Co-op History: Birthplace of the Modern Cooperative
Rochdale, England, is an industrious, hardscrabble town about 40 miles northwest of Liverpool, nestled in the moors and hill country of the South Pennines. It’s a nondescript sort of place, known for its mills and factories and for the quiet web of residential neighborhoods that ties the region together. It’s also known for something else: the birthplace of the modern cooperative movement—a member-owned, radically egalitarian economic model that boasts nearly 800 million members around the world.
At the height of Europe’s Industrial Revolution, a spirited group of working-class weavers and artisans formed the first successful consumer cooperative in Rochdale in 1844. This was a time when a pound of tea cost a day’s wage, and wealthy merchants would mix flour with ground bone and tea with ground iron, selling it to the poor. Operating on the democratic principle of “one member, one vote,” the 28 members of the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society organized to control the cost and purity of their food. The Pioneers opened their first store at 31 Toad Lane in Rochdale on December 21, 1844.
The idea soon spread around the world, eventually making its way to New England.
History of the Co-op Food Stores
In January of 1936, 17 Hanover, New Hampshire, and Norwich, Vermont, residents formed the Hanover Consumer’s Club—bringing the cooperative movement to the Upper Valley.
Initially, members of the fledgling co-op pooled orders for potatoes, oranges, and maple syrup and arranged for discounts of gasoline and fuel oil with local suppliers. A year later, Co-op members incorporated as the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society and opened a small retail store in a basement on Hanover’s Main Street. Annual sales that year reached $11,404.
Within a few years, the Co-op moved to the site now occupied by the Dartmouth Bookstore and opened Hanover’s first self-service grocery store. Here, the Co-op grew and prospered for 20 years, enjoying steady increases in membership and sales.
But as the Co-op grew, its downtown location became cramped, and it was plagued by the perennial Hanover problem: parking. In 1962, the Board of Directors of the 2,000-member Co-op authorized purchase of the Hanover Co-op Food Store’s present site. In 1963, the Co-op moved into its new quarters at 45 South Park Street.
Since then the Co-op has continued to flourish. The Hanover Co-op Food Store has been expanded and renovated several times to meet the needs of its growing membership. In 1985, the Co-op purchased the adjacent Park Street Mobil station, now the Co-op Service Center, and in 1995, opened a second Service Center on Lyme Road in Hanover.
By 1996, the Co-op had almost 18,000 members, and sales had grown to over $20 million. Members voted to open a second Co-op Food Store in order to relieve crowding at the popular Hanover store. The Lebanon Co-op Food Store opened in October, 1997. The Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society, Inc.—which had always been known as the Hanover Co-op—became the Co-op Food Stores.
Green Market and Move to Vermont
Membership in the Co-op grew by leaps and bounds with the opening of the Lebanon store, and once again, the Hanover store felt the pressure of increased patronage. In May 1999, the Co-op converted the Lyme Road Service Center into a convenience store, keeping the gas pumps and adding a selection of grocery items to what was renamed the Co-op Community Market. In 2008, the 1,000-square-foot facility was replaced by a new energy-efficient building with 3,500 square feet of retail space. A Commissary Kitchen in Wilder, Vermont, was added in 2000 to meet member demand for prepared foods at all locations. In 2010, the Co-op established a third food store in the community of White River Junction, Vermont.
Today, the Co-op Food Stores employs around 400 people, serving more than 20,000 member households with sales topping $70 million.
This story is vividly told by founding members of the Co-op in the video “Hand in Hand: A History of the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society,” available from the Co-op’s lending library.