The cooperative movement came to Oberlin College in the spring of 1950. When a group of about eleven upper-class women and men seeking an alternative to what they considered to be expensive, low quality food, and restrictive housing policies brought a proposal for a co-op house before the administration, the College – after a period of some reticence – gave way to student demand. After consulting with the manager of the local Consumer Co-op, the students created their business plan for a cooperative residence of 28 female roomers and 28 additional male boarders. The Faculty approved the plan, and in the Fall of 1950, Pyle Inn opened as a co-op on West College Street.
In addition to economic and culinary reasons, the founding co-opers had social and political goals. They hoped that the co-op situation would allow the group to practice social ideals, prepare members for a future as “productive, resourceful members of a democratic society,” and revitalize the concept of “Learning and Labor,” the Oberlin College motto.
Some early co-opers had other benefits in mind. Helen Lewis, ’49, wrote a letter to the Oberlin Review the year after her graduation advocating co-op living for marriage. She explained that an Oberlin education alone had its merits, but didn’t “tell a poor frightened bride how to handle a frying pan.”
Since Pyle Inn members felt they had been given only provisional approval, they were serious about making the co-op work. Boarders worked five hours a week at two kitchen jobs, and those who lived in the house worked an additional two hours at a house job. Weekly meetings were held to discuss problems and rules were strictly enforced. These diligent efforts paid off: at the end of the first semester, Pyle Inn Co-op showed a 40% savings over College board rates.
Relaxed social atmosphere was another attraction of co-op life. Most people agreed that the “interesting, intellectual conversation” made co-op meals worthwhile, while “folk sings” drew students from all over campus. Some claimed there was less tension between the sexes in co-ops with their geographic and social segregation less demarcated than in the College houses. Co-ops also provided relief from the strict dress code (and the strict house mothers who enforced them!) still in place in the College dining halls where men had to wear jackets and ties and women had to wear skirts. The open snacking policy was another advantage. The meals themselves were not usually culinary delights, but the food was varied: parsnips, artichokes, rabbit, and pizza graced one Pyle menu.
The following spring, Grey Gables was chosen as the second co-op, providing room and board for 35 women and board for 35 men. That same spring (in 1951), six students formed an Inter-Co-op Council to administrate the two co-ops the next year.
The co-ops quickly developed distinctive personalities and reputations. Pyle was thought to be sedate, responsible, and political. Grey Gables was reputedly loose and bohemian-it attracted folk music enthusiasts. And the nooks and crannies at Grey Gables afforded comfortable spots for lovers seeking to avoid the “necking ban” across the street at Pyle.
Despite enthusiastic student support, the Faculty Council refused to approve a third co-op in the spring of 1952. Students were puzzled and frustrated over the refusal since many applicants had not been able to get places in the two existing co-ops. The charges leveled against co-ops included their going barefoot, wearing shorts, failing to observe the College dress code at dinner, putting milk bottles on the dinner table, and neglecting to transfer jams from jars into bowls. Students argued that the benefits of increased individual and group responsibility outweighed the possible disadvantages of the allegedly informal lifestyles.
Throughout the fifties, a controversy raged concerning the merits of the unique co-op atmosphere. Co-op proponents argued that co-ops contained a wider variety of people than other groups in Oberlin, and that the atmosphere was more conducive to free intellectual exchange in which the College hoped the students would engage. Critics contended that the co-ops fostered rampant individuality, “forced non-conformity,” and toleration of “obnoxious” behavior which would normally be discouraged. The College took the latter position most of the time, continued to insist that there was no real need for a third co-op, and likely harbored the fear that, if allowed to multiply, the co-ops and their non-traditional culture would become entrenched on campus. Their stated reason was lack of student interest, but a key factor was financial unfeasibility. The College would lose considerable income if all students who wanted to be in co-ops were allowed to join.
The administration hedged for twelve years on approving a third co-op. The conflict came to a head in 1961, when an article appeared in the Oberlin Review pointing out that the charges against the co-op stood on flimsy evidence. Administrators argued that the College’s national reputation would be damaged by the establishment of a large co-op system. But long-time Oberlin residents agreed that the College’s reputation remained untarnished after eleven years of co-ops.
Co-ops were quick to defend themselves in other areas, explaining that social rules, hygienic regulations, and dietary guidelines were actually enforced by a Standards Committee at Grey Gables, that many co-opers dressed like “typical” College students, and that while co-ops did make fun of “gracious living,” they were not offensive. The week after the article was printed, the Faculty Council voted to approve a third co-op.
Just when it seemed that a third co-op was definitely on its way, another group stepped into the battle. The College Board of Trustees wanted more information on co-ops before making a decision and ordered that a study be made “of the climate which these cooperative residences create, and whether that climate conduces to the best possible product in terms of Oberlin students.” Robert K. Carr, the College president at the time, expressed his own and likely the Trustees’ worries in an internal letter, requesting clarification on several issues. Among the financial questions included in the letter: whether financial need ought to play a larger role in the selection of co-op membership and whether co-opers were paying “their fair share” of the basic overhead of the College’s housing and dining system. Also, in regards to the constitutional status of the co-ops, Carr asked how it would be possible to “avoid letting the [co-op] system become so firmly established that it would be difficult or impossible to alter its character or abolish it entirely, however strong the case against its continuance might seem to be at some moment in the future.” As for the social implications of cooperative living, President Carr asked whether co-ops “have an adverse effect upon the desirable spirit of ‘community’ at Oberlin College” and if their members enjoy “greater freedom in their social activities than is permitted students living in regular college dormitories.” Finally, he asked that the impact of Oberlin’s student co-ops upon the educational environment around it be assessed: do co-ops create “unfortunate concentrations of students who are strongly motivated academically or intellectually” and, in a different vein, are co-opers “asked to give too much time an energy to the tasks of cooking and cleaning house?”
Committees were commissioned to evaluate these and other questions posed by the Trustees and President Carr. Their results proved beneficial to the co-op cause, dispelling many doubts still lingering in the administration about the benefits of preserving and expanding student co-ops in the Oberlin community. Financially, the co-ops were found to have contributed adequately to paying the fixed costs of housing and dining in the College at-large, but there was indecision as to the question of whether financial need ought to be given more priority in membership selection. Co-ops want to simultaneously take in members who value “Cooperative living and self-government” as well as those in financial need, but, in the view of the Committee, those values can sometimes conflict. Most interesting, however, was the sociological study. It showed that co-opers tended to receive higher grades than their College dining hall counterparts, and that the co-op experience had no adverse effects on post-Oberlin life. Co-opers were more likely to be involved in extracurricular activities, but did not “monopolize” leadership positions. Cooperative life brought vigor to students’ sense of community, and gave them opportunities for democratic self-governance and responsibility that they might not otherwise have. After receiving these results, the Board of Trustees decided that coops should be viewed as an “integral” part of the College. Keep, a senior women’s dorm, became the third co-op in October of 1965 and opened the following spring.
While the fight for expansion continued, co-opers made significant advances. In 1962, Pyle Inn merged with Grey Gables, replacing the Inter-Cooperative Council with the incorporated Oberlin Student Cooperative Association (OSCA). Its board of trustees was an administrative body composed of students, faculty members, and town residents. New administrative jobs included president, secretary, treasurer, representative-at-large, and representatives from each co-op (often the house president). OSCA would provide a needed foundation for the student co-ops – the number of which would triple in the fifteen years after its incorporation.
Starting in 1952, the co-ops sponsored annual all-campus Creative Arts Festivals. The first of these attracted sixty artists and craftspeople of all kinds. Later festivals showcased poetry, chamber music, and folk-singing. This tradition declined in the early sixties; the last al co-op festival took place in 1962.
Students rallied for a fourth co-op in the spring of 1967. As the faculty voted, students stood outside of the doors of King 306, carrying signs and offering candy, coffee, and homemade cookies to those who entered. The demonstration was a success: the faculty voted 86 to 22 in favor of the proposal. Following Board approval, Harkness became a co-op, to start the following year.
At this time there were four co-ops: Pyle Inn, Tank (which replaced Grey Gables upon its demolition in 1963-visit the parking lot that shares its name and location), Keep, and Harkness. The popularity of co-ops continues to grow. In 1967, there were 665 applicants for 237 places.
As co-ops grew, so did inter-co-op activities. Among these were the infamous co-op wars (similar to dorm raids). One fairly complicated war began when Tank captured the Harkness flag. Harkness retaliated by taking Tank’s mascot (a mounted moose head named “Mother”), two porch swings, and seventeen other items. The Harkies went home and waited, armed with buckets of water, for their rivals to arrive. The Tankers tried to outwit them by barricading Harkness’s front door with bicycles. Finally the house presidents agreed on a peace treaty and the Tankers agreed to help clean up the mess.
There were serious changes to the co-ops as well. In the spring of 1971, students presented proposals for an ecology program in Pyle. Natural food and environmentally safe soap were suggested as part of the plan. The ecology center opened in fall, boasting healthier and more interesting food. Since half of the diners were vegetarians, meat was served only twice a week. Neither sugar nor white flour was used. Garbage was sorted into organic and inorganic components to facilitate recycling and composting.
The same year, Harkness, Pyle, and Tank went co-ed and were followed by Keep the following spring. Old Barrows was established as an all-women’s living co-op with co-ed dining in 1972, to replace Pyle Inn. OSCA suffered a setback when in the summer of 1975, after three years in limbo as “temporary housing,” Pyle Inn, the genesis of OSCA, was torn down due to the prohibitive costs of renovation. The ecology and natural food program was moved to Harkness, where it continued in the form of the Good Food Co-op.
Also, for the first time in OSCA history, all the co-ops discontinued the use of professional cooks by 1975, and instead began relying on student meal planners and elected student cooks. This was typical of the movement begun in this decade to de-staff OSCA of paid employees and make it an entirely student run organization. In the early 1980s OSCA instituted the position of “Housing Loose Ends Coordinator” or HLEC to take over the duties of what had been the responsibility of the House Mother and House President. At the Board level, President Andy Ferguson (1973-74) began a study to determine whether OSCA should buy an off-campus house-a purchase that OSCA would not make for another decade-as a part of another move to increase co-op autonomy from the College.
With excitement about co-ops running high, OSCA pushed to get Baldwin as a board-only co-op. But the administration was hesitant because the College would lose money if another co-op was created. The Baldwin kitchen would also have to be re-done, and a poll of Baldwin residents on the subject of co-ops had been fairly inconclusive. Supporters of the proposal pointed to the large demand for co-ops, their educational value, and some of the favorable responses to the resident survey. Baldwin was finally approved by the Housing and Dining Committee as the fifth co-op in the spring of 1973.
Despite this change in atmosphere, interest in co-ops was still strong. In the fall of 1976, both Talcott and Fairchild were under consideration for the sixth co-op. The major issue was, again, financial. Regular College board bills would have to be raised $6 to $12 to cover the loss of income incurring when College diners deserted to co-ops. In addition, a co-op would use only 120 of the 170 places in either dining hall, thereby displacing 50 students in College dining. Finally, the Housing and Dining Committee also questioned the need for another co-op.
Students expressed some reservations as well. Some pointed to the financial situation and maintained that it would be extortion to force non-co-opers to support a co-op, that one small group would benefit at the expense of everyone else. Others worried that the decrease in the number of College diners would take away jobs for financial aid students. Fewer diners might mean fewer employees. Food Service Director Richard Armon assured them that there was no cause for alarm on those grounds.
The Housing and Dining Committee decided to approve a sixth co-op in the spring of 1977. Fairchild was the chosen site. The new co-op was designated “all-natural” (the definition of which produced some debate) and a vegetarian alternative would be served with every meat meal. This designation was based on the results of a 1000 student survey in which 45% of the students indicated that they would prefer a natural diet with meat at some meals.
Reactions to the sixth co-op varied. In their April Fool’s issue, the Oberlin Review proposed a seventh co-op. The plan called for the diametric opposite of Fairchild-an all-carnivorous co-op. Members would save money through the practice of cannibalism. For obvious reasons, there would be five Faculty Guest Nights instead of just one. As one co-oper put it, if Harkness and Fairchild can live off the bottom of the food chain, why shouldn’t another co-op live off the top?
OSCA began to look outward at the turn of the decade and into the mid-eighties. It chose to join a national federation of student housing cooperatives, the North American Students of Cooperation (then called the North American Cooperative Society) after a visit from John Klein, the NASCO representative. Many OSCA members attended its Cooperative Management Training Institute in Ann Arbor the following fall to take courses, attend workshops, and listen to lectures from co-op activists from around the continent. In January of 1978, OSCA also became a member of the Federation of Ohio River Cooperatives, a co-op food warehouse centered in Columbus, Ohio. Their relationship would endow the OSCA Board with the consensus decision-making process and the membership with immensely popular (and salty) FORC tortilla chips. And in its first major move to disentangle itself with rent agreements from the College, OSCA decided to purchase Fuller House in 1985 (named after an old Oberlin president who served with distinctive faculty friction) using the three-decades worth of accumulated cash in its Building Fund.
An effort to establish an additional co-op came in fall of 1981, when OSCA submitted a proposal to the Housing and Dining Committee requesting that Talcott or Asia House be made into a dining only co-op for 110 students. Long waiting lists of over 350 students prompted OSCA to work towards this seventh co-op. Increasing tuition costs, decreasing financial aid, a diminishing number of campus jobs, and the financial savings that an additional co-op could offer to its members provided an equally strong incentive. The proposal, however, was defeated. Reasons for the defeat ranged from the complications that making Talcott a co-op would cause for French program dining and for Kosher co-op, to the recurrent fear that a seventh co-op would increase board bills for non-coopers.
OSCA, unfortunately, began to stutter and trip in the middle of the Reagan decade. Tank was closed as a living co-op at the end of the spring semester 1983 and Johnson House, which had housed a farm co-op on its second floor for many years, was designated a housing co-op to make up for some of the spaces lost in Tank. Johnson House Co-opers of the Tank diaspora ate across the street at Old Barrows. In 1987, OSCA was audited by the IRS with the discovery that financial records from the previous two years were missing and that the organization was on the verge of bankruptcy-OSCA nearly lost its tax-exempt status. It was a year of “a few tears, frazzled nerves, failed exams, and dropped honors” in the words of Hadley Boyd, OSCA President. But despite its near fiscal insolvency, OSCA also made the purchase of it’s second off-campus house Langston-Bliss the same year. The “OSCAcrats” learned something from their encounter with near tax-death, and decided to hire Iris Hunt as their book-keeper (Iris was originally hired in a part time position in the 1985/86 year). Financial and administrative problems nonetheless continued to fester and multiply in the OSCA body. All three corporate officers decided to resign halfway through the 1990-91 school year, leaving it to three volunteers to split the job of Treasurer. A financial consultant from NASCO was brought in to assess the situation, and advised OSCA to hire a Financial manager. Joe Migliore was initially hired, before being replaced by OSCA’s then book-keeper Iris Hunt.
But there was light in this darkness. Expansion became the catchword on co-ops lips once again. Kosher Co-op came on board as OSCA’s seventh co-op the same year OSCA purchased Bliss (1987), offering Kosher food and making OSCA a more accessible organization for Jewish students and those who chose to abide by the dietary laws of Kashrut, as well as Muslim students following Halacic dietary laws. The insurgent “Revolutionary Local Foods Party” began their guerilla campaign to supplant corporate food suppliers with organic stock from local farmers. The RLFP proved victorious and OSCA began to buy some of its food locally. Building on their momentum, the RLFP troops and other interested students help start the Oberlin Sustainable Agriculture Project in 1995, bringing even more community food to the ranks of OSCA.
Accessibility came to the forefront with Kosher’s inclusion in OSCA, and an all-OSCA vote was taken on whether to form a “special interest” co-op for people of color. It was not then successful, but in 1994, Third World Co-op opened in Baldwin, providing a space that was more accessible for people of color, low-income students, and first generation college students and creating a community for dialogue and coalition building among all students.
Old Barrows’ dining hall was closed for renovation in 1993, with the College citing “structural and life-safety hazards,” (rumors that a toilet fell through the ceiling still live on). It was temporarily replaced by the Asia House kitchen, which was dubbed “Pyle Inn” after the OSCA’s first co-op. Even though Old B’s dining space was re-opened the next year (after some quibbling over the half-million dollar renovation costs and accusations from OSCA of rent-contract violation on the part of the College for closing Old B in the first place) a new campaign to keep Pyle Inn open as a co-op was begun. Despite the Asia House residents voting 25-2 to keep the dining space open and overwhelming support from the OSCA membership, Pyle Inn was closed for a year. But the ensuing depression was short lived. The College agreed to open an eighth co-op in 1995 with meals starting the following spring. OSCA’s membership made permanent the name Pyle Inn three years later.
Staffing and financial problems that had plagued OSCA through the eighties, and had their beginnings in the early seventies, began to be ameliorated-in part through increasing hired staff. Glory reigns in OSCA-land. A Facilities Manager was hired to maintain OSCA’s off-campus properties in 1996 and two years later, OSCA split into two corporations while retaining the same Board and membership: OSCA and OSCA Properties, the latter being a tax-exempt, charitable organization owning Fuller and Langston-Bliss. The tax designation created a space for low-income housing and finally allows OSCA to fulfill its long sought after (try nearly three decades) goal of offering scholarships to students with financial need. While the Board chose not to renew the Facilities Manager position, in 1999 OSCA hired a part-time Office Manager (replaced by a full-time Office Coordinator in 2000) to relieve the Financial Manager of her enormous and increasing workload. In 2004, OSCA hired a Food Safety Coordinator to assist the co-ops.
With its staff and fiscal structure somewhat rehabilitated, OSCA looks forward to celebrating its 60th year of cooperation at Oberlin.
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