by Christine Holderness
1975 was a watershed year. It saw the official end of the Vietnam War, Bill Gates founded Microsoft, the Vermont segment of Interstate Route 91 was nearing completion, and Patrick Leahy became the first and only Democrat from Vermont elected to the United States Senate. And the Brattleboro Food Co-op was incorporated in September of that year. Vermont was changing rapidly. Its population, which had been relatively stagnant for decades, leaped 14% in the 1960s and 15% in the 1970s. Many of these newcomers were young people, so-called “flatlanders” drawn to Vermont by visions of communal living and connecting with a rural lifestyle. Many shared a commitment to liberal politics and forging lives defined by activism, simplicity, and establishing alliances and organizations that reflected and strengthened their evolving visions and values.
According to Tom Ehrenberg, “We were movement people involved in civil rights and ending the war in Vietnam. We subscribed to Mother Jones and we all had copies of the Whole Earth Catalog. Starting the Co-op was an extension of our politics.” An interest in locally sourced food and rediscovering older ways of growing organic and healthy foods was gaining momentum throughout Vermont and the entire United States. The period from 1960 to 1980 saw the beginning of thousands of food co-ops, restaurants, farms, and bakeries that blended social experiment, counterculture exclamation point, economic utopia, and revolutionary statement.
Charlene Morse notes, “The Co-op was a big part of why we moved to Brattleboro in 1976. It was a magical place.” The Common Ground was the first vegetarian restaurant in New England when it opened in Brattleboro on Elliott Street in 1971, operating as a worker-owned collective for over 30 years, before closing in 2007. The Common Ground served as both a business model for cooperative decisions and ownership and a gathering place for dinners and “long, long meetings” that eventually lead to the formation of a local Brattleboro food-buying collective: the embryonic Brattleboro Food Co-op.
“The co-op ideal of a democratically controlled business owned by the members was very attractive. At the time I thought the beginning and growth of co-ops would change the world,” declares Woody Bernhard, a longtime Marlboro resident and early Co-op member. Initially located in the Green Mountain Health Center on High Street, in a basement with a dirt floor, pre-orders for grains, vegetables, and dairy products were placed weekly. Those who had access to pickup trucks were particularly revered. Everyone, adults and children alike, contributed and worked. An early member recalls, “We routinely put in 10 to 12 hour days.”
“We grew together. In the mid-1970s it was very difficult to even buy whole wheat flour or brown rice. Organic food was a challenge to locate, so we learned how to grow our own.” From early on in the Co-op history, idealism often blended with pragmatism. “We didn’t think of this as a movement, per se, or the beginning of a forty-year history, we were just looking to buy healthy food not available elsewhere that was cheap, and in the process we were taking care of each other.”
Early members were very aware that numerous co-op groups failed due to financial laxness, including two previous attempts in Brattleboro. Cliff Adler (one of the signers of the Articles of Association in 1975) was the Co-op’s bookkeeper for 23 years. “I always knew we couldn’t be flaky, that we needed to be very conscious of where funds were going, and as a result we were always pleased and rather astonished at our stability and strength.”
Carol Barber added, “I was on the board [of directors]. Cliff [Adler] was the continuing person, the glue that kept it all going. We were involved in long-range planning from the very beginning.” In 1976, one year after incorporation, weekly income had quadrupled to $1,200 a week. In 1988, income surpassed one million dollars a year. The Co-op evolved from a pre-order group into a store, open to all, with expanding hours and products offered. As funding and donations became available, coolers and freezers were purchased, shelving and bulk bins were built. Part-time staffers were gradually hired, eventually becoming full time. Though, to this day, members and volunteer labor are central elements to the success of the Co-op.
The Co-op moved from High Street, briefly, to Putney Road and then to Flat Street for ten years before relocating to the Plaza on Main Street, first as a tenant, then purchasing the building. And finally building the current store which opened in June of 2012. Though there have been health food stores in Brattleboro throughout the years, and certainly other food markets, Carl Hirth summarizes what he feels is the uniqueness of the Brattleboro Co-op: “What is the most important is that we own it. It cannot be sold to Whole Foods.” Member shares were sold beginning in 1988, in part to finance the move to the Plaza, and continue to be available. There are currently approximately 6,700 active Co-op members. After forty years, founders and early members remain committed and devoted to the Co-op and to the vision that has underscored and sustained it for decades. Sharing, funky, idealistic, alternative, belief, real, grounded, challenging, and fun are words used to describe the early years at the Co-op, and these descriptions continue to be relevant today.
The Co-op was, and is, much more than a food store, weaving together community, education, outreach, and healthy food with receptive listening and an open heart. Thanks to Cliff Adler, Carl Hirth, Thomas Ehrenberg, Woody Bernhard, Jonathan Morse, Charlene Morse, and Carol Barber for recently gathering together and generously sharing stories, insights, and laughter about their early years at the Co-op.