Community Co-op Window 1970
The Roots of Community:
A Personal History of the Food Co-op 1969-1971
Ron K Sorensen, founding Co-op member
This article originally appeared in the Co-Op Newsletter in 2011.
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40th Anniversary in February 2011; Co-Op began with 40 Members
February 14, 2011 marks the 40th anniversary of the public opening of the Community For Co-op. It is noteworthy that the Co-Op officially began operation with 40 members, 40 years ago. The creation of the Food Co-Op is inextricably woven into the renaissance of Fairhaven and the birth of alternative community there. the story began more than a year before the Co-op open-end its doors to the public in 1971.
Tema Clark: Creating a Vision of a Food Co-op
Upon my graduation from UC Berkeley in 1969, I traveled north to Alaska and decided to stop in Bellingham to visit a friend who was a student at WWU (formerly a college). It was through him that I learned of a young woman named Tema Clark. She not only embodied a strong feminist spirit, but also a desire to create an alternative community. She had a vision of starting a food co-op with food coming from local sources in Whatcom County as well as natural and organic food suppliers. Unfortunately, she died in an accident before she could realize her dream. I did not find out about her death until my return to Bellingham in the autumn of 1969. Although I was not personally close to Tema, she definitely became part of my life because her strong spirit and vision helped me.
Community — Working for the Common Good
Thus, it was through her vision that the Co-op actually materialized. Since I came to share her vision of creating an alternative community, a food co-op seemed like a worthy testament to her memory. So in the spring of 1970 I decided to set about this task, for which I had virtually no experience. But what I lacked in experience was more than compensated by my desire to learn and commit myself to a purpose greater than myself. After all, that is what community is all about — working for the common good. I was inspired by others who also shared this vision.
Bill Heid, Visionary and the Good Earth Community Center
One such person was Bill Heid, a professor at Fairhaven College who was sponsoring a "free school” at his home. I volunteered to work in the school, which opened up wonderful possibilities for me to get involved and to become friends with many of the original members of the community at the time. It was a wonderful experience and I was drawn ever deeper into the fabric of Bellingham life. When Bill Heid bought the Morgan Block building on the corner of 10th St. and Harris Ave., I volunteered to be the caretaker since I did not have any place to live. That became the logical location for the Food-Co-op.
Bill was a visionary when he purchased the building. We all knew that in order for us to create community, we needed a center for our enterprises and activities, and Bill made that possible. It was named the Good Earth Community Center and functioned as the heart of our community for many years. It not only housed the Co-op, but also a cooperative pottery shop and a newspaper, the Northwest Passage, which was the voice of the community as well as national and local political and ecological issues. In addition, it had a bakery shop on the second floor run by Richard the baker, who supplied fresh bread to the Co-op.
The Community Garden and Sven Hoyt
A community garden project was started alongside the community center. Unfortunately, it was on private property owned by Ken Imus, who had it bulldozed. So Sven Hoyt, who was the founder of the garden project, purchased some property on 30th St. But we lost Sven soon thereafter in a tragic accident, and his mother donated the property to the city to be kept in perpetuity as a community garden, the inspiration for all other community gardens not run by the city of Bellingham.
Another Visionary: John Blethen
Since the Morgan Block building was in desperate need of extensive renovation, there were those of us who lived and worked there full time. During this period, John Blethen and his former wife had started a pizzeria and coffee house named Toad Hall. It was located in the basement of the Bank Building on the northwest corner of 11th St. and Harris Ave. John was another unlikely visionary who contributed an enormous amount of energy toward community enterprises (as he has continued to do to this day). He was responsible for much of the electrical rewiring of the community center as well as providing an open space for community activities and concerts. He volunteered the use of a space (formerly jail cell) in Toad Hall for storing and distributing food, when the Food Co-op was starting out; while I was busy with the organizational tasks as well as working on the renovation of the Co-op space and the community center.
Puget Consumers Co-op in Seattle
Most of us had no experience or knowledge of the community enterprises we were to start, but we did start with a common vision of creating an alternative paradigm of community based on volunteerism and contribution to the common good. I would be remiss if I did to mention the invaluable contribution of the Puget Consumers Co-op in Seattle, which gave us access to bulk items when we did not have purchasing power. They allowed us to travel each week to their store and package our orders from the available stock, at no mark-up. At the point of opening our doors in the spring of 1971, we had enough membership to purchase bulk items for sale in the store.
Out of "knowing nothing" came the Community Food Co-op
In addition to Tema Clark and others mentioned here, there were a lot of people who wandered in and out of Bellingham and left a little of themselves in the service they contributed. When we started we knew nothing about food production, retailing, or business. But I believe, anything that you want to do, that you’re inspired to do, you can do. We had so much fun. That was what we got in return for volunteering time and energy. We were creating community.
Various recounts of Co-op history point to different start dates. As work continued and funds were secured to ready the Harris St storefront for business, members filed the Articles of Incorporation and began filleting food orders in early 1970. Doors opened for retail business in early 1971.