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The Birth of Barrel Cooperatives in Minnesota [Part 1 of 3]

January 8th, 2015 by Natalie Mueller

Filed under: Cool Stuff

knightsoflaborIn the late 1800’s, one of the most important figures in the quest for better labor laws was a barrel maker, or cooper. His name was Chauncy W. Curtis and he’d helped coopers in their earliest attempts at unionism, served as president of the Workingmen’s Union, a political labor-reform, association, and was now splitting his focus on two efforts: first, the organization of the state’s assemblies of the Knights of Labor, a national association dedicated to organizing workers in all trades, and second, the establishment of worker-owned & operated stores and factories, or cooperatives.

Post-civil war industries and trades were so competitive that the system labors worked under was essentially industrial slavery. Cooperation was the strongest alternative to the current system. Cooperatives promoted equality and gave skilled workers equity in their own work. Chauncy W. Curtis himself had already established a number of cooperative factories and stories, but barrel cooperatives were constantly struck with the challenges of tumultuous prices, potential mechanization and fierce inter-industry competition with other organized barrel workers.

It wasn’t until the first flour mills took root in Minneapolis created a consistent need for thousands of barrels that the coopers of the region were able to leverage their skill for more attractive work conditions. The cooper industry boomed, more coopers flocked to the area and they almost imploded their own field. So, Chauncy Curtis and a handful of other coopers established Minneapolis’ first two cooperative shops, to protect their union’s right to fair pay.

These cooperatives were pioneering, but destined for failure. Both were informal, unincorporated and transitory. Neither had laws to protect themselves from defecting cooperators. And thus, the first shop barely lasted a few months and the second enjoyed success for two years until one member took control of the contracts and struck out on his own.

However, without these failures, the industry’s leaders wouldn’t have learned and grown. Curtis and Francis L. Bachelder, a cooper who witnessed the disintegration of the second shop first hand, and three other coopers incorporated a new barrel cooperative. It was 1874. For this new shop they composed a set of by-laws to protect themselves from their previous mistakes.

These by-laws became the foundation of every subsequent cooperative barrel factory in Minneapolis.