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Column: Cooperatives have long been a special part of our region

Editor's note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run "Isn't That Something" columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen. The following column first ap...

Editor’s note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen. The following column first appeared March 13, 2004.

WORTHINGTON - There was a telephone call. A University of Minnesota graduate student is doing a paper on cooperatives in Minnesota.

(I am sorry I did not get the writer’s name. Kearson?)

(You are going to laugh. I can hear people on a telephone. I really can. I think there is something wrong with cell phones. Cell phones make voices dim.)

Anway, cooperatives in Minnesota. What a rich topic.

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In a time many still remember, names of cooperatives were printed and painted boldly in nearly every town of our region:

Farmers Cooperative Grain Elevator.

Farmers Cooperative Electric.

Farmers Cooperative Oil Company.

Co-ops still flourish, stronger than ever, but many names have been changed.

Cooperative enterprises are a large chapter in the history of this area but not in the history of all America. Cooperatives are one of the things we did well and one of the things that has made us different.

Do you know Godahl, first town north of St. James?

Now, never mind that Godahl is: Population 12. Godahl sponsors a wonderful Labor Day celebration. Main Street is Highway 6. For the parade, the Watonwan County sheriff drives a car in the south lane of the highway and the Brown County sheriff drives a car in the north lane. The center stripe is the county line.

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If you never have been there, drive to Godahl one spring day to see the Godahl Store, an imposing and beautifully-kept, two-story frame building. Godahl Store is on the National Register of Historic Places. It is (the sign says) “the oldest continuously operated cooperative general merchandise store in Minnesota.”

Godahl Store was created 90 years ago by residents of the area in a time when shoes were $1.25 a pair and sox were eight cents a pair. Eggs: seven cents a dozen.

Not only did Godahl residents vote their own cooperative store, they built the store themselves with volunteer labor.

Talk of co-op merchandise stores reminds me of Dundee and of Ray Nelson. Bud Nelson. What good stories Bud Nelson used to tell, sometimes while he was at work in his awesome garden or in the red raspberry patch where he picked as many as 300 quarts of berries in a single year.

Ray said that besides the co-op store at Dundee, there were co-op stores at Fulda and Storden, plus one at Westbrook “that gave us real competition.”

Ray Nelson is a giant figure in the story of Minnesota co-op stores. Ray was graduated from Fulda High School in 1923. For 50 years, he set out just before 7 a.m. six days a week to tend to business at Dundee Cooperative Co. In the beginning, he counted eggs and tested cream. In 1937 he became manager. He dedicated himself to that job and to that store for the next 36 years. Dundee Co-op bought eggs, bought chickens, bought milk and “had everything.”

When the store was organized, shares were sold for $100 apiece. It was a point of pride with Ray: “When we sold out, we paid three hundred fifty-five dollars a share. And all the while, we paid six percent return to our shareholders.” Dundee Co-op was a great investment.

Ray Nelson found enterprising ways to bring his store through tough years. “I’d arrange to have sheep out on shares. We’d own half and the farmer would own half. The profit from the sheep would liquidate their store bill. We took care of debts that way.”

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Ray’s enterprise reaped rewards. “The way we handled that, everyone was paid five percent of all their purchases for the year. Some years after that it was three percent, some years four percent. But we paid those dividends.”

It was a flock of sheep which brought one of Ray’s most vivid memories: “There was a farmer who just stored all his wool for five years, or maybe six years. The market got better and he brought all that wool to us. “We couldn’t handle a thing like that. I called (Lou) Shapiro; he came up from Worthington. Shapiro couldn’t handle it either. “Shapiro knew a man in Sioux Falls and he called him over here. That man wrote the farmer a check for five thousand dollars. The farmer wouldn’t let him leave town until he went to the bank to make sure the check was good.” There are wonderful stories to be told of Minnesota co-ops. I would like to see that graduate student’s paper. (Kearson?)

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