Working Well With Others
September 21, 1939
To some passersby, it may come as little surprise that the green wood frame residence with the distinctive purple trim located at 1614 Kentucky Street is known, at least informally, as the “Olive House.”
But this model of aesthetic non-conformity is not only extraordinary on the exterior. Within its walls, generations of Jayhawks have carried out an ongoing experiment in cooperative living, in the process gaining a very affordable form of student housing as well as daily lessons in the trials and tribulations of responsible self-government.
It all began on September 21, 1939, when charter members of the Jayhawk Co-op established this residence as the first independent cooperative living arrangement at the University of Kansas. (Prior cooperative housing set-ups, such as Watkins and Miller Halls, enjoyed official University sanction and support.)
The Jayhawk Co-op offered “cooperative and fraternal living at a minimum cost.” A response to the economic difficulties of the Great Depression, it reflected many of the liberal and idealistic impulses of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Organized along the traditional “Rochdale” cooperative principle of “one member, one vote” and open to all residents without regard to race, religion or creed, the Jayhawk Co-op in its time was a revolutionary concept at what was then a still largely segregated University of Kansas. The development was also on the cutting edge of a larger nationwide student housing cooperative movement.
In subsequent decades, changing societal mores plus the construction of modern high-rise dormitories at KU, the growth of off-campus apartment options in Lawrence, and a level of student affluence unimaginable in the 1930s, may have lessened both the need for and the appeal of student-run co-ops.
But with a history as rich as the residents’ experiences, the concept, just as the pioneer house itself, almost surely will remain on Mount Oread. Not for nothing is this Kentucky Street home also known as the “Enduring House.”
The cooperative movement traces its origins back to a group of British textile workers during the Industrial Revolution. With their standard of living threatened by increased mechanization, these men (and at least one woman) from the small town of Rochdale, England, organized in the 1840s one of the first successful cooperative stores, and later cooperative housing complexes. This arrangement allowed members to buy food in bulk while sharing, and thus reducing, their overall subsistence costs.
Perhaps their most significant contribution was what has become known as the “Rochdale Principles,” a series of progressive rules governing membership in the cooperative. Modified and expanded over time, these would form the foundation upon which not merely KU’s Jayhawk Co-op would stand, but also countless other cooperatives, large and small, in virtually every sector of the economy the world over.
“Cooperative societies are democratic organizations,” states one of the Rochdale Principles. In fact, the Rochdale Society was established as a pure democracy, with each member having a single vote on all matters of interest, none with more influence than any other. Membership was strictly voluntary and was determined without regard to “any social, political, racial or religious discrimination.”
Additionally under the Rochdale system, all net surpluses were equitably returned to the members themselves, the abiding emphasis being “to aid in the participatory definition and the advancement of the common good.” Educating the general public on the advantages and rewards of cooperative living was also stressed, as was the duty to work closely and share information with other cooperative groups, be they at the local, state or national levels.
Although the evidence is somewhat murky, the story of how these principles came to be applied at the University of Kansas seems to revolve around the efforts of an undergraduate named Gerald “Jerry” Fiedler, a late-1930s transfer from Baker University in Baldwin City. Upon arriving in Lawrence, Fiedler, like many other incoming students, was faced with a serious housing dilemma.
At this time, “Students generally lived with Lawrence families, in boarding houses, rented rooms and the like,” according to Fred McElhenie of the KU Department of Student Housing, Those coming from out of town “without arranged housing” were often “subject to perilous choices and it is unclear the number who may have returned home due to concerns about appropriate,” or at least tolerable, accommodations.
Fortunately, Fiedler had lived in a cooperative house at Baker (called the Men’s Cooperative Club) and was apparently eager to share his knowledge and experience – such was the Rochdale dictum – with the students of KU.
In the summer of 1939, Fiedler began the arduous process of securing a house near campus, equipping and furnishing the residence, and contacting and recruiting other young men to join his planned cooperative.
“Everything will be done to maintain a high standard of living at a minimum price,” he wrote to a potential recruit. “We will buy wholesale where possible and members will be allowed to bring meat and fruit from home if they live on a farm. They will be allowed a reasonable rate for it.”
A prolific letter-writer and “wheeler-dealer,” Fiedler’s voluminous correspondence during that summer reveals, as McElhenie put it, “a young man almost obsessed with getting this project off to a good start.” From soliciting, sometimes begging, donations of furniture to sniffing out the best possible deals on everything from silverware and mattresses to dishes and gas stoves, through dogged persistence Fiedler would bring the first independent student housing co-op to Mount Oread.
Fiedler’s most important task was finding a suitable house for the putative co-op. This he carried out with his characteristic meticulousness, scouting a number of potential candidates. By June 1939, he had settled on the former Alpha Chi sorority house at 1614 Kentucky Street.
Writing to recent enlistee Carroll Clawson, Fielder described the residence he had just leased on behalf of the 20 pledged members. “It has three floors and [a] basement together with a shower room and a den, the living room, study room (library), large hall and house mother’s quarters are on the first floor. The study rooms are on [the] second and third. There is a sleeping porch on [the] second.” In terms of in-house supervision, Fiedler was later able to convince John J. O. Moore, secretary of the local YMCA, and his wife Clytis to become the residence’s first house-parents.
For members, the total cost of room and board, Fiedler estimated, would amount to no more than $17 a month; and following the Rochdale Principles, “any surplus at the end of the year will be refunded.” Encouraging members to bring or donate their own furniture for communal use further reduced costs, although he was able to guarantee that “a desk, chair, dresser, mirror, and bed plus plenty of closet space will be provided.”
As an added bonus, the house would have a refrigerator, still something of a luxury item in these Depression-era times. “Yesterday Santa Claus came to town in person,” Fiedler exclaimed in a letter to Don DeFord. “I bought a refrigerator (12 cu. ft. of storage space) with a Kelvinator compressor for $22.50. The best thing about it is that it works…. I was so pleased with the buy that Mrs. Moore and I just sat and looked at it for a long time. It is the best buy of the summer I believe.”
By the time the school year began, the 20 charter members met on September 21, 1939, to formalize their association, putting their signatures to the “Constitution of the Jayhawk Co-op.” “In order to provide an economical, cooperative, and fraternal residence for men students attending the University of Kansas,” read the Preamble, “this organization hereby submits itself to be governed by the following constitution.”
Among its provisions were establishment of the offices of president (to which Fiedler was naturally elected), vice-president, secretary and treasurer, and the formation of a five-member advisory board comprised of “faculty members and business leaders.”
The compact called for weekly executive board meetings as well as monthly house meetings. And any member who had a “criticism or suggestion to offer concerning the club” could “demand and secure a hearing.” (Two constitutional amendments the following year “disapprove[d] the use of alcoholic beverages” and prohibited members from “pledging their loyalty to any other [cooperative] organization” while living at the Jayhawk Co-op.)
As the house moved into its second full year of operation, the Jayhawk Co-op was at the forefront of spreading the student housing co-op idea in the Midwest – indeed it was the “prime mover,” in McElhenie’s estimation. In November 1940, members joined with students at such universities as Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska and Texas to form the Central League of Campus Co-ops.
This body was devoted to promoting “the exchange of ideas on the problems of institution, government, administration, finance, accounting, and recreation among member student cooperatives.” Moreover, they sought to “provide educational aids,” “foster the formation of student co-ops through technical advice and material aid,” and encourage adoption of the Rochdale Principles. This was achieved through annual conferences (the first of which, in 1941, was held at KU) and regular communication among member groups.
The year 1941 also saw the Jayhawk Co-op gain an important mentor in KU political science professor and advisory board member Hilden Gibson. He helped the members establish an independent, non-profit entity called the University of Kansas Student Housing Association (UKSHA), still in existence, through which they were able to purchase their Kentucky Street home outright. He was also perhaps the most eloquent local advocate of student cooperatives, in his own words having “given them as unsparingly of my time and energy as I possibly could.”
“I regard the Campus Cooperatives here at KU,” Gibson once said, “as among the most valuable adjuncts to university life. They have made it possible for some students to attend college who otherwise would not have been able to at all; and they have made it possible for many others to live on a more comfortable plane than would have been possible otherwise. I know of one boy,” he added, “who literally was living in a chicken coop before he moved into the Co-op (no pun intended).”
Yet hard financial times and the desire to live frugally while attending college were hardly the only factors in students’ decisions to live cooperatively. “Beyond these material values,” Gibson noted, “lie other equally important ones. The Co-ops afford training in democracy and responsible living which is of inestimable importance. Students living in them have not only the opportunity, but the necessity, to make their own decisions and to learn how to govern their own lives in relation to one another.”
Cooperative movement historian Deborah Altus, currently a professor at Washburn University in the Department of Human Services, points out yet another draw of the housing co-ops.
“The students who began the co-ops were concerned not only with the economics of cooperation but with pressing social issues ranging from peace to racism. Some were inspired by the teachings of Toyohiko Kagawa, a Japanese clergyman who preached that cooperatives were the foundation for world peace. In the 1940s,” she added, “racially integrated student housing co-ops began to appear on college campuses across the nation and were dubbed ‘a triumph over racial superstition and prejudice.’ In many cases, these co-ops offered the first racially integrated housing on campus.”
That, in fact, was the principle recollection of former Jayhawk Co-op resident C. Henry Pinault. Upon coming to KU in the 1940s, “It was shocking to me,” he wrote, “to find segregation rampant in Lawrence: segregated university housing, segregated theaters, all-white varsity athletic teams. We had the only integrated housing in the co-ops.”
Such fidelity to the Rochdale non-discrimination principle welcomed African-American students like Ray Pleasant. Decades later, Pleasant – who had gone on to become an electrical engineer and Minnesota state legislator – recalled how “living at the Jayhawk Co-op stretched the dollars that I earned … and helped a poor boy attend college.”
Echoing Altus’ assessment of co-ops as havens for budding reformers, former resident Wendell Walker remarked how “a large percentage of the members were majoring in the social sciences, so bull-sessions usually centered on politics or social issues.” He remembered the Jayhawk Co-op of the late 1940s and early 1950s as “the center of ‘liberal’ activity on the campus with members being active in groups such as CORE [the Committee on Racial Equality] and ‘the Dove,’ a left-leaning periodical that circulated on campus.”
Gerald Jepson said that, “the most important part of being a Jayhawk Co-op member was to learn to live with and trust strangers of many backgrounds and interests, plus learning to care for ourselves.” For Edward Chesky, “Friends and intellectual stimulation and growth … were the highlights of my university experience.”
That is not to say, however, that cooperative living ensured a utopian existence; far from it. As with many, if not most, communal arrangements, problems and tensions arose when inevitably some members did not pay their rent on time, assigned chores went undone, meals went unprepared, repairs went unmade and quiet hours were violated. The conscientious hard-worker resented the slacker, who, in turn, resented being constantly nagged for, well, not being hardworking and conscientious enough.
And with a lax enforcement mechanism for disciplining offenders, the sometime chaos beckoned resident Don Adams to cry out in desperation, “We need a dictator around here!” In perhaps an unintentionally ironic statement, Jayhawk Co-op member Oswald Biddle once lamented, “I think the house would be better if all the fellows would cooperate.”
Of course, no one ever claimed that cooperative living was easy, and discovering the limits of this ideal (sometimes the hard way) just might have been another essential lesson learned.
For many co-op members, American entry into World War II marked the end of one type of education and the beginning of another. And with its numbers dwindling as residents left school for foreign battlefields, the original Jayhawk Co-op was formally disbanded on March 13, 1943, after a mere 42 months in operation.
The few remaining men moved into other co-ops recently opened near campus. As for the house at 1614 Kentucky, for the next year it was home to a group of female undergraduates who alliteratively named it the Kaw Koette Co-op. Then, beginning in 1944, enough men could be found to reclaim the house and restore its Jayhawk Co-op name. For the next seven years, it remained an all-male preserve.
During that period, Luther Buchele, a member from the early 1940s who had become quite active in the cooperative movement nationwide, turned the house into more than a home. In 1949, he established 1614 Kentucky as the home office and national headquarters of the North American Student Cooperative League (NASCL, later renamed the North American Students of Cooperation). As the November Graduate Magazine put it, “The home office was set up in Lawrence because of the strong campus co-op housing movement on the Hill, as well as Lawrence’s central geographic location. NASCL lists 386 campus co-ops which are completely student owned and operated.”
University records are frustratingly thin regarding the house’s history and its members’ activities post-1950. What we do know is that from 1951-55 women were again ascendant at 1614 Kentucky, though this time they maintained the Jayhawk Co-op name and faithfully continued its operation as a multi-racial, non-discriminatory residence. Breaking with tradition but honoring an early champion, the men who took possession of the house starting in 1955 renamed it the Hilden Gibson Co-op, the designation it would bear and the professor it would honor for the next decade.
In 1965, the property was sold and ceased being operated as a cooperative housing arrangement. This situation would last for more than 30 years. Finally, in June 1998, the Association repurchased the home and transformed it back into a co-op for KU students – both male and female.
Since then (and after a radical paint job) this co-ed co-op has been known as the Green House and, perhaps more accurately, the Olive House. Allied with the other UKSHA-owned property at 1406 Tennessee, called Sunflower House, residents share resources and eat regular meals together, all the while preserving both the progressive spirit and the enduring experience of cooperative student living at KU.
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas