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The Fall of Early Barrel Cooperatives in Minnesota [Part 3 of 3]

March 5th, 2015 by Natalie Mueller

Filed under: Cool Stuff

The mechanization of the barrel-making industry

The mechanization of the barrel-making industry

Despite their success, cooper cooperatives still had to manage the market and all of its instabilities. Bidding was competitive, big ‘boss’ coopers were constantly lowering prices to undercut cooperatives and cutting wages driving coopers to strike, and Rockefeller had introduced barrel-making machinery.

While cooperatives excluded machinery from their operations for as long as possible, boss coopers adopted the mechanized barrel-makers, increased production and eventually created an oversupply of barrels.

At this point, nearly all of Minneapolis’ coopers had enrolled in the Knights of Labor. This union of cooperative coopers and big shop coopers lead to a few triumphs over long-standing disagreements and a new strategy to improve wages. They negotiated a new price per barrel with millers, but still had to negotiate their inter-cooper relationships. Big shops were the cooperative’s competition, but the coopers working for big shops were union brothers. Striking coopers needed cooperatives to refrain from taking their big shop’s contracts during a strike, or else their strike would fail. Also, cooperators needed those strikes to succeed and drive up prices at big shops forcing millers to pay more for barrels no matter who was making them.

It was a constant tightrope and many shops, cooperative and otherwise, were rumored to break their price agreement with the millers in order to win more business. Between these tensions, the mechanization of the trade and growing exports of wheat, the market was a rollercoaster.

Eventually, after a detrimental price decline and massive strike, The Knights of Labor and the barrel makers of Minneapolis (coops and big shops) formed a pool of barrel factories called the Coopers Association to divide the work evenly among shops, limit employment, and regulate barrel price and wages. But the association had many critics. Many millers saw it as a monopoly and a few dissenting cooperatives saw it as an opportunity to crush the competition. Curtis and Bachelder’s own The North Star not only didn’t join, but undermined the association by stealing contracts for their own profit.

Distrust and resentment rose among the ranks of coopers. Ultimately, the Cooper Association could not maintain control over the barrel market and tensions between the Knights and the North Star were often mediated but never resolved. Between these strains and some cooperators destructive independence, the Minneapolis barrel industry highlighted the weaknesses of a cooperative philosophy. Their agreed-upon rules fell by the wayside, the number of activists in the Knights of Labor diminished and the labor movement was weakened.

It was a long, slow road to the end of cooperative barrel shops in Minneapolis. Market pressures convinced cooperators to reduce membership, buy out shareholders and hire nonmembers to run machines in their place. They undermined the craft. Curtis, once one of the most prominent and vigorous labor activists and a champion of cooperative experiments, abandoned the cooperative cause to become a patrol driver in the police department. Bachelder remained a member of the North Star and saw it prosper, but his firm’s success was largely to blame for the disintegration of cooperation among barrel makers.

Yet for a few years in the 1880s, the vision of cooperation thrived and the cooperative coopers of Minneapolis dominated an industry and served as a champion of craft workers.


If you missed the beginning of our series on Minnesota barrel cooperatives, you can read part one here and part two here.

Rising Success of Early Minnesota Barrel Cooperatives [Part 2 of 3]

February 5th, 2015 by Natalie Mueller

Filed under: Cool Stuff

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.

Charles A. Pillsbury

Charles A. Pillsbury, champion of the cooperative cause

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.

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.