for the month in the back. Those were fun days!
Recognizing the difficulty of dealing with foodstuffs on the front porch and the growing popularity of the Co-op, Dave rented an improved barn on Rt. 7 south of New Haven for the monthly distributions. This greatly expanded the space available for subdividing the food, made organization of the process possible, and kept everything out of the rain and wind. About springtime 1975, Dave & Foxy were ready to hand off their management duties and my girlfriend, Barbara Charbonnet, and I accepted the responsibility.
All the flours and cornmeal distributed by the Vermont Co-ops was milled on a Meadows 30 inch stone mill originally purchased from Erewhon, a large natural foods distributor near Boston. The miller was Henry Tewksbury and the mill was located in a back room at the Plainfield Co-op. The mill was known affectionately as ‘Audrey’ as it was the sister mill to ‘Jane’ which was also owned by Erewhon.
There was growing dissatisfaction in Middlebury with the co-op location out of town and with the ‘once-a-month’ system over time and about mid-summer 1977, the old REA baggage building adjacent to the Middlebury train station (then a NAPA auto parts) was rented from Joe Bok. Volunteer labor from members cleaned the building, painted walls, repaired floors, and built shelves. As the sparsely paid coordinator, I lived in the ‘storefront’ for a winter with a wood-burning stove and my Russian wolfhound, Sonja.
With the help of Walt Miller, who taught me double entry bookkeeping and exercised some oversight of the growing bank balance of the co-op, we accumulated enough reserve to begin buying ‘extra’ food for a storefront operation several days a week, gradually increasing the extent of the items offered for sale.The pre-order operation continued and had lower pricing than the storefront. It was always the pre-order folks who were the lifeblood and base of volunteers that kept the co-op alive and performed its tasks.
About year-end 1977, the Vermont Co-ops decided that business had grown to the point that they needed to establish a warehouse for the temporary storage, trans-shipment, and logical loading of the trucks for deliveries. As well, the flour mill would be re-located to this, more central and accessible location from Plainfield. However, the miller wasn’t going to re-locate, and I volunteered to become the new miller. A large barn on South St. in New Haven which used to be a chicken farm was rented, steam cleaned, and painted. A loading bay was built, office area enclosed, 3-phase power service installed, the mill moved and set up, staff hired, and operations begun. Ellen Temple was the warehouse manager and I was the miller.
About twice a year, the mill was disassembled and the turning millstone was removed so that the lands and grooves could be leveled and sharpened. The milling process slowly dulled the stones to the point that more and more pressure had to be used forcing the stones together to accomplish the degree of fineness required in the flour. This pressure would produce heat which was not desirable as it would destroy the nutrients in the whole wheat flour and could produce sticky flours which would jam the mill and flour transport. The dressing of the stones was done with a carbide-tipped chisel and air hammer – not a pleasant job!
My guide in setting up the mill and laying out expansion plans was Oliver Evans (1755-1819), Young Millwright & Millers Guide, re-printed in 1850. The mechanics of receiving, storing, moving, cleaning, milling, and bagging grains was unchanged from his time except by the luxurious addition of electric motors. Essentially the vertical orientation of machinery was identical to the early mills.The warehouse never got a freight elevator so every 50 and 100 pound bag of grain and flour had to be shoulder-carried up and down the stairs. I might add that these stairs were built by Paul Ralston , then the volunteer laborer provided by Old Nash Farm on a work weekend while we were getting started.
The mill operation expanded with the purchase of Vermont-grown wheat in bulk, the construction of a grain storage silo, grain elevator, and purchase of a commercial seed cleaner (from French’s mustard). The Vermont Federation of Co-ops eventually discussed the possibility of marketing its flour through commercial grocery stores such as Grand Union in smaller quantities (5 pound bags). However, the regional managers collectively decided that this was a step too far outside the co-op spirit of volunteer labor holding the enterprise together. I disagreed with that decision, feeling that the economics of flour milling are volume-driven. The profit per pound is extremely low and only volume sales can hope to carry the capital expenditures necessitated by the equipment required.
By the summer of 1979, my work with the Co-ops was done. Stephen Pilcher agreed to take over my flour milling duties. I had decided to go to UVM and proceeded to get a degree in Electrical Engineering. I look back with great pride in the work of those years, in the friendships formed, mostly under pretty adverse conditions, the results achieved, and the sense of community present at every level from the neighborhood coordinators, to the regional co-ops, and even the New England Co-ops (NEPCOOP, New England People’s Co-op). It was a time of idealism, hope, and promise for the future.
Seeing that the Co-op has endured and grown makes me immensely proud and happy to have been a part of its origins.