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Central Cooperative Wholesale records

Identifier: IHRC426


Records (1916-1969), in English, of the Central Cooperative Wholesale (Superior, Wisconsin), include correspondence; minutes; memoranda; district meeting plans; reports; newspaper clippings; pamphlets; registration lists; and a large number of photographs. The records contain substantial correspondence with and information on other cooperatives in the area. Also included are essays written by children competing for scholarships, and materials pertaining to Cooperative Youth Camps, and Cooperative Youth League activities.


  • 1916-1969


Language of Materials

English, Finnish


Open for use in the Elmer L. Andersen Library reading room.


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The Finnish American cooperative movement arose at the turn of the century in response to the economic insecurity experienced by immigrants, many of whom were unskilled wage earners and backwoods farmers. Throughout the country in areas of heavy Finnish population such as Astoria, Oregon, Waukegan, Illinois, and Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio, the first generation immigrants began forming local consumers' cooperatives, often with little or no business experience on the part of the members. Yet most of the ventures thrived. Toward the end of the 1910s, local cooperative stores began to join with other Finnish coops in the respective areas to form regional cooperative associations. In the New England area, for example, eight Finnish cooperatives in Massachusetts and New Hampshire formed the United Cooperative Society in 1919.1 The Central Cooperative Wholesale (hereafter CCW) was established in July, 1917 in Superior, Wisconsin as the Central Cooperative Exchange (CCE).2 Nineteen delegates representing nine Finnish American cooperatives from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan met to create a central purchasing organization to serve the member cooperative societies. The corporate headquarters and warehouse operations were situated in Superior, Wisconsin. During the early 1920s CCE gradually grew in membership and sales. By 1928 there were 84 member societies whose sales totaled well over one million dollars.

Although the Finnish American consumers' cooperative movement embraced all segments of the Finnish community, it had been started largely by and had received considerable impetus from Socialists, who viewed cooperativism as an economic adjunct to the working class movement. In fact, during the split within the Socialist Party of the United States in the early 1920s, key members of the CCE staff supported the left-wing faction, which favored recognition of the Third International and which was to become the Workers' (Communist) Party of America. Among the early leaders of the CCE who belonged to the Party were General Manager Eskel Ronn, Education Department Head George Halonen and Executive Board members Matt Tenhunen and Oscar Corgan.

However, when the Communist Party in New York sought to bring the CCW and the larger Finnish American cooperative movement under tight Party control in the late 1920s, an intense conflict developed not only in the CCW's leadership, but also in the membership at large. In the struggle over the direction the Finnish cooperative movement was to take, both Tenhunen and Corgan aligned themselves with Party loyalists who supported a militant, working class cooperativism, while Halonen and Ronn led those who promoted a neutral, non-political direction based on Rochdale principles.3 After supporters for the two sides waged a year long, often bitter campaign in Finnish communities not only in the midwest, but throughout the United States, the issue came to a vote at the CCE's 1930 annual meeting in Superior where those favoring a neutral course formed a decisive majority.

As the CCW began pursuing a non-political course from 1930 onward, it strengthened its position with non-radical Finns and the larger Finnish American community. The organization prospered and flourished during the 1930s as it turned its attention to the creation of new consumers' cooperatives, the expansion of existing stores, and cooperative educational and social activities. In 1933 it established its own publishing house, the Cooperative Publishing Association. By 1940 the CCW had over 100 member societies with combined sales of over 14 million dollars. The majority of these were dominated by the Finns.

The successful growth of the organization can be attributed in large part to effective leadership and management as the CCW sought to combine business operations with the ideological aims of consumers' cooperativism. Over the years its general organizational structure changed very little. Direction and supervision in policy-making came from the Board of Directors, which was responsible to and acted in behalf of the general membership. A General Manager, the organization's chief executive officer, managed affairs in accordance with the directives of the Board. The number of departments under the General Manager varied over time, but chief among them Education, Finance, Distribution, and Plant Operations. Department heads made up an Executive Committee which assisted the General Manager. Reflecting the emphasis that the cooperative ideology placed on educational work, the real work-horse of the CCW's various sub-divisions was the Educational Department, which had oversight of leadership training, public relations, publications, women's guilds and clubs, and organizational fieldwork. A good share of the educational work was carried on by the Northern States Womens' Cooperative Guild which was organized in 1930.4 The Guild organized summer youth camps, had charge of the youth program in general, promoted the cooperative movement with fair booths and other projects, and served as a contact between homemakers and the CCW's commodity program.

The success of the CCW can also be attributed to the time and energy that the Education Department devoted to educational efforts and training courses for member societies. These courses not only taught practical applications of the Rochdale principles, but they also provided a thorough foundation in areas such as sound business management, marketing, advertising, and employee training. The Education Department's outreach activity is perhaps best exemplified by the scholarship contests it sponsored for high school seniors in the late 1950s and early 1960s. These essay contests, which revolved around cooperative themes, drew applicants from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and North and South Dakota and played a major role in the organization's youth program. They were clearly aimed at building favorable attitudes toward the cooperative movement by acquainting young people with its goals, values, and benefits. Contest themes like "How Can Cooperatives Strengthen American Democracy" conveyed the message that cooperatives are an integral part of the free enterprise system.

For many members of the Finnish American first generation the local co-op store was much more than merely a retail business that they considered their own. The cooperative movement represented a way of life, providing not only for their material, but social and cultural needs as well. This was particularly true of rural areas where Co-op halls were the sites of dances, concerts, evening socials, lectures, and plays. With changing times and conditions, and with the passing of the immigrant generation, the social and cultural functions of the co-ops decreased in importance. Control of the organization gradually passed into the hands of the American born and the CCW began to shed its Finnish image. The organization had already employed its first non-Finnish speaking fieldmen in 1930. In the late 1930s the CCW hired its first non-Finnish editor (Oscar Cooley) for the Co-operative Pyramid Builder. Its last bilingual annual meeting was held in 1948.5

Changing social patterns and economic trends in the United States during the post World War II period also had an effect on consumer cooperatives. The traditional, close-knit nature of the rural community began to change as the population became more mobile. Younger people not only moved to urban areas in search of work, but rural shoppers were also willing to travel longer distances by car in search of bargains. With the growth of mass merchandising, many of the small cooperative stores established by immigrants found it increasingly difficult to compete, particularly in larger towns. Yet, despite increasing numbers of store closures in rural regions in the 1950s and increased competition in urban areas from supermarkets and shopping centers, the CCW continued to hold its own and even experience monetary growth. By 1952 it had 207 member societies of which 156 reported combined sales of $58 million. Although the CCW also experienced its first net operating loses in history in 1952, it soon stabilized its financial position with numerous belt-tightening measures, among them a "Reverse the Trend" drive to encourage cash policies and discourage credit sales.

As competition steadily increased, as consumers' shopping habits changed, and as profit margins gradually declined, the management of the CCW found the idea of merger an increasingly attractive option. Ever since the 1940s the organization had explored the possibility from time to time with Minneapolis-based Midland Cooperatives, but it was not until the 1950s that both organizations became increasingly aware of the high cost of offering similar services in overlapping trading regions. In the early 1960s a joint committee from the two cooperatives concluded that there were attractive benefits to merging and no compelling reasons against it. On November 30, 1963 CCW merged with Midland Cooperatives, Inc.

During its 45 year existence the Central Cooperative Wholesale became one of the most successful Finnish sponsored economic ventures in the United States. In the final analysis, the CCW and the consumers' cooperative movement that it represented played several important roles in Finnish American history. Its political neutrality allowed it to serve a significant integrative role in bringing together the various factions of the Finnish American community. It was also the one economic and social area in which interaction between the immigrant generation and the American born was the greatest. In addition, the consumers' cooperative movement was the one Finnish institution that attracted not only the American boom Finns, but non-Finns as well.


18 Linear Feet


Related materials can be located at the IHRC in the collections of Aino Maki; Walter Harju; and Edith Koivisto.

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