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Harry's Gang: Will co-ops rise against the odds?

My office is in the old Cloquet Co-op building in Esko, and it carries a lot of history. The thing is built solid. Those Finlanders obviously expected the building to be around for a hundred years or more. It’s tight, too, not drafty at all.

So many people have stopped in over the years to reminisce about the old co-op. I feel like I’ve been here since the 1950s, when it was built. It carried groceries, of course, but also hardware, sewing stuff, farm supplies, and some clothing. And yes, to those wondering, it did have gas pumps out front for a few years.

I grew up in Two Harbors, where there was a co-op grocery store similar to the one in Esko, and a co-op credit union, similar to the old Cloquet Co-op Credit Union, now Members Cooperative. Two Harbors even pioneered the HMO, health maintenance organization, as the clinic was essentially a cooperative health care facility.

Here, co-ops were formed to supply electricity, distribute fuel, and sell farm equipment. There was even a co-op funeral parlor in town until recently. Mutual insurance companies, like RAM in Esko, are essentially co-ops. There were co-op telephone companies.

Over the years, many co-ops died off, and it’s too bad. There used to be co-ops all over Carlton County, back when a trip to town was an event and no one envisioned a big box store. Every town had some form of co-op. People living in places like Cromwell, Wright, Mahtowa, and Wrenshall had their own stores, suitable for the daily needs of the area residents.

It wasn’t until I left for college that I realized not every small town had a co-op. It turns out that the Scandinavians, especially the Finnish who settled in our area, were quite pragmatic and developed community co-ops as a way to ensure stable economies with local control. There’s nothing like knowing the owner of the local store, especially if one of the owners is yourself.

A little research shows that co-ops flourished during times of excessive corporate greed, as corporations became larger and began to monopolize markets. That leads me to wonder: Will we see a rise of co-ops in the near future? It seems to me that corporations are getting so huge, they have squeezed out all competition. Economic theories like ‘trickle down’ economics have led to the demise of small, sole proprietorships.

It’s nearly impossible to open an independent grocery and hardware store anymore, and it shows in various small communities around Carlton County. Places like Mahtowa, Cromwell, Kettle River and Barnum all had active downtowns that barely exist today. Even tiny spots on the map, like Harney in Thomson Township, had a store. It’s not hard to figure out why. As economics allowed companies to get larger, those companies had little interest in servicing several small stores in several small towns. It’s much easier to supply goods to one, larger centralized store. No amount of encouragement to shop local is going to overcome the realities of today’s markets.

The other day I ran into John Haverkamp, the electrician, who owned the old Hardware Hank downtown with his wife. I loved shopping there, especially to chat with employee Linda Erickson, who sold them the hardware store and was one of the very first people I met when I moved to Cloquet. John told me the store closed because it was impossible to get inventory. The suppliers required a substantial annual purchase commitment, and at relatively low volume, the prices were too high.

“I could buy some things cheaper at Walmart than I could get them from my supplier,” he told me.

I’d like to see a reversal. Maybe co-ops will rise again, opening branches in small communities across Carlton County. As people start to shop local, things like cafes and restaurants will pop up. Locals will be in control again, instead of rich CEOs. Rural communities would flourish. That would be great. You are reading this, after all, in a newspaper that has cut across the grain of today’s realities. We’re a local business success story. I’d love to see more.

Pete Radosevich is the publisher of the Pine Knot News and an attorney in Esko. His opinions are his own. Contact him at [email protected].