Our pioneers in barrel cooperatives, Chauncy W. Curtis and Francis L. Bachelder, were both drawn to the concept of cooperative production to support their families. Cooperatives offered a level of stability that couldn’t be matched by regular factory employment. After previous failures, they needed this cooperative to work—for their families, their field and the future of the cooperative ideal.
Their new shop, the Cooperative Barrel Manufacturing Company, was modest, but threatening enough to attract hostility from the competition. Larger shops attempted to push millers away from using the cooperative, but the millers didn’t see the small worker-owned business as a threat to capitalist order or their success as an individual mill.
As many liberal reformers praised the virtues of cooperatives, one of Minneapolis’ leading new millers, Charles A. Pillsbury, entrusted the Cooperative Barrel Manufacturing Company with the supply of an entire mill. The cooperative flourished, outgrowing its original location and membership, surviving the economic depression of the 1870s, and making the dream of cooperative work a functioning reality.
From 1877 to 1886, ten new cooperative barrel factories opened, one, The North Star Barrel Manufacturing Company, was spearheaded by the already successful Bachelder and later joined by Curtis. By 1886, cooperatives dominated the city’s barrel industry, they proved to reformers that cooperative industries were a viable alternative to the competitive capitalist system.
All cooperatives weren’t anti-competition, some emphasized the greater good of their community while others focused on the success of their firm as an individual. Regardless of their ideas of success, all Minneapolis cooperators seemed to agree on one thing: democracy.
Rules that governed daily operations and behavior were democratically voted on and aimed to ensure equity and fairness across the board. Cooperators could not rent out their space or profit from the labor of others, the power of the foreman was severely limited and inspectors had to present a thorough case and convince two-thirds of membership if he felt a cooper should be fired for inferior workmanship.
The barrel cooperatives had created a booming business, a democracy and an entire community built around their shops and homes. They had parades and festivals, they opened cooperative merchant stores, and optimism ran high among laborers everywhere.
If you missed part one of the Minnesota barrel cooperative story, read it here.