The following is an article which appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of The Harvest Herald.
A Timeline of Co-op History: Celebrating 40 Years
by Allison Watters
The Co-op’s roots began in the winter of 1974. A handful of people were interested in starting a buying club to bring organic vegetables to the Blue Hill peninsula at a time when they were unavailable. After some deliveries of perishable produce items began to arrive in the area, a bulk grain order was added to the offerings. These early efforts took a lot of organizing because each item that was purchased came in 50 lb. bags which then needed to be divided up. However, the early membership reveled in the opportunity to spend the many hours together working towards the common cause of good food.
In time, this small and loosely organized group of pioneers realized that they could secure higher quality food at better prices if the burden of the work could be shared among more members. Word spread throughout the community and in just over a year, the Co-op’s membership reached 100.
In these early stages, people drove empty rented trucks as far afield as Boston and then drove back with them filled with grains and fresh produce. The trucks were then unloaded at various people’s houses. Unloading spots changed from month to month, but one location was a residence that is now the Barncastle restaurant and, for a time, the Co-op operated out of the barn located behind what is today the Black Anchor restaurant [now an empty building].
By 1977 there were monthly deliveries to the North Blue Hill Grange (now the Halcyon Grange) and “Articles of Incorporation” were signed in February of 1979 offering more structure to the Co-op’s inner workings.
By the early 1980s, there were so many families involved in the Co-op that it became necessary for the Co-op to split into two groups. A group on the north side of Blue Hill continued to use the North Blue Hill Grange. The members who lived on the south side of Blue Hill used what is now the Sedgwick Redemption Center. A produce order would be delivered once a month and a grain order was made less frequently.
Eventually, the two groups merged once again. The Co-op began to experiment with buying more than its members wanted to purchase. The excess was then sold to whoever wanted it. The Co-op also expanded its offerings, bringing in organic dairy products, smoked meats, seafood and bread. The membership was further invigorated by their success in pushing suppliers to order more organic foods to far flung communities in the rural areas of Maine.
For several years, the Co-op rented a space that once served as one of Sedgwick’s schoolhouses. The first paid manager was hired in 1991 and the store purchased its first cash register. However, the store remained a bare bones operation. A variety of donated freezers and refrigerators were put into use, and volunteers installed shelving to display food for sale to its customers.
The store was open several days a week although lack of funding kept the store from becoming very well stocked and hours were erratic. In 1992 a rent reduction from $500 to $400 a month was a great relief.
Even with these difficulties, membership swelled to over a thousand and the Co-op became a location for a farmers’ market. The first Co-op newsletter was sent out when the Co-op was in Sedgwick.
Although more and more families were using the Co-op, it was becoming apparent to many that the store was not very conveniently located. Often people would come far out of their way to shop, but the volunteer staffing scheduled for that day would fail to show. There was a division among its members about whether the Co-op should remain a buying club or open a storefront.
After many heated conversations, the decision was made to move the Co-op into a storefront. A small but suitable rental was found in downtown Blue Hill at the base of Greens Hill and the lease was signed in the spring of 1993. At that point the store only occupied a small portion of the current building footprint. In its new space, the Co-op increased the number and regularity of its hours, but the offerings were still quite slim. Despite this, the Co-op’s new store thrived and was soon ready to take over one of the other adjacent rental spaces.
In 1995 the store underwent the first of several expansions. With many helping hands, a center stairwell was relocated and walk-in coolers were installed. Pain de Famille, a local bakery, subleased a portion of the store, drawing even more customers. Although it was crowded in this space, the Co-op continued to flourish, serving as a meeting place for residents and meeting their needs for healthy, local, organic and whole foods. In 1999, the first credit card machine was installed after a bit of a fuss from some long standing members.
A second expansion took place in 2001 when the local homeopath’s office to the far right of the building was vacated, and the Co-op opened its own cafe. The Co-op also got its first computer that year.
Currently our Co-op remains an essential and well-loved Blue Hill institution. It has gotten to this point through the hard work and willpower of countless dedicated owners and volunteers. Thank you to all of those who have helped make it what it is today.
Note: This piece was written after conversations with the following individuals who were so generous with their time. Thank you to Gail Bartlett, Margaret Bixby, Leslie Cummins, Howard Evans, Kimball Petty, Paula Pusey, and Deborah Wiggs. I also used a variety of historical documents such as Co-op newsletters and handbooks to determine the dates above. Because of the passage of time and the vagaries of memory, certain details I collected diverged from one another from one person to the next. Perhaps your memory recalls something different entirely? I thus offer you this approximate truth.