Thanks to Ben Masel for saving and sending this. I spent about two hours on this Wednesday and another Thursday night pasting, cutting, editing and formatting from the original PDF. There is much more to do. Michael Bodden wrote a great history, with humor, keen insight, and sound analysis. Michael, at times wrote in paragraphs half a page long. I am working on that but not changing a single word (except some proper name spellings). One of the reasons it is taking so long to edit is that i am re-reading every word.
People's History: A History of the Mifflin Street Community Co-op by Michael Bodden
The sixties, right? The Civil Rights Movement, the War at Home, lava lamps, acid rock, hippies: we've either lived and nostalgically relived it, or lived in it's shadows for thirty or more years now. Despite the depressed economy, Regan, punk moods... or maybe because of them... everybody still talks about Martin Luther King's dream and the student rebellions. The sixties were a romantic vision with nightmare edges of ghetto violence, foreign war, and assassinations (don't forget Malcolm X). The heart of the sixties vision was the hope that it would be possible to build a different society in which we wouldn't be oppressed by sexual hang-ups, fears about job availability and security, or death in unjust causes such as the war in Vietnam.
The media always played up the colorful aspects of those times of turbulence and creative fertility: the drugs, the riots, the threatening new leaders, the perceived sexual freedoms and social nonchalance. But these images, while showing one side of what was going on, yield a stereotyped analysis of the sixties in our minds, an analysis that never attains much depth or profundity for those who lived through it. Those who didn't experience that era, tend to see a simplistic, over romanticized fairyland scenario that is either naively embraced or seen as naive itself.
The sixties were a time of affluence. Jobs weren't as scarce as they are now. This made it easier for middle class students to dream, and attempt to realize their dreams. Trying to liberate the world and themselves from an uptight conformist (nuclear paranoia, McCarthyite witchhunts, showy materialism) mindset, these students ran face first in to the outrage of the Vietnamese war. The result produced a blend of the emerging "counterculture" (countering the uptight conformity of middle class life) with the radical politics of various groups such as SNCC and the SDS.
Those who participated in the "Movement Toward a New America" were not all dreamy young idealists destined to be disillusioned by reality.
The truth is that many of the sixties radicals worked long and hard to push their dreams into reality. In those times, anything seemed possible, just needing the effort to be made. Much real community organizing was done and many projects were initiated whose measure of success cannot yet be determined.
The Mifflin Street Community Co-op is one of those projects which has an interesting history that reveals many sides of the sixties legacy: its flamboyance as well as its skilled, practical grass roots organizing, its visionary politics, vulnerable humanness, isolated idealism and blatant hucksterism.
The cast of characters includes martyrs, hustlers, ordinary folks, drug addicts, police, students, rip-offs and businesspeople. Some had definite ideas, some were mostly confused, and not all of them might seem interesting. This series of articles on the co-op's history will attempt to review the co-op's stormy life, with an eye toward illuminating the strength and depth of the counterculture, as well as gaining increased understanding of both the co-op as a business and part of our community.
NUTS AND BOLTS MIGHT BUILD A DREAM
- "Well, I've got a hammer, and I've got a bell
- And I've got a song to sing all over this land
- It's the hammer of justice; it's the bell of freedom,
- It's a song about love between my brothers and my sisters,
- All over this land.”
By 1968, Madison had already been the scene of some pretty heavy anti-war protests, culminating in the Dow sit-in at the Commerce building during the fall of 1967, where police waded into the peaceful crowd, clubs swinging, and in the words of mayor Paul Soglin, soon “the place was a war zone.” In the media, this kind of action was given most of the attention when discussing the counterculture that was solidifying around the anti-war movement.
But for a couple of years already, the Movement Toward a New America had been branching out. The horror of Vietnam and the cruel materialism of American life had caused many students and intellectuals to analyze and critique our entire way of existence, and propose alternative cultural forms and economic structures. A rejection of traditional American society began to become widespread in certain sectors of the population. In these enclaves, many of them student areas or near universities, “community projects” began to take shape around alternative lines of thought.
The Mifflin area at that time was a neighborhood populated, as it is presently, mostly by students. But since the university still required many undergraduates to live in the dorms, those gathering in the 500 blocks of Dayton, Mifflin and West Washington were mostly older and often highly political. Broom Street Theater used to hold community dances that large numbers of these Mifflin area residents attended. At gatherings like the BST dances, Bruce Tillinger notes, "a feeling of community oozed out.”
In Madison, besides the Broom Street Theater, other signs of an emerging alternative culture were also present, including head shops, the first new wave housing co-ops such as Friend's, and Connections, a radical underground newspaper.
Bill Winfield came to Wisconsin in 1964. He was a member of the Green Lantern Eating Co-op, which had long been a refuge for leftist types, especially during the fifties when the climate for such politics was decidedly cold. In addition, Bill had spent two summers in Mississippi and seen black co-ops there, and had helped, along with Max Kumerow, to set up the Madison Association of Student Co-ops, an organization of housing co-ops such as Friends, International House and Rochdale International. During the summer and fall of 1968, after graduating, Bill was working at the first Madison Book Co-op.
Upon hearing that the White Front Grocery at the corner of Mifflin and Bassett Streets was going to close, he began researching the best way to set up a consumer food co-op, including talking to the manager of the Midland Co-op gas station. But, Midland was an old, large supply co-op that was, in Bill's words, "a managerial-heavy co-op and the framers were just given rebates." Much akin to any other big business, the Midland model did not match the ideals of Bill and several of his friends whom he drew into the project.
They envisioned a co-op with broad community support and member participation. The original by-laws, drawn up by law student Theron O'Conner, offer a firm counter point to the notion that big corporations and an attendant big government are beneficial to the people of America: Mifflin Street Community Co-op exists to embody a belief in community self-determination in opposition to the dominant trends in all communities in which control is increasingly concentrated outside the community and operated for profits which are not used for the betterment of the community. Our assets, as people and money, are committed to this struggle by any means necessary.
At this point, having gotten a $250 loan from the ill-fated Book Co-op, the organizers signed a temporary lease for the former White Front Grocery. Now that there was a legal entity actually started, and a place to focus on, more people began to take part in the organizing process, while the original group, save Bill, faded into the background. Fundraising became the major concern and the spirit of the neighborhood started to pay off. At a meeting called in the vacant storefront, the hundred or so people in attendance were assigned certain blocks to canvass for $5 memberships, which would supply the initial capital for the targeted figure, but the campaigns timing was not optimal: it was early December and students were taking exams and leaving town.
Despite this, organizers managed to sell about 300 memberships, with the best results coming from a table set up in the Memorial Union. Having raised only $1,500 by break, a decision was made to go ahead nevertheless, and some people began researching where to get the best and cheapest products.
Bill Winfield set out for the Wayside Grocery in Dodgeville, a "gangly" old store that had been run out of business by a local supermarket. There, Winfield met with an incredible auction windfall, perhaps the first in a series of amazing good luck (which has created a Mifflin mythology all its own- as has the bad luck) whereby he was able to pick up two dairy coolers, three display freezers, shelving, a Toledo scale, paint and flooring material for little more than $200. Bill said the whole event seemed particularly unreal since he was coming down with a cold and was "almost hallucinating" at the time.
With the flooring and paint, work began on renovating the interior of the old store. Extra flooring metamorphosed into a checkout counter. When the freezers and other heavy equipment could be hauled back to Madison several weeks later, one of the front windows was broken trying to move it all in. This was also the beginning of a Mifflin tradition, although later window breakers would be less well-intentioned.
At a Middleton store going out of business, Mifflin organizers were able to get about $800 worth of odd-lot groceries for about half price. A reconditioned cash register was also acquired. The store was still “real empty" but people decided that there were a critical number of things available and that it was more important to open and start than to have everything just right. The Coca-Cola dealer, the milk dealer, and other suppliers were willing to give the co-op a round of credit for the first hot, as Bill explains it, and on January 13,1969, the Mifflin Street Community Co-op opened it's doors for business.
“You get this political frustration with the big scene- you could do a certain amount of protesting and the rest of it, but... so you become involved in some kind of nuts and bolts operation where you could really, at least immediately, see something or you could try to affect your immediate environment rather than always tryin' to exercise, y'know, protest on a far away thing, the frustration of Vietnam or civil rights.” -
Rage Flies Like a Nightstick, Shatters Like a Rock: The First Mifflin Street Block Party
Many political organizers on the UW campus lived in the Mifflin area circa spring 1969. The area, largely populated by older, graduate students and "hangers on" (those not in school but hanging around because of the politics, or because it was their "scene") who experimented with drugs like acid and dope, delved in "free love," had become a definite countercultural community. Most everybody knew everybody else. Communal cookouts were frequent occurrences, and nobody locked their doors. Annie Hable tells the story about her son Joseph, who as a baby, managed to crawl out of his crib at 3 in the morning and wander down the street to the co-op where some freaks were congregating. She and her husband, as well as others who shared their apartment, were soon awakened by a knock on their door, announcing that the freaks had brought Joseph home.
It was that kind of a neighborhood. Yet this community, with its combination of a generational, cultural revolt and the radical politics of the social protest, seemed to pose a great threat to the established order.
In the spring of 1969, some people, meeting at the co-op, decided to have a street dance on the first weekend in May in order to celebrate their “community,” and the coming of spring. This is what a great many of the participants in the event doubtlessly came for.
Howard Mcgath, however, in an interview with Takeover ten years later, stated that the party was organized to be a confrontation with the police, to show that Miffland was independent from the rest of society. Tensions between police and students had been escalating since the Dow riots and the Black Student Strike in February of 1968 when the National Guard had been brought to campus. Bill Winfield comments that in those times, there existed a real "we'll get you tonight" adversarial relationship between cops and activists. A notice in the Daily Cardinal the week before the Block Party read:
“Why don't we do it in the road? 4 P.M. until………500 blk W. Mifflin Be there. Off the PIGI Roll your own reality. Bring share, Food, Fun, Drums, Dogs.”
Paul Soglin, then the area's Alderperson, worried about the potential problems brewing, tried to get a permit for the party. To Takeover he later said, the city officials "told me you just have a block party- put up barricades and have it. That's how it was done all over the city for 40 years. There was no permit- nothing."
But the police chief disagreed. Chief Emery saw the street dance as "contrary to policy." Emery, quoted in the Capitol Times on Monday, May 5th in the midst of the battle, called the students’ insistence on staging the dance “a challenge to the city,” adding that “this kind of activity cannot be condoned.”
What happened is that people began gathering in the 500 block of W. Mifflin early Saturday afternoon. Bands set up on a couple of porches and began to play. People danced, played games, and hung out until around 4:30 when a squad car drove by and, over a loud speaker, ordered the crowd to disperse. Well, the crowd was there to stay and have fun, so police began to arrive in riot gear and tried to break up the dance by pushing people out of the street. The officers lined up on the curbs shouting and taunting them, demanding that the street be given back.
It is difficult to tell what touched off the violence. The Capital Times reported that it was a smoke bomb thrown at the police following Alderman Soglin's appearance and prompt arrest on the charge of "obstructing an officer.” Takeover quoted Ollie Steinberg and Howard Monath as relating that it began because people threw rocks at the cops after they had smashed a band's equipment when the band would not stop playing.
Whatever the sparking incident might have been, the ensuing clash was violent and chaotic, the result of months of frustrated, emotional tensions. The battle known as the Mifflin Riots was to last 3 days and to spread to State Street on Sunday night and even to the previously conservative Langdon area by Monday. Over eighty people were arrested and injured, including numerous police.
A few random scenes of the violence from The Capital Times:
- -On that Saturday night, the Madison Bureau Chief of UPI watched as a policeman separated from his group, pulled his revolver and aimed it at students who had him cornered.
- -A national correspondent for Associated Press reported observing nightsticks coming down on the bodies of male students trapped by policemen inside 16 N Bassett St. after students had yelled at the police. A co-ed inside the house was screaming. The students, bloody, were charged with assault. -
- A frightened Dayton St. resident threatened students with what they thought was a shotgun. -Students erecting and re-erecting barricades, sometimes flaming, after police vehicles would break them down.
- -Takeover reported the following tactic: Students with baseball bats, ambushing police, who were chasing people between buildings.
As the battle grew, police came to rely more and more on teargas to rout and disperse crowds of students. The students retaliated with rocks, bricks, bottles, and large slingshots.
Trying to diffuse the situation, strongly conservative Mayor Dyke and University officials invited students to hold their dance on Sunday in areas designated by the University, but for students this was not the same as exercising the right to do whatever they wanted on their own community's turf. At the same time as Dyke was trying to get the students to submit to his terms, meant to show the city could control the students activities, the police were beginning a massive teargas assault on the Mifflin area which made many homes uninhabitable, and forced many more out on the streets either to flee and fight with police, or to march on the city-county building to demand Dyke meet with them.
The tear gassing of crowds on State Street lead to further eruptions of street violence and the trashing of at least 11 storefront windows.
The following day, Mayor Dyke addressed a crowd from the steps of the co-op, telling them to elect leaders to meet with him to "plan for future activities in such a way that traffic will not be disrupted and neighborhoods of Madison will not be unduly disturbed."
Students countered by demanding all those arrested be granted an amnesty and that they be given a permit for a street dance. Dyke insisted on giving no promises and later remarked that nothing short of capitulation would satisfy the rioters. The lack of satisfaction with Dyke's stance helped touch off the third night of rioting which grew to encompass even Langdon Street.
Finally, on Tuesday, citizens from Madison's near west side donned white arm bands and occupied the intersection of Mifflin and Bassett in a successful attempt to act as a buffer that would cool down the warring factions.
The Business Done in People's Souls
It was a great place to work. It was completely in the center of everything that was going on.- Frank Burham
The center of the universe. People called up on the phone all day long to find out what was going on.-Annie Hable
Opening on January 13, 1969, the Mifflin Street Community Co-op was far from being fully stocked and cash sales that day were only $130. Still, as Bobby Golden explains, "There was no way it couldn't work; if people didn't buy anything, there'd be something else to do." It was crucial, in explaining the almost mythic quality of the co-op's history, its early success and widespread support, to understand this fact. Since a clear consciousness of whole foods or the politics of food in general did not yet exist in Madison in the spring of 1969, the excitement which the new co-op generated came from the fact that the Mifflin area residents were beginning to see themselves as a group apart from the rest of the society around them, a society which, because of its Vietnam involvement and uptight, repressive materialism, they rejected.
The creation of the co-op as Bill Winfield later wrote, worked a profound effect on the neighborhood, catalyzing a community identity. With a table and chairs in the window, the co-op was a community center and political hub that happened to be a corner food store. The fact that the members of the community brought it into being, and that its intended purpose was to be a catalyst to other community organizing, owned and run by the entire community, gave it an exhilarating symbolic value that would only later be matched by a corresponding importance as a countercultural economic institution.
During January and February, the co-op was run entirely on volunteer labor and, to underscore the points of community ownership and participation, the cash register was periodically turned around to allow members to ring themselves out. People would often show up the night before demonstrations to plan for and discuss what would happen the next day. In fact, the block party planning was initiated at one such gathering.
Meanwhile, a general groceries jobber, Shannon's in Appleton, was contracted and began to make deliveries to the co-op, increasing the range and reliability of the stock. People, using various cars and vans, would pick up other odd lot items at Madison Cash and Carry or Miller's (later Miller-Horne).
By March, several people who had been putting in the most time making the co-op work were hired as full time staff on a $42/week salary, since it seemed that there was enough money, and that it took several full time people to really co-ordinate everything. Among them were Bill Winfield, Annie Hable and Brian McTeague.
Volunteers continued manning the register (the most popular job from a social standpoint) as well as fulfilling other tasks. Peter Wright, who went on to rehabilitate the Fess Hotel, was, in the early months, the co-op's milk orderer and later a board member. At this time, the store was setting up core operating systems such as markups, bookkeeping procedures, and what to stock. It was typical of the counter culture's attitude toward business, that in describing the co-op's early operating systems, Winfield felt the need to explain:
All this financial anality may sound overly capitalistic, but I've become convinced that if you can keep all the petty money and core business systems well run you can be flexible and experimental with all the other aspects of the store.
Things were going well in many ways with the store averaging about $700 a day in sales; the co-op could meet bills and payrolls, and as Winfield remarks, things reached a critical mass as more and more of the neighborhood's interesting characters began to hang out, attracting in turn others by turning the corner grocery into a social occasion. But as Bobby Golden points out, the co-op, relative to later years, was still “just waiting for meaningful business to show up."
The first Mifflin Street Block Party/Riot changed that situation completely. As the crude brutality and confrontational demeanor of the police drew previously inactive students into a confrontation with authorities, "Miffland" became almost a mythical symbol of resistance, and business snowballed for its hub, the community co-op. The increasing business and community support also saw the addition of several staff at the beginning of the summer.
Hired were Golden, who had formerly been janitor, Doug Howell, and Jim Lauter, a “hardcore Marxist Leninist” (according to Frank Burnham) who always dressed in black. In addition, it was at about this time that a guy named Marco started working for the co-op. He would play a key role on getting the store to go to natural foods almost a year later.
Still, just as the co-op's finances seemed to be shifting into the same high gear as its politics, a semi-general split was occurring that prefigured many later co-op movement disputes over ideological direction. On the one hand were the older, "grad student” types who sought to see the co-op be a more formal, traditional co-op with rebates and equity. This group coalesced into a 2nd Board of Directors, installed in May to replace Bill Winfield and the other incorporators. Opposing them was the staff, and in a real sense, the momentum of the entire Mifflin radical community, which was giddy with its own version of revolutionary activism. Perhaps only an undercurrent of the time, this conflict staked out positions and arguments still visible today.
Even in Paradise, a Snake Can Laugh
The euphoria of the May Block Party riots, in which students of the Mifflin area had virtually battled police to a standstill, carried over to the co-op that summer. Business increased substantially and the co-op became ever more a hub of activity for the growing "counter-culture" in the Madison area.
A bail fund, known as the Electric Teradactyl Transit Authority, Limited, was organized sometime in March in order to have ready money with which to bail out those arrested at various demonstrations. By summer, the fund was already operating in high gear. Starting with a donation can at the co-op, which asked for amounts of $1 and $5, a very large fund was quickly generated.
Annie Hable, a co-op staffer at the time, the fund's bookkeeper, explained that the large amounts of money coming in and going out regularly required that the community place a large amount of trust in the few people who composed the Fund's Board of Directors, who needed to be honest and committed to keeping accounts straight. The idea was, according to a plan circulated before the March 9 organizational meeting, to have a Bail Fund that "should be revolving, recovering bail that has been tied up, to have enough on hand to cover future busts." The handout also contained the following warning:
In case of emergency, if someone who is busted knows they need to split before the trial date, this is cool. But be aware that you can split because the people got you out and your splitting makes the state richer. So there should be an effort to get the money back so it can be used again.
The statement also contained a vague list describing the ways and causes for which the money should be used. These were described as actions against the state, including drug busts and the harassment of black people. The only case, however, where a certain measure of specificity was achieved, was in separating out the dope dealers from so called "shit dealers." The dope dealers were considered cool but those who dealt bad drugs such as heroin and ripped people off were not to be helped because “shit drugs divide us” and the dealers' shit “helps put the community in jail.”
The sensibility that created a culture of dope, looseness, leftist politics and rock and roll, gave the Mifflin area a utopian socialist kind of flavor. Bobby Golden, another staffer at the co- op, thought that it was the type of place where someone like Bob Dylan might show up and play on the street, or that somehow, the whole experience of being there seemed like part of a Dylan song about lovesickness or protest—there was a heightened awareness on the part of the Mifflin area residents, that they were a living part of something really special, perhaps memorable. So, to celebrate the feeling of being there, Golden put up signs in the co-op windows one day announcing that Dylan would fly in to play at “People's Park” (now the Ambassador West Apartment building at 434 W. Mifflin) at 4:30 that afternoon.
People gathered at the co-op as usual, some actually expectant, others knowing it was really a non-appearance designed to celebrate the fact that the neighborhood was the kind of place where such things were imaginable. At any rate, few were disappointed.
Community support for the co-op just seemed to keep growing throughout the summer. Both Bruce Tillinger, a longtime co-op staffer (1970-1977), and Peter Wright, an early organizer and member of the first Board of Directors, tell the story about how some young kid, probably heavily into drugs, once crawled into the co-op at night and stole $1000 worth of receipts. Tillinger remembers that a collection was taken in the community and $950 raised to help cover the loss.
Wright notes that after a systematic search began, several hundred of the missing money was found in a nearby trashcan, all in checks useless to the thief. Thus the co-op came out ahead because of the tremendous support it had among area residents.
But problems existed. Perhaps the biggest difficulty that summer, other than the influx of a more degenerate breed of street people into the area, was a seemingly small struggle between the Board of Directors and the staff, which erupted dramatically and could serve as a paradigm for similar struggles experienced at many other co-ops. At issue was worker control versus Board control, as well as whether the co-op would follow the vision of the student cultural revolutionaries, or would try to moderate its stance somewhat in order to reach out to a broader group of people. Paul Nichols, another long time staffer at the co-op asserts, however, that often these ideological struggles, though real enough, were often carried to extremes in reaction to personality conflicts.
Whatever the reason, in April of 1969 at the Spring General Membership Meeting, Bill Winfield presented a handout in which he argued that because the neighborhood and the staff both were highly transient, more continuity was needed to build the co-op into a more reliable supplier of foods and services both for the present members as well as for the sake of continued development in the future. Winfield called for the creation of a set of bylaws, and the election of a Board of Directors who would be able to hire general manager and have power to supervise the co-op's finances. He had taken some initiative to recruit a potential Board which was approved at the April meeting and which included Dorothy Coniff (then Dorothy Feely), Ros Simon and Peter Wright.
But the staff, feeling as though they were doing most of the work and thus entitled to control the store's operations, did not want a hierarchy set up over them. Central to the struggle was the question of whose vision best represented the interests of the community. At that time, the staff supported keeping the co-op as a "street scene" kind of place. The unpredictable spontaneity and crazy excitement that was becoming Mifflin Co-op appealed to many of those involved in the counter-culture, flushed, after months of protest and riot, with a sense of freedom from the parental restraint of the materialistic, rationalistic society which surrounded them. For many of the staff, "staff control" must have seemed more important because the staff seemed to represent this view held by the majority of the neighborhood.
There was another viewpoint, however. Dorothy Coniff, looking at the co-op from the point of view that beyond ideology, the revolution should be able to treat everyone as an individual human being with their own point of view, felt that the co-op could make some changes. From paying attention to the neighborhood's quickly diminishing older population, many of whom tried to shop at the co-op, Dorothy become aware that the counter-culture’s looseness (people hanging out on the front steps, dogs in the store, crowded aisles, loud music) could alienate many as well as create serious philosophical problems.
Although some of the members and staffers such as Marco Polo really liked the older people, common courtesies were sometimes not extended to them as a result of the young feeling their power and exerting their needs to the extreme. Often, the people sitting on the front steps wouldn't move their legs, forcing the elderly to scramble over them or turn away. Why be uptight about it, right?
But Coniff asserts that the co-op's greatest potential lay in showing other people that this countercultural revolution, with its radicals and freaks, could be good, do positive things. Around that time, someone loaned the co-op $3,000 with which the co-op's first truck was purchased. This caused great excitement. The first co-op truck was a Ford C-600 according to Bruce Tillinger, with a 16 foot uninsulated box. Bill Winfield describes more simply a used, red dairy truck. With some volunteer mechanics, the vehicle was put into working order and according to Bobby Golden, it was used for infrequent runs to Chicago for produce and other things, trips to Gateway Foods in LaCrosse for general groceries, and regular drives to Madison's Bancroft Dairy to get milk.
There was magic in the idea of owning your own truck. It seemed to give independence, freeing the co-op from a heavy reliance on middlemen and thus avoiding what were considered to be middlemen's exorbitant markups. From now on Mifflin was going to get everything “direct” and only add on 4% to the co-op's normal markup to cover trucking expenses.
As Bruce Tillinger explains it, the truck gave Mifflin "the capability not just to be a corner grocery, but to be both a political and economic alternative to the present system. You cut out the middlemen, have mobility, can go find and get the cheapest and the best. You can't cut out the function of the middleman, however. This means that the co-op takes on more work."
New people were hired accordingly, and to replace outgoing workers. Among them were Frank Burnham, a woman named Connie, and her boyfriend, Jeremy Theler who did most of the long trucking runs.
Everything was not perfect with Mifflin's trucking ventures, however. The truck was rather old, and as Annie Hable recalls, "Someone was always getting a call to go pick someone up somewhere because the truck broke down." Still, owning a truck gave the co-op and its community an immense feeling of pride.
Mifflin's notoriety and good feelings also continued to boost sales that fall. Tillinger, who began volunteering in October, points out that the co-op was then the largest outlet in the state for several odd items including Alpo Dog Food, and sold more Coca-Cola than any other retail outlet in Madison. Frank Burnham, the co-ops "liquids man" looked for especially good deals along these lines. At one point he remembers ordering something like 6,000 cases of soda in order to get 200 cases free. On delivery day, a semi pulled up to the co-op filled to the brim with Dr. Pepper, Coke and other sodas. Burnham recalls spending the whole day in the basement with Doug Howell and two other people, hunched over so as to avoid the low rafters, rearranging the entire backstock so that everything would fit. When they finally emerged, they couldn't stand up straight anymore. But Burnham comments: "We had a great time. We'd work for a while, then take a break and sit around smoking dope and joking. Then work some more."
The mania for getting good deals struck a chord with Mifflin's politically conscious staffers, several of whom turned out to be fair business hustlers. Price breaks often came with large quantity orders and Mifflin wanted to hustle and offer deals in a way that would spark the community's imagination and enthusiasm. Though Mifflin didn't have storage space and volume enough to compete on everything with the large supermarket chains, the staff seemed determined to challenge them selectively with sheer exuberance and inventiveness, plus community support.
This strategy was not without its problems, however. Bruce Tillinger noticed that Bobby Golden did a lot of “dealing, once buying 10,000 pounds of kitty litter- he drove 'em (the staff) nuts" trying to figure out what to do with that.
A storage shed behind the store alleviated some of the problems and was a regular depository for Burnham's 144 case lot Coca-Cola purchases.
To deal with the tremendous turnover of goods, Bobby Golden devised the now legendary tactic of "lock-ins." When big deliveries arrived, he would lock all the doors so that members and customers couldn't leave until all the much-needed stocking was done. Golden remembers, "Nobody moaned or groaned. Nobody knew exactly what to do but everyone wanted to help.”
That fall also witnessed increasing direct political involvement on the part of the co-op. In the previous spring, Mifflin Co-op supported the Black Student Union and the Madison Fireman’s Union work stoppage, as well as other causes. This support group activity continued in the autumn of 1969, but the co-op also broke new ground with its part in the campaign to reverse 10-20% across the board cuts in state welfare payments, enacted that year by an ultra conservative state legislature.
On Friday, September 5, the Mifflin Street Community Co-op held a press conference which made headlines in the Capital Times Metro section, in which co-op spokespeople Doug Howell and John Leon announced that Mifflin, in response to the "barbaric" budget cuts would offer a 6% discount "to all AFDC, AFDUC and pension recipients."
In a prepared statement, the co-op urged all Madison groceries to join Mifflin's efforts, as the cuts would affect "1300 families in Dane County alone.” The co-op statement went on to suggest that our country, supposedly the "richest, most productive country on Earth" was coldly turning its back on the poor, disabled, helpless and unemployed. "In the case of the unemployed," the statement continued, "this is even less understandable since the aid cuts have now made it much more difficult, if not impossible, for such people to obtain the training which would permit them to gain employment and adequately support their families themselves."
According to The Capital Times, co-op employee Doug Howell called the cuts “disastrous, more like a policy of extermination than one of simple economy.”
The state campaign to restore the welfare cuts intensified to such an extent that Republican Governor Warren Knowles proposed a special session of the legislature to restore $33 million to the state's beleaguered coffers, although it was not clear how AFDC recipients were to fit that into the Governor’s plan.
Arch-conservatives, however, such as Harold Froehlich (Appleton), Paul Alfonsi (Minoqua) and Kenneth Merkel (Brookfield) refused to give an inch on the cuts. Prior to the opening of the special session, and timed to coincide with its opening, a Welfare Rights March from Milwaukee to Madison was organized and led by the brilliant civil rights leader, Father James Groppi, as well as Ralph Chase and migrant worker activist Jesus Salas.
Numbers buoyed by hundreds of students and frustrated with the intransigency of the conservative-led legislature, the marchers stormed the Assembly Chambers on Monday, September 29 at 1 pm and began an 11-hour occupation. The National Guard was called out and cordoned off the Capital. Finally, the Welfare Marchers left at about midnight, but protests and controversy continued. Eventually, Groppi, Salas, Chase and other protesters were arrested and Groppi was ordered by the legislature to be held over without trial on the legal basis of a never before used rule allowing the legislature to protect itself from attack. This touched off a lengthy civil liberties battle.
Typically, the Mifflin St. Community Co-op played a small but memorable part in the Welfare Rights occupation, a part recorded for posterity by a Capital Times photographer. Frank Burnham relates the incident in the following way:
Because I remember, we went, got food together and we got garbage cans and the police had blocked off all entrances, but some people had gotten up there and came out the windows and dropped a rope down and then we brought food up and put it in the garbage cans... we were continually doing that with all kinds of things... and that was almost totally our main concern with staff meetings: who are we gonna give this stuff to, what are we gonna do?
Multiplication and Religion
By the fall of 1969, the Mifflin Street Co-op's by-laws were rewritten by members of the staff in order to clarify both the nature of membership and the method of control of the co-op's operations, as well as to more fully formulate the purpose of the co-op's existence.
It was there in the new by-laws, Bobby Golden pointed out to me, and not in the original set drawn up by Theron O'Connor and Bill Winfield, that Mifflin's operating belief in community control was fully articulated on paper.
The Mifflin Street Community Cooperative exists to embody a belief in community self- determination, and to encourage struggles in our community and elsewhere which we understand to further these goals. We define community self-determination in opposition to the dominant trends in all communities by which control is increasingly concentrated outside the community and operated for profits which are not used for the betterment of that community. Our assets, as people and money, are committed to this struggle by any means necessary.
Initially the co-op was run entirely by volunteers and still enjoyed wide scale community support though the task of running day-to-day operations had been entrusted to the staff and board. With the struggle between staff and board and the disintegration of the Board of Directors towards the end of the summer, the staff and volunteers were left as the main body in power and the reworked by-laws announced the beginning of a new membership program, designed to both protect the staff's rights as workers, but also to give control to those who worked the hardest for the co-op, and, it follows had the clearest view of what was going on. Rather than a fee or capital investment, Mifflin asked for an investment of time and energy.
Any person may agree to become a member of the cooperative by agreeing to comply with the bylaws.. and by showing an interest in the welfare of the cooperative through active participation in the affairs of the cooperative and the community.
The members included the paid staff, which was to retain sole rights to hiring and firing. From the members, a "cooperative council,” consisting of 30 members was to be chosen; this number was to include all of the paid staff. This council was to be able to call meetings and decide on issues relevant to the co-op, its functions including "to criticize and evaluate the co- op.”
Whether the council ever became functional or not is unclear. What is clear from the rewritten bylaws is that their intent is both to ensure that the staff holds a compelling voice in all major decisions, as well as to broaden active participation among community members, though the community still vigorously supported the concept and operations of “their” co-op, the day to day working involvement by large numbers was not what was desired. As Bruce Tillinger remarks, "There was a fight not to see the staff as ‘they’—already in 1970, some of the excitement of ‘community project’ had worn off."
The tension between staff control and active membership was never totally resolved, and the co-op staff were at times defensive towards “outsiders’” criticism, at times pleading for community help as will be seen later. Whatever their day to day involvement, the Mifflin community long continued to support "their own" co-op and participate in large numbers in community meetings called in times of crisis or major policy shifts.
Still, the winter of 1969-1970 was an expansive time for the co-op. Staff, members and volunteers, as well as providing support for many causes, also began to export "the revolution" to other parts of Madison. Many groups were interested in setting up their own co-ops or getting their food through Mifflin, and invited representatives to their neighborhoods. Mifflin, judging by their price lists of the time, was willing to special order bulk or quantity for groups at 6% below shelf prices. Annie Hable seems to have put particular energy into these projects. She remembers going to Eagle Heights with Bill Winfield in the middle of winter to talk to student residents about starting their own co-op, and also went with Jeremy Theler out to the Truax field area to help people set up a buying club. Others went to Sherman Terrace and South Madison.
By the end of the winter, Mifflin was delivering food to as many as 10-15 buying clubs, including housing and eating co-ops on campus. The big red truck was being utilized to its uncertain capacity.
In an article in the State Journal that January which commemorated the co-op's first anniversary, staffer Frank Burnham is quoted as saying of Mifflin's encouragement of buying clubs, "we're trying to make people aware that it is possible to do these things in groups... And it gives an example—idealistically—to the large chain supermarkets who could sell at phenomenally low prices if there were no profit motive."
Environmental consciousness, then just beginning to expand, was also noted in the article in the store's refusal to sell non-returnable bottles because “members believe the items contribute to waste and pollution.”
A letter from Bill Winfield to the co-op community, dated January 11,1970, underscores the growing sense of network and increase of the fledging co-op movement.
About a year ago we started the Mifflin St. Co-op here in Madison. The response to it and the degree of togetherness it started in the community has really been exciting as well as giving us a sense of our own abilities to supply ourselves and build an economic base within the radical community. The Whole Earth Co-op was started this fall in an attempt to experiment with bringing together natural foods, environmental tools (Whole Earth Catalog) and ecology action into one raw material and tool co-op... All and all the experience with both co-ops has been rich and there are many things we would like to share with others who are doing the same thing.... there seem to be several ways that communication could be set up.
Whole Earth Community Learning Center, located in the 800 block of East Johnson, was set up in October 1969 as a result of Winfield's trip to California that summer when he visited the producers of the Whole Earth Catalog. Its emphasis on natural foods, as opposed to the regular grocery items that predominated at Mifflin for its first 1-1 1/2 years of existence, soon became, along with radical politics and community control, one of the dominant trends in the co-op movement.
At Mifflin, people had been aware of "health foods" and supported a small health foods section in the store. Annie Hable recalls asking people passing through, “mostly hippies from California" what they knew about health foods. At first its products were "exotic and esoteric" things, but the staff gradually learned more by asking, and suggestions from a bulletin board, according to Hable.
Marco Polo, an enthusiastic, high-energy staffer led the struggle to increase natural foods in the store and eliminate junk. Bobby Golden calls those the times when "Marco got religion.” He remembers being lobbied in an unusual manner, when natural food advocates made their pitch during a junket to the Wisconsin River.
A community meeting was held in April in People's Park. The issue discussed was whether to integrate the natural foods into the rest of the store and bring in more of them, and whether to get rid of cigarettes, candy and Coke. Annie Hable remembered thinking that the community wouldn't go for it- it was risky. According to Bruce Tillinger, the co-op sold $500 worth of cigarettes and $100 worth of candy each week. In addition, Frank Burnham used to purchase 144 case lots of Coca-Cola. The long meeting ended in favor of "purifying" the store, however, deciding to abolish cigarettes, soda and other bad stuff. Only ginger ale was kept for its known medicinal uses.
When the Coke distributors were informed of this decision on the part of their largest Madison retailer, they couldn't believe it, according to Bruce Tillinger. "They sent in a salesperson, we told them it wasn't healthy, and they couldn't understand it. Finally some hotshot young sales guy thought he had the answer. He offered to sell it ‘in bulk’ on tap if this was a health food angle. They just missed the point."
Bobby Golden noted that the majority decision was felt by some to be heavy handed, in that it seemed to tell the rest of the people that the majority didn't care what they wanted. He remarked that the store also sold many chickens, which was stopped as a result of the decision.
The bulk of the decision's implementation was not realized until well into the summer, for in May 1970 Richard Nixon ordered the invasion of Cambodia. Within days there were four dead students at Kent State in Ohio and many Wisconsin students took to the streets for a “two-week" extended vacation. It was at this time that the second large battle between police and protesters occurred in the streets of the Mifflin area and the co-op itself was subjected to a harrowing police assault.
The Empire Strikes Back
"How much further could it go? I mean, during the height of that demonstration there were phalanges... just hundreds of police in battle gear lined up on both sides of the street; helicopters coming over with lights down and then they marched down and tear gassed houses indiscriminately, one right after the other. Then they completely trashed the store...it had come to 'what do you do now’?" - Frank Burnham
Militancy within the university community continued to build during the spring of 1970. The TAA finally went on strike and won a contract and bargaining agreement. Then as May came closer President Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia. Frank Burnham, an activist and co-op staffer at the time, remembers it was just about May Day when people heard the news, "It was just so insulting that they were expanding the war instead of winding it down; it was just too fucking much."
Protestors took to the streets at over two hundred universities and colleges across the nation as well as in many cities. On Monday, May 4th, the wires exploded with more shocking news: four white students had been killed by National Guardsmen in the course of a protest at Ohio's Kent State University. Madison protestors responded with a string of firebombings at selected sites such as the home of the campus Air Force ROTC commandant, the Naval Training Center on East Washington Avenue, and the ROTC building at the corner of Babcock and Linden, which was hit by three separate bombings.
The Kroger Supermarket on University Avenue was firebombed on Monday night and burned to the ground. Offices on campus, and even the home of emeritus professor and former administrator E.B. Fred were bombed; some of the targets of the bombings seemed less appropriate than others, but the effect upon the university was to make faculty and staff stay after hours in an effort to protect campus classrooms, offices and buildings.
Pitched battles between police and students occurred nightly for the better part of a week. The police, both city and county, backed by some 1800 National Guard troops called in by Mayor Dyke and the University, utilized nightsticks, teargas and low flying helicopters with spotlights to control the angry mob of protestors. The students, in turn, erected barricades, hurled bricks and rocks and generally used the hit and run tactics developed during the previous years' Mifflin St. Block Party Riots.
Then, on Friday, the police and National Guard devised a strategy that they hoped would end the "disturbances." During the battles of the previous week, many of the protestors had looked upon the Mifflin-Bassett area as home turf. Passing police cars were met with a hail of rocks and residents frequently sought to block off the streets with barricades. As campus violence diminished on Friday May 8, the authorities decided to take the war to the Mifflin area.
At about 11:00 pm the National Guard sealed off a four-block area bounded by Bedford, Broom, Dayton and West Washington, ostensibly to prevent traffic from damage. Then the police moved in in great numbers from four directions, searching for groups of protestors who had earlier thrown rocks at police cars. They posted guards, "securing" each section of the neighborhood as they went. The streetlights had all been knocked out over the course of the week's fighting, but the helicopters overhead lit the night.
Frank Burnham, one of several people who stayed to "look out for the Co-op" recalls that "all of a sudden it got real quiet... very eerie. Then a helicopter came over and started shining this light down."
A tear gas canister hissed down the street and Burnham, Bruce Tillinger, Paul Nichols and Jeremy Theler, as well as two women who had been invited to take refuge with them, rushed up to the apartment above the co-op. They piled furniture and whatever else they could find on the stairs to prevent the police from reaching them. Over several riots, the police had gained a reputation for beating people up and since the co-op was the heart of the neighborhood, it was greatly feared that anyone the police found inside under such circumstances would get the full treatment.
The police marched straight down Mifflin Street, and according to a witness interviewed by the Capital Times' Dave Wagner, they "ripped off the wooden slats put up by the co-op workers to protect the windows and forced at least four CS irritant gas cartridges into the store with grenade launchers."
The police swept down the 500 block of Mifflin Street indiscriminately. The Capital Times reported that they were shooting tear gas into every floor of every house. The next morning, “grapefruit sized" holes could be found in both the first and second floor windows at 511, 515, 525, 527, 531, and 514 W. Mifflin. The house at 519 caught fire when a gas canister landed on an old couch. Interviews with neighborhood residents present at the time indicate, however, that the number of houses damaged was far greater than the Capitol Times reported.
The Daily Cardinal observed that on West Washington Avenue, the police also "moved up on the porches of houses and gassed through the doors and windows."
Meanwhile, in the apartment above the co-op, those who sought to “protect” the co-op soon found themselves trapped as every window was systematically shattered by incoming tear gas canisters. The suffocating cloud of gas which resulted in the relatively confined area forced Burnham, Tillinger, Nichols and the two women into a tiny room whose window had been protected by a nearby building, preventing the police from getting a good angle for a shot. As the gas got thicker and thicker they were confined to pressing their faces into a mattress in that room, using it as a filter.
The sixth person, Jeremy, a heavy smoker, seemed somehow unaffected by the gas and managed to set up a phone contact with people in the house kit-corner from the co-op on Bassett St. Through this contact those above the co-op learned that a group of about ten police were trying to break through the back door which led upstairs. Knowing that they were likely to be beaten, Burnham suggested the group call the fire department and report a fire, since the police and fireman's union were not on good terms as a result of the police department's opposition to the fireman's 1969 request for wage parity, and their subsequent work stoppage.
Whether because of the co-op's call or of one related to the actual fire at 519 W. Mifflin, the fire trucks came rushing up and sure enough, the police backed off.
When Bruce Tillinger emerged on the street after the hour long assault, he was struck by the surreal landscape into which Mifflin had been transformed; clouds of gas still clung to the area, the streets glittered with broken glass, and the darting, disorienting floodlights of the persistent helicopters made it difficult for him to find his balance or perspective.
On Saturday, the police maintained they had "no report of the attack on the Mifflin St. Co-op or the residences on the 500 block of that street," while co-op workers and neighborhood residents aired out their buildings with fans, and carried all of the co-op's goods, reeking of “pepper gas” outside in an attempt to salvage what could be saved before starting over again. Bruce Tillinger and Paul Nichols recalled finding at least 13 gas canisters within the store and the apartment above.
Speaking at a forum with Mayor Dyke that night, Dr. Roy Schenk, chairman of the Madison Area Peace Action Council, said of the previous night's Mifflin incident, "I ask, who protects against the violence by those who are supposed to protect us from violence?"
But Schenk’s question did not seem to find much of an echo in the media.
While the two dailies devoted voluminous space to the injured policemen, decrying the violence of the student demonstrations and firebombings, the State Journal only allocated two paragraphs in Saturday's paper to what the police had done in retaliation, mentioning that the Co-op's windows had been broken by the police, but that there was no word as to why. The Capital Times did manage to report the incident (credit should go to Dave Wagner), but it was relegated to the metro section rather than the front page, and the two paragraphs summarizing Dr. Schenk’s remarks the next night seemed to be the only follow-up. One of the papers editorialized about the great restraint shown by the police force during the previous week's fighting.
It was as if everyone wanted to look the other way, agreeing with the police dispatcher who replied when hearing a complaint from Dorothy Coniff, area resident and former Co-op board member, regarding the possible effects of the teargas on her baby, "Lady, you live in that neighborhood, you get what you deserve."
In an angry, defiant letter to the public published in Kaleidescope, Madison's underground newspaper during that period, members of the Co-op's staff, or perhaps supportive community residents, recounted the events of the police assault on the Co-op and the neighborhood on the night of May 8th- the end of a full week of rioting set of by U.S. invasion of Cambodia. In this "Statement of our Mifflin Co-op," the authors called on the residents of the area to show their collective spirit and rally the support and defense of the Co-op in the future. They wrote:
Has the Store Been Destroyed? The one thing those grinning, gloating pigs who drove by every thirty seconds watching us clean up cannot stand and will never understand is where all the people working there came from, and what it is that makes them do it. Our greatest weapon the collective spirit- the pigs can't grasp it, and only we can destroy it. The store is stronger than ever.
The author went on to analyze the politics of what happened, noting that the attack was to be expected given that the store was "a political institution and it is not private property." The contradiction between the word and the deed of the law is heightened and made clear to everyone: police are not against destroying property and business as is always claimed. In fact, they clearly plan to destroy property that is not private, and business that has any content beyond profit. The bombed-out Asian village, the shot up Panther headquarters, the gassed Mifflin Co-op all bear the same stamp "made in the USA."
As people from the neighborhood banded together to clean things up in the aftermath, everything moveable was taken out of the Co-op and the entire building and its contents were washed and cleaned, then put back. The process took at least two days and many food items were lost due to the persistent smell and taste of the CS irritant pepper gas. People's eyes and throats still burned when in the store for up to one week. The reason was simple: picking through the wreckage of the morning after, 6 gas canisters were found in the store and 7 more upstairs.
Despite the Co-op's printed statement and assurances that the Co-op was stronger than ever, the police assault on the Mifflin area hit the community hard. In the words of Bruce Tillinger:
After the riots when people here thought we controlled the streets for a day or two and then the police just came down and blanketed the place, it was a numbing experience... There was a certain reality that was growing that if you really wanted to put your actions where your mouth was that you were going to get the shit beat out of you at some time, at some space.
Bobby Golden claims that while the first Block Party riots helped the Co-op business-wise, the "Cambodia" riots and bombings had the opposite effect. "People were tired of being soldiers," he recalls. “The store suffered from its association with the war. A war for which people weren't really ready."
Sales began to drop from about $900-1000 a day to $200-300 a day.
Other problems compounded the situation. Several of the experienced staff left the Co-op at this time to go in various directions: Annie Hable across town to work with Bill Winfield at Whole Earth, Frank Burnham across country to live in Boston. New people such as Bruce Tillinger were hired but turnover and transition did not help the Co-op in the midst of the community's collective swoon.
Also, typical of student patterns, many of the community's residents split for the summer and a “hanging crowd” came. Vagrants, street people and other people trying to make the counterculture scene flooded the community. As Bobby Golden wrote, it sometimes "seemed as if the Co-op had stopped selling groceries to be an under-21 beer bar.” To make matters worse, Mifflin's “great red truck,” long wearing down, finally broke down for good.
With the truck broken down, and cut off by Gateway Foods of LaCrosse because of its association with the Cambodian riots, the Co-op's inventory began to dwindle.
Implementation, in part, of the “junk- food” purge as decided upon by the spring community meetings was unfortunately not timed so as to help the store's sales situation. With less stock and less business, the energy of the still considerable numbers who wanted to help run the store was often wasted. Beer parties were one result of the idleness.
Still, there was some activity on the political, community organizing front. On July 27th, the neighborhood held a street party in honor of the anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. The police did not contest this party. Timed to coincide with the party was the famous "Declaration of Miffland" which is, in some ways, a very moving document that ends with the words:
We thus declare ourselves from this day on to be free and independent of Pig Amerike and by doing so we become one more nation in the International Socialist Revolution.
Despite its apparent counterculture craziness, the Declaration was linked to a creative and pragmatic way to raise funds for the Co-op. A week earlier, Kaleidescope had carried the announcement that the Co-op was trying to buy its building. The “Declaration of Miffland" went hand in hand with fundraising, in the words of the notice in Kaleidescope:
We are asking for a $3 investment from everyone in the community. For $3 the investor will receive a ‘Miffland Deed’ complete with Miffland's Declaration of Independence and a souvenir photograph. Purchasers will be able to use these deeds at a future date to defray the cost of groceries at the Co-op. Miffland Deeds will go on sale at the Co-op on Sunday, July 26
At least $8000 was thought to be needed to cover a land contract down payment and repairs to the building. The Co-op also asked for no interest loans of $100 or more and any contributions that might be offered so that "the community makes sure that its store does not fall prey to the arbitrary whims of a private landlord."
About $1000 was raised through Mifflin deed sales and another $5000 was loaned to the Co- op by a community member. The landlady, Caroline Caruso, asked for more money than the Co-op was willing to pay, so the plans to purchase the building fell through. A series of community meetings then gave the staff the go ahead to buy a new truck. Bruce Tillinger was able to get an International Harvestor truck for $3400 (miraculously $800 below cost) and a box for $600 from Thorstad Chevrolet. It was hoped that these negotiations would put Mifflin back on the road.
While these were going on, the Army Mathematics Research Center in Sterling Hall was bombed, killing a physics researcher named Robert Fassnacht. For the Co-op, in the words of Bobby Golden, "that was the end of the back to school recovery."
FBI agents descended on the Mifflin neighborhood asking everyone questions and intimidating people with their very presence. They watched people from the street corners and parked cars.
Bruce Tillinger remarks that "with the Sterling Hall bombing, that was when the community began to really choke because the FBI came up and down the street; they were on everybody's case and they knew who lived where." Paul Nichols adds, "That was when people realized that the feds were getting serious about what was going on here and that they could interject themselves in here ... that the community was not impregnable."
Thus for the Mifflin area and its Co-op, the summer was punctured at both the beginning and the end by frightening demonstrations of power which the authorities could bring to bear on the community. Many, disillusioned with what they saw as the diminishing potential of the student scene, or simply done with school, or perhaps frightened, moved away from the incurable materialism and corruption of society. Some SDS types and other political activists went to the cities to organize with the unions and to branch out to the rest of the world.
Discontent with the Co-op as a vehicle for the revolution was also beginning to manifest itself within the community and staff. Also, there was frustration building because the new truck's arrival was delayed for week upon week.
Tension in the neighborhood was further increased in August by the presence of the armed and hostile C.C. Riders, the local motorcycle gang who, working for the notorious slumlord William Bandy, attempted to intimidate the Co-op and the community as a part of their efforts to evict a group, known as the Mifflin Collective, from four houses that Bandy had just purchased in the neighborhood. The story of the Mifflin Collective's rent strike against Bandy is another thread in the fabric of the Mifflin Community’s efforts to control their own resources and the conditions in which they lived.
The Bandy Houses
On the 17th of July 1970, Patrick Lucey, then running for governor on the Democratic ticket, sold 5 parcels of land that he owned in the Mifflin area to an ex-schoolteacher turned real-estate developer named William Bandy. The properties sold included People's Park and the four run down houses to the west of it, 432-442 W. Mifflin.
Soon after, Bandy, visiting the properties unannounced, verbally agreed, in a conversation with resident Jerry Weisarau, that he would rent the four houses as a unit, that he would not raise the rent above that of the previous year (which he claimed was "reasonable"), that the tenants could live there for free in August if they cleaned and repaired the buildings, and that the tenants would be given first option to buy the buildings if Bandy ever decided to sell them. Furthermore, Bandy told residents hanging out in People’s Park that he had no plans to "develop" the land.
The residents, many of whom were highly political people who had moved in looking to organize the houses as a statement of tenants' rights in opposition to the property speculation prevailing in the neighborhood, had organized themselves into a collective so as better negotiate with the new landlord as well as to care for their homes. They began to clean and repair the four buildings, and did some interior painting work. A preliminary agreement was negotiated with Bandy and the residents gave him $500 towards September rent.
Within a few days, however, everything changed. It was discovered that Bandy, before he had ever talked to residents of the houses, had commissioned a Chicago architectural firm to draw up plans for a high-rise development on the land. He had also signed over the first option to buy the property to Towne Realty, the largest Milwaukee realty firm at that time. Members of the tenant group, now calling itself the Mifflin Collective, also found out that Bandy was prepared to offer them a contract that almost double the rent from about $800 to $1500 for the four houses.
The Mifflin Collective responded with a statement in the late July issue of Kaleidescope, asking people to respect their lease by not signing any other lease to rent the four houses. The collective accused Bandy of showing "the same disregard for people that slumlords have shown in black neighborhoods" and they asserted that the plans of landlords are always incompatible with the needs of tenants. The statement went on to outline the Mifflin Collective's firm stance:
Because Bandy is a dishonest person who has every intention of ripping us off by exploiting as much as possible our need for housing, and because he shows no regard for the people who must live in buildings he owns, we have presented him with a non-negotiable lease. This lease merely asks for the same rip-off rent that we had been paying and that Bandy originally promised us. The terms of the lease are a step towards serving our needs and a step away from serving the needs of a slumlord. The terms of our lease are the terms by which we will live. The homes in our community are ours.
Actually, the collective offered Bandy three lease options ranging from paying the same rent they had paid before, to paying less with the condition that the tenants be responsible for maintenance and utility payment.
As of the 15th of August, the preliminary agreement expired and Bandy unceremoniously rejected the collective's proposals, demanding instead $1500/month plus utilities, while stressing that the tenants would have absolutely no control over the rent and the leases. The response of the collective was to call a rent strike in the four houses.
On September 1st, Bandy attempted to file a court action against the tenants, having already nailed eviction notices on the doors of the houses. Bandy's brief accused them of trespassing even though they had prepaid the $500 and were still willing to bargain.
Judge Sachtjen, while sympathetic to Bandy, could not issue a court order immediately, stating that it would take months to remove the tenants legally.
Bandy seized upon Sachtjen's apparent sympathy as a green light for employing extra-legal means. Having been met by a troublesome contingent of reporters (summoned by the well organized collective) when he tried to “inspect” the houses in hopes of obtaining the names of those living there for purposes of prosecution, Bandy, embarrassed, turned a truly seedy deal with the C.C. Riders Motorcycle Group, leasing the houses to them.
Bandy intended, clearly, that the riders should forcibly evict the defiant tenants. However, the riders, toting knives, pipes and chains, were met at the doors of the houses by residents holding shotguns and other weapons.
Over the next few weeks, violence and the threat of violence were a constant weight on the thoughts of many Mifflin Community members. While the Mifflin Collective barricaded the Bandy houses against forcible entry and stepped up a public information campaign, including press conferences, radio shows and literature distribution, the C.C. Riders turned their attention to the community at large, swearing they would make Miffland "a respectable community by December" and that they would control the use of People’s Park as well as destroy the Mifflin Collective.
The C.C. Riders repeatedly came into the Mifflin Street Co-op, once armed with “lead pipes and guns, screaming about the bombing (of the AMRC in early August), out of state niggers, and the need for law and order," according to Kaleidescope. In addition, the co-op received several bomb threats and freaks were often harassed by people driving through the neighborhood, squealing their tires and threatening folks.
Having failed to evict the Mifflin Collective from his houses by mid-September, Bandy decided upon another plan. Accompanied by several of the C.C. Riders on September 27th, Bandy managed to enter 442 W. Mifflin early in the morning and proceeded to drench the entire premises with roach poison, claiming to be simply fumigating the building. Two tenants had to be taken to the hospital, one spending the better part of a week in an oxygen tent. Tension further escalated three days later when the C.C. Riders drove up to the co-op armed with knives, pipes and chains and sent one community resident to the hospital with injuries.
That evening, Bandy stupidly decided to drive through the area. His van was spotted going down the street and within minutes several hundred people had surrounded his vehicle near the Mifflin and Bassett intersection. Suddenly, one enraged resident came running up and hurled a huge rock through the van's front window. Bandy, shaken, with blood on his face, stumbled out of the van and waving a pistol, made his way through the crowd and staggered away. People proceeded to warn the crowd to move back and after quickly rupturing the gas tank, the van was set on fire. The next day, the Madison D.A. filed charges against five residents of the Mifflin area, pointing to the existence of informers as well as graphically demonstrating that the city was much more worried about protecting Bandy and his property than the health of the poisoned and beaten area residents.
In the following weeks, Bandy and the C.C. Riders were noticeably absent from the neighborhood, but the nearly two months of a state of siege and escalating violence had taken their toll. Many of the original members of the Mifflin Collective were no longer living in the houses, having burned out on the threats, tension and constant vigilance necessary to defend themselves and the houses. The community held a meeting on October 21 in order to decide what to do with the houses. The vote favored keeping some of the houses for living while turning the others into community kitchens and a day care center.
People pledged to work towards these ends but it was at this time that the energy of the Mifflin Community was at its lowest, following a half a year of violence, tension and intimidation. The kitchen and day care were hardly used and vagrants began living in the houses because no one else was willing any longer. By November 3rd, no one remained and the houses had been extensively trashed with an axe. Food and bacon grease were smeared all over.
On the fourth of November, several small fires were started in 432 W. Mifflin, but they were quickly put out by the fire department. On the 5th, Bandy and several riders again entered the houses and sprayed them all with poison gas. No one was there and the doors and windows were boarded up and posted with "no trespassing" signs. Later, when the Ambassador West apartment was erected on those lots, the last physical examples of an important part of the history of the Mifflin St. Co-op and its community had been erased.
It's Always Darkest...
The siege undergone by the Mifflin neighborhood during the course of the struggle over the Bandy houses, when added to the police assault on the area in May and the intimidating FBI presence in the aftermath of the Sterling Hall bombing further contributed to the collapse of Mifflin's viability as an alternative community. People were tired of the violence and tension. As the neighborhood was “beaten” again and again by the authorities, many folks began to lose confidence in the idea of the Co-op and the neighborhood serving as vehicles for the revolution.
Student activists moved out, heading for bigger cities to do union organizing, to the country to create self-sufficient “back to the earth” enclaves, heading to different neighborhoods, careers, or merely looking for something new. In turn, new residents moved into the Mifflin area, people who had not lived through the hard work of making the Co-op run, of the frustration of dealing with the smell of tear gas for weeks. Those who could pass on the spirit of a community that had characterized the area and made it almost legendary were around in increasingly smaller numbers. The community was losing its cohesiveness.
At the Co-op the struggle to be seen as a community project and not just the responsibility of the staffers was greatly intensified. In September, the store was swamped with business, doing about $1,000 a day (think of inflation during the last 20 years and this figure seems more significant). “Lock-ins” were once again used as a tactic to get people to help stock, but this time people didn't want to do it. Bruce Tillinger recalls that a frustrated Bobby Golden once shut off the power main to see what people would do, but “it was just business as usual, people wanted to pay and go, but the register wouldn't open and nobody cared enough to find out what was wrong.”
An increasing number of bounced checks also indicated that community responsibility for the Co-op was not as strong as before. The point was underscored that September as $300 was stolen from the till.
The Co-op's new truck was finally delivered, but not before students had come back to find the shelves nearly empty and between the heavy volume and the large number of bad checks written by members, it was difficult for the Co-op to keep its shelves full. The bad check situation reached such a point that the Co-op began to write its own share of bad checks. Finally, the Co-op simply refused to cash any checks.
Jo Lynn Wall and Mortie Cohen thought that Mifflin should be closed and its space and assets turned to other uses. Another group, headed by Paul Nichols and Bruce Tillinger, felt that the Co-op could survive and was worth saving.
In an early October issue of Kaleidescope, Bobby Golden had written an article reiterating the Co-op's history, listing its recent problems, and proceeding to state that as more and more drunks seemed to be congregating on the Co-op's front steps, it was evident that its time as a productive, valuable asset to the community and the revolution had passed.
Golden wrote: “The myth of Miffland and its grocery no longer creates a situation that pulls people together.”
Golden went on to propose the creation of a different entity/project to serve the needs of the “revolutionary community,” a buying syndicate. The idea behind this was that by leaving the idea of Miffland behind, community organizers could reach out to a wider range of people such as workers and middle class folks and pull them into a cooperative, self-sufficient community type of framework.
In order to operate this buying club, people would get together into family of neighborhood buying groups and submit an order. All of the orders would be pooled, food purchased jointly and distributed. Excess money would be rebated later. Each buying group would contribute one person to do work such as tallying orders, dividing up food and assessing costs.
The hope was that a social arrangement would thereby be created that could “force” communications among divergent groups in the community. Golden's article went on to state:
I do not think the myth of Miffland can initiate these needs. I think it has caused these needs to be needed. I think we should survive; therefore the myth of Miffland should die. The grocery and the myth are one and the same. So we should shut the grocery down and use the building for some other purpose (like a hall or office space for a law commune or MTU--Madison Tenants' Union office.) I think the grocery should become a wholesaler to different buying clubs or conspiracies.
The article called for a meeting at the Madison Public Library on Thursday, October 22 at 7:30 pm to discuss these ideas. Soon, according to Bruce Tillinger, many people began to talk as though Mifflin's closing were a foregone conclusion. The tension between differing factions on the staff grew sharper. Tillinger and Nichols countered the pro-closing group by arguing that Mifflin still had potential.
Quickly, however, Common Market's membership became large enough to warrant renting its own warehouse, and they moved out of Mifflin even though Bobby Golden and Paul Nichols continued to truck together to get food for both co-ops.
Problems lingered for Mifflin. The cash flow crisis resulted in less food to sell which resulted in decreasing business. Some of the people who had wanted to keep the store open also felt that Bobby and other pro-Common Market staffers had held back on ordering things for Mifflin during October because they thought the Co-op would just close as a storefront as soon as Common Market was ready to begin operations. Whether there was a factual basis for believing that or not, Common Market's start up did indeed take away many former Mifflin shoppers. These things continued to hamper Mifflin's ability to function as a viable business.
By December 31,1970, after nearly two years of existence, the Co-op had fallen to a low ebb. Inventory was down from $10,000 to $1,500 and sales were down to $300 to $400 per day, $600 to $700 on weekends. It seemed as though the entire dream had come to a grinding halt. Like a cat, however, Mifflin has proven to have more than one life. The Co-op was on the eve of rebounding to its next incarnation. It is good, at this point, to remember that this recovery was made possible by the work of three "slaves"—Bruce Tillinger, Paul Nichols and Marilynn Piwonski—who remained alone, working without pay for 2 months, until the Co-op began to breathe again and attract new energy.
A Good Co-op Has Nine Lives
But it was real different than having a 'job', a job where you're chained to a desk or to a job with a lot of supervision. Part of it came down to that there were no bosses there really... that was the best part of it really. We all just pitched in and everybody decided on their own what orders they'd do; you'd get into the supply and demand of meats for a couple of months, then we'd switch around. Sounds ridiculous you know, but that's what we did. -
Kathy KaplanCathy Caplan (Jacobs)
By January of 1971, the Mifflin St Community Co-op had fallen to the lowest point in its colorful history. The staff split over the question of whether the Co-op should be closed and its assets given over to the newly conceived buying club, Common Market, had, to be sure, left some extremely deep wounds and a lingering distrust, especially between two of the Co-op's key figures, Bobby Golden and Bruce Tillinger.
Yet despite the bitterness of the feud, in which Bobby and others were accused of holding back on orders so as to keep assets free for Common Market's use in the event Mifflin closed, and in which Tillinger and Nichols were in turn accused of being paranoid and of trying to “take over” the Co-op, a steady, if at times uneasy relationship continued between Mifflin and Common Market. Since Mifflin's staff was severely depleted by the formation of Common Market, which at the time was not capital rich enough to buy its own truck, as well as for the reason that Bobby still wanted to help Mifflin out, Golden continued to truck for both co-ops, maintaining an “office” in Mifflin's basement and acting as a liaison of sorts between the two organizations.
In addition, the Co-op's business was slowly reviving as the new semester approached. As Bruce Tillinger tells the story, after the Mifflin-Common Market division occurred, only three people (Bruce, Paul Nichols and Marilyn Piwonski) remained to run the store on a day-to-day basis. For two months they did not pay themselves and the store became virtually their entire life as they put in nearly seven 14-hour days per week.
Since the Co-op's cash flow was quite low, their strategy was to buy more often, but as little as possible at any one time. Furthermore, in order to buy only those products which would sell the quickest to achieve a rapid “turn over” and increase the cash flow, the staff continually talked with member/customers to find out what people wanted the Co-op to do and to carry. They continually solicited suggestions and help so as to encourage more people to take part in running the Co-op, and as folks began to realize the staff was trying to do a good job, things started to improve. Three people were simply not enough to be running the Co-op. Under their buy-less more-often strategy, to supplement the food that came with the Common Market load, frequent trips (3 times a week) were made to Cash and Carry in Marilyn's car. If that was not enough, since they often bought only half cases of things, goods always had to be fronted in order to keep the shelves looking full. In short, there was a lot of “running” going on.
Finally, in late January Bruce Tillinger asked a frequent volunteer if he would take out the trash. The volunteer shrugged his shoulders and said “okay.” When he came back, Tillinger asked him if he wanted to do it on a regular basis, the volunteer said that he guessed he could. From that time on he became a staff member. This nonchalant volunteer's name was Michael Lillie, and soon after he joined the staff, Cathy Caplan (formerly Jacobs), with whom he had been living, followed suit and joined the staff in March.
According to Tillinger and Nichols, this was a real turning point. The efforts of the “three slaves” had begun to pay off as more people began to work for the Co-op as well as to shop there. The addition of this extra working help was every bit as important as any other single factor in regenerating the Co-op.
Michael and Cathy, in particular, put in a lot of time and contributed some new ideas such as bringing in more vitamins and “health foods” from regular jobbers and things that the “older” staffers had not been as interested in pursuing. Cathy Caplan recalls that these new items helped Mifflin by attracting new customers:
A lot of very middle-class people would come to the Co-op for vitamins because we were selling them at cost plus a 20% markup which was a hell of a lot less than the health food stores which would sell them at cost plus 100% or cost plus 300% markup in some cases.
In March Mifflin made a connection with the two-month-old Eagle Heights Co-op so the two could work for their mutual advantage. Eagle Heights Co-op, in its short period of operation in the Eagle Heights Community Center, had accumulated enough money to buy a $500 membership in Associated Grocers, a food wholesaler located in New Berlin Wisconsin. Since Associated Grocers selection was larger and its prices lower than Cash and Carry in Madison, Mifflin began buying from AG under the Eagle Heights membership using the Mifflin truck to pick up the joint order. Later, Common Market and Green Lantern went in on the deal.
By this time Mifflin's business was back up to about $1,000 per day. Even though the neighborhood support was on the rise, as witnessed by the many “political people” who hung out at the store, there were still some problems in the neighborhood. Some junkies who lived above the Co-op got into the store one night and tried to pry open the safe with a crowbar. Kathy Kaplan and Bruce Tillinger remember coming back from a staff meeting when Marilyn Piwonski noticed “these characters” in the store. Several ran inside to confront them, but they managed to get away, luckily without any money.
Kathy remembers that as a “part-time” worker in that spring of 1971 she was paid $15 a week plus $7 a week “food stash." She recalls putting in many 10-12 hour days, but adds, “Some days you'd go home real tired, but it didn't seem like you were working that hard because everybody pitched in and there were no bosses there.” Although the wages seemed ridiculously low, according to Kathy they were enough to live on in the Mifflin area. That $7 food stash each week went pretty far in those days at Mifflin's prices.
The spring of 1971 also saw the third year in a row in which rioting occurred in the Mifflin area. Earlier in the spring, the Youth International Party (YIPPIES) planned to have a convention/gathering in Madison. They applied for a permit to hold a Block Party in the 500 block of West Mifflin for Saturday, April 2nd. Mayor Dyke, who was running for re-election, seemed to be acting as if to show Madison that he could still be tough on the "student-radical troublemakers," denied the permit claiming that the street must be open for traffic, even though the city had granted such permits to several other Madison neighborhoods in the past year. Dyke's reaction appeared highly provocative, to say the least.
The Saturday came and went in a cold, snow-flurried manner with most of the YIPPIE conference goers spending the day in workshops. On Sunday the 3rd, the weather cleared, signaling the start of the party, and several thousand people gathered in anticipation. The police were present in full force trying to keep everyone out of the streets just as in 1969. Partying and dancing continued on the curb along with frequent shoving matches and passionate debates between police and partygoers. Towards evening it appeared that the party had run its course without a repeat of past violence.
Although many of the revelers and YIP members had long since left, several hundred people still remained. According to Kathy Kaplan, the police seemed to withdraw, and then suddenly the violence stepped up. Clashes between police and students grew more frequent as an armored police wagon rushed down the street nearly running down a group of people standing in the street.
In retaliation, students began building barricades. The police brought in their tear-gas fogging vehicles to clear the streets, and as Kathy Kaplan and Michael Lillie remember, things went from bad to worse as several people who had built a barricade on the street in front of their house at the Co-op end of Mifflin, sought refuge in their house from pursuing police.
Kaplan, Lillie and their friends, who had left the area earlier, returned to find things calming down. As they were eating supper, the police bombarded their house with tear-gas to flush out the people who had run inside. They were warned by the downstairs residents not to go outside because the police were running around the house breaking all the windows and they would surely be beaten up if they tried to leave the house. But, unable to find their gas masks and choking on the thick gas clouds, there seemed little choice. Lillie finally jumped through a window onto the back porch. Kaplan and a friend, after finding their dog with its nose shoved in a corner, crawled down the stairs and out.
Kathy recalls that the next day, as she worked the register at the Co-op, people would cough and sneeze as they came past. She finally realized that she had been exposed to so much tear gas that the residue remaining on all of her clothes no longer affected her. However, to the other folks who had not been present, it was still irritating enough to cause a reaction. For months in the Co-op, which had been gassed again, whenever anyone stirred up dust in the basement, memories of the tear gas experience returned thanks to a powdery residue that sat patiently in various corners.
Mifflin and the Beginning of ICC
In the summer of 1971, Mifflin, back on an upward cycle after the nearly disastrous winter of 1970-71, became involved in discussions focusing on the desirability of forming a trucking cooperative which could provide the rapidly expanding Madison co-op scene with greater access to Chicago and other supply and marketing terminals.
This idea was the result of conversations between Bobby Golden and Paul Nichols as they made joint runs to Chicago on behalf of Mifflin and Common Market. Golden began to organize to create such an entity that summer. Many meetings were held to try and hammer out an agreement between the various co-ops and alternative businesses such as Mifflin, Common Market, Whole Earth, Eagle Heights Co-op, Green Lantern Eating Co-op, Sunflower Kitchen and Quercus Alba Bakery.
The meetings quickly became tense and difficult, however. Mifflin, represented for the most part by Bruce Tillinger and Paul Nichols, became the main dissenter against the concept of ICC (Inter Community Co-op). Tillinger in particular became a spokesperson for "anti-centralization" sentiments, arguing that an ICC which existed as an organization separate from the other co-ops might eventually come to exert excessive control over the smaller co-ops who were dependent upon it for supplies. Further, Tillinger argued that such an organization would cut each member off from direct contact with its suppliers, a contact that he believed to be vital in controlling prices, assuring quality and understanding where the food came from.
Golden proposed the creation of "Intra-Community Collaborative Cooperative" in part in order to legalize the interstate transportation that the "Mifflin Community" (Mifflin and Common Market) had already been doing, using Mifflin's truck. It was technically illegal for Mifflin's privately registered truck to be shipping food for other distributors. If an association were formed consisting of various members, it would still be eligible for the private carriers license (which was considerably cheaper than a "common carrier's" license) and be able to distribute to its members as well. His idea was to do a good, efficient job for all concerned.
Various tensions made reaching an agreement an extremely torturous process. Some of Mifflin's representatives such as Paul Nichols, while favoring the idea, chafed under the meeting leadership of several Common Market people who tried to use a relatively strict set of meeting process rules. In turn, some of the CM folks found it difficult to stomach Nichols and others whom they considered to be anarchic pranksters and disruptive. At one point when Nichols suggested that Mifflin sell its truck and the group take the money and jointly lease another vehicle, he was promptly thrown out of the meeting.
At another point, Golden remembers that an angry Common Market member "punched out" Bruce Tillinger who seemed to some like the arch-obstructionist. Actually, Tillinger was trying to propose an alternative to creating a separate organization.
His idea was to have each co-op be in charge of gathering all the other's orders for a certain area such as produce, pasta, cheese, etc. These would then be collected by drivers who would be supplied by each group. It would be possible to set up such an effort as an association, but without the external framework.
Finally, by the fall of 1971, ICC was officially formed. Common Market had purchased a 1965 Ford truck, the infamous "Butterball,” and leased it to ICC for $1 per quarter. Mifflin agreed to truck with the ICC but retained control over its truck and reserved the right to pull out.
That winter and spring saw the ICC operating both trucks, neither one of which was up to the task. “Butterball” began to show the signs of wear and tear and broke down frequently. The Mifflin truck, actually a “delivery” truck was too small for the job and began to pile up a lot of mileage with "Butterball" being down so often.
The Mifflin staff was becoming increasingly unhappy with the arrangement. There was a feeling that the ICC often tried to get the cheapest food they could, but that frequently such produce wasn't good for a store situation where it had to sell on its display looks.
In addition, Mifflin staffers felt they were actually paying more by trucking with the ICC than if they had done the trucking themselves since they had to contribute a share to the driver salaries, as well as paying for repairs both to their own truck and "Butterball.”
All along, many people had regarded Mifflin and its representatives as renegades, anarchists and obstructionists. Its withdrawal from the trucking association left further feelings of bitterness. For Mifflin the issues of centralization and control over the food they got were crucial. At the time, according to Bobby Golden, "Mifflin did do a better job, the staff worked well together and were very competent. Their high energy had built the store back up... it was also best for ICC that they pull out- it diminished internal struggling." But the feelings of bitterness between Mifflin and ICC, based both in personal conflicts dating back to the meetings in 1971 and the Mifflin-Common Market split of fall 1970 as well as in the debate about centralization, continued to haunt the relationship between the two entities well into the eighties.
The Flame and the Moth
repressed desires involving freedom, spontaneity, community and the possibility of social transformation. However, we are also confronted with deeply rooted fears about loss of control, social marginalization, new enforced behaviors and a sense of the futility of all struggle.
The Mifflin Street Community Co-op that emerged from the neighborhood collapse of 1970, retained strong ties with its past traditions and mythologies. In part, this was due to the strong image that the co-op had flamboyantly helped to create for itself, as the hub of the Mifflin Community. But it was also due to the presence of remnants of that community, such as staff members Bruce Tillinger and Paul Nichols, who had been involved with the co-op since the autumn of 1969.
If anything, the regenerating co-op began to shift even more towards a “street scene” kind of co-op with a loose atmosphere that was regarded as an attempt to confront and break with the established, up tight and oppressive social norms which had, after all, led to Vietnam and other ills. The wild atmosphere of the Mifflin Co-op of 1971-74 added a whole new layer to the topsoil of history and mythologies laid down in the early years with their radical politics, riots and sense of alienation from the establishment.
The co-op of the early seventies, with its outrageous rebelliousness, seemed to both attract and terrify, to liberate and oppress people. Mifflin's bewildering collage of defiance towards accepted social norms was composed of hippies smoking dope at the register, hard-core political organizers, support for various causes, block parties, natural foods and junkies. Such a scene allows us to imagine the realization of
One of the elements of the co-op that some people found difficult to deal with was the presence of street people and other marginal members of society. As Bruce Tillinger notes, street people have long been associated with the counter culture. Travel and drugs, a wandering existence that, perhaps, became attractive in the wake of Jack Kerouc and the Beats, appealed to many creative people who couldn't quite fit into Middle America during the late sixties.
When the media focused attention on the freak communities and street existence, Tillinger suggests that more "lumpen and greaser" types began to adopt this lifestyle, seeing it as a kind of refuge. The common interest, drugs, while often viewed as an aid to “mind expansion" by freaks, was primarily an escape for many of this newer group of street and marginal people. Many of them had deep socio-psychological problems.
In an article in the November 14, 1971 issue of Takeover, Mark Knops attempted to understand one such socially marginal person, Bobby Joe Burbridge, who had only recently been arrested by the police for knifing a derelict and chronic alcoholic, Ruben Wilke, on the front steps of the co-op. In the article Knops wrote:
You can understand why they want to get rid of Bobby Joe. He puts them all uptight. He puts a lot of people uptight. Bobby Joe is a walking indictment and he didn't fit anywhere. Speedfreak, fucked up. An amazing personality. A misfit born/raised in a dreary hillbilly slum in Lousiville KY...
The old weary, weary familiar story. JD--juvenile delinquent--broken home. Busted. A kid in jail. Poor. Street savvy. In & out/IN & OUT. Bigger sentences. Picked up routinely. Half frame, half fact. Gonna be a three time loser. Life. GET OUT WHILE YOU CAN.
1955. Speed. DRUGS. Needles. Stills the ache inside. Bride says there IS worth & yet the nagging doubt within: WHITE TRASH.. You know it/can't escape it...dumb hillbilliboy/noschooling/jailbird/brokenhome/fuckoff/thief/WHITETRASH/WHITE TRASH/ WHITE TRASH TRASH TRASH TRASH TRASH
Speed kills ... the awful ache. The Doubt.
Only the Pride runs high. High. HIGH.
But the bars are still there.
GET OUT WHILE YOU CAN.
On a bus going North. Madison, Wisconsin. Good as anyplace else.
Skid row in Madison. Booze. Jail. Booze. Fightin' & Fussin.
It is difficult to determine if street people congregated in the Mifflin area because the co-op and the counter culture were also alienated from mainstream society and thus likely allies, or whether it was because the freaks and their institutions were easier marks in the struggle for survival. Perhaps it is useless to try to separate the two types from one another. At any rate, such a situation, present by some extent almost since the store's opening, began to create a dilemma for the co-op. As Paul Nichols relates:
Mifflin was becoming the catch basin for all the derelicts of middle class society. The whole counter culture was becoming a lot more perverse in the sense that there were a lot more hard-drug users, a lot more street people down around here.
With the street people, there were more rip-offs and fights than usual. But as an alternative institution that considered the police to be their enemy, Mifflin staff members had to develop different methods of dealing with these problems. Indeed, the co-op, as the institution of an alienated sub-culture, tried to maintain towards these marginal people, an attitude of sympathy and support. Still, there were problems.
Kathy Kaplan explained that if someone was caught trying to rip off the store, she would say: "Go rip off Kohl's. They're ripping you off and we aren’t. If you're so hard up you could at least ask us." Kaplan notes that Mifflin offered a way for poor, hungry people to get food: “A lot of people came in and worked--as long as you weren't eating the store dry you could eat while you worked. If you were cutting cheese you could eat cheese.”
Paul Nichols describes another tactic for dealing with those derelicts who were trying to shoplift:
A lot of middle aged, older people who had also fallen through the cracks of civilization and were living around this area--well, they just sort of gravitated towards the co-op because it was a warm place and they could steal food and we would always let them. Once in awhile we'd have to pinch them or shake them down just to let them know that we were hip to what was going on and that they should ask for it and not steal it cause if they asked, we'd give it to them ... there was this old guy getting two social security checks. He'd be coming in and stealing tuna. We finally got him to ask. But he drank all his money away.... It was too bad we couldn't help more people.
The attempt to understand and help marginal people, and to a certain extent, even to accept them as members of the community, required great amounts of energy above and beyond the co-op's original orientations: to serve as a community self-help project which could also become a focus for organizing the community around other issues.
And it should be pointed out that the presence of street people, while making some people understandingly uncomfortable, nevertheless did not prevent the co-op from logging record sales during the 1971-1975 period. Marginal people were not the dominant element at the co-op even during those years, but they were a persistent one that would eventually contribute to a major crisis in the summer of 1974.
The Best Food For the Cheapest Price
The mythology that continued to build around the Mifflin Street Community Co-op during the years 1971-4 focused on several key aspects of the co-op’s style of operations. Certainly for many of the younger shoppers and neighborhood supporters, it was a loose place: an easy place to shop and hang out at because it represented something so different from the institutions of the mainstream world which most of the co-op's supporters wanted to disassociate themselves from.
At Mifflin, one might well see dogs laying about or strolling down the aisle, workers smoking dope, and banners announcing support from the Vietnamese NLF. You could easily have seen women shoppers stop to breastfeed their babies, and political organizers talking to the co-op staff about what support they wanted from the store and the community. On hot summer days when no one wanted to run the register, the co-op was sometimes closed and a “gone swimming” sign hung out according to Kathy Kaplan. Another tactic for beating the heat of the Madison summers was to congregate in the walk-in cooler. Kaplan remembers that many joints were smoked in the walk-in on such occasions, and that as workers emerged from the cooler amidst a cloud of smoke, the heat of the store was like a slap in the face.
The dogs and cats that came to forever haunt the imaginations of many Mifflin shoppers were an integral part of the counter culture's emphasis on breaking down boundaries, being natural and not getting uptight. Already, in a piece in the Wisconsin State Journal commemorating the co-op's first anniversary (Jan 1970), notice had been taken of the fact that children and dogs were an established part of the Mifflin scene.
The canine factor took a definite leap upwards when Bruce Tillinger's dog, Alishka, had a litter of pups in the spring of 1971. These pups were quickly distributed amongst the co-op staff, and it just seemed natural that the dogs should follow their owners to work. This lead to occasional customer confusion when new dogs would happen in with turf fights ensuing in the aisles. Some folks still feel that the fact that dogs were given the run of the store was a good indication of the co-op's joyous disregard for sanitary standards.
However, many people saw the co-op's willingness to let people bring their pets inside the store as a sign that the co-op was not excessively uptight about cleanliness. People felt it lightened things up to have dogs hanging out and "guarding the store." Kathy Kaplan explains: "even if the store wasn't immaculate all the time, we kept it so that it wasn't filthy. Granted, there were dogs running around there, but it was clean."
Another co-op denizen was Hannibal, the cat who wandered into Mifflin and took up residence as the co-op mouser. In return for his services, which chiefly involved patrolling the basement where many an unfortunate rodent has tried to pass customs over the years, Hannibal was given all the food he wanted. Some people have commented that they are not sure whether cats or mice were likely to cause more problems for the store. It is clear that health inspectors were not very enamored of either choice.
In relation to these animal problems, Paul Nichols tells a story that is illustrative of the co-op's relationship with the local government. A certain health inspector once came into the co-op and, among other things, discovered through the use of a special black light, that several flour bags had traces of pee on them. It could easily have been the work of a mouse, but the inspector was certain it was dog pee. He insisted that he supervise personally while Nichols disposed of the flour. To Nichols, it seemed an incredible waste to throw all that flour away when the pee was on the outside of those fairly thick bags, and only in a few spots.
While other staffers kept the inspector busy with questions, Nichols took the flour out back and dumped each bag into clean garbage bags which he had put in the trash can, with the intention of keeping it clean for later retrieval. The inspector never quite saw what was going on. Meanwhile, his black-light was nowhere to be found. In a rage, he left the store only to find that his car was dented up and bruised in various places. A good-sized crowd was gathering nearby. About to storm back into the co-op, he found his black light smashed and sitting on the steps of the co-op. Furious but intimidated, the inspector got in his car and roared away, almost causing an accident at the Mifflin-Bassett intersection.
However, the co-op did not come out of the incident unscathed. In his haste to pour the flour into the clean garbage bags before the inspector realized what was happening, Nichols mixed the contents of several bags and the co-op had to sell some unusual flour mixtures in the following weeks.
The co-op was able to sell food dirt-cheap. This was the result of several factors, one of which was that the co-op only marked their food up at a straight 20% rate (16% for the store and 4% for the truck). This might make standard canned goods such as chicken soup a few cents more expensive than a mainstream store, but other items normally marked up as luxury items were often much cheaper at Mifflin. In a food survey undertaken by Takeover in August of 1973, the price comparisons showed that Mifflin was able to match larger chain stores on the average, frequently having lower prices on dairy products, eggs and some produce. This was an amazing feat when one considers the disparate volumes of Mifflin and the chain supermarkets.
Another important factor in Mifflin's ability to provide cheap food was its truck. With the truck, Mifflin was able to cut out the middleman's share by going direct. However, since the work of the middleman couldn't be eliminated, the co-op staff had to take up the slack. Still the arrangement often worked out for everyone including many small, local suppliers. For example, according to Kathy Kaplan, the co-op, which had been going to Milwaukee regularly to make pickups at the Associated Grocers, made connections with egg and cheese producers along the way toward the end of 1971. Kaplan notes that most middlemen would only pay producers 7-8c per dozen for their eggs. Mifflin usually paid $.35/dozen for their eggs, so they decided to split the difference with producers. Under this scheme, the local farmers got $0.20 per dozen, while Mifflin customers got their eggs cheaper than before--only $0.25 per dozen after the markup.
The Mifflin staff was determined to get everything direct, and in addition to the Milwaukee and local truck runs, weekly runs to Chicago were made. These were often grueling trips. Drivers would have to try to get to sleep at six or seven in the evening to get up at around 11 in order to arrive at the Water Street Produce Market early in the morning. They would get out of the Market at around 8 or 9 AM, then go to Best Foods to pick up Kosher Meats, Japan Foods for rice, then back to Randolf Street to pick up pasta from Ursini and Graziano's, then North to California Avenue, then out to Health Food Jobbers in Des Plaines. Usually, the truck didn't get back to the co-op until well into the evening.
These trips were important for a number of reasons. Bruce Tillinger feels that Mifflin was doing the best job in town when it came to produce, a fact that brought people from all over town to the co-op in increasing numbers, despite the co-op's infamous reputation. He recalls that some sellers at the market wouldn't deal with Mifflin buyers because the buyers always wanted to taste-test things, to make sure they got the best. Kathy Kaplan, however, has a different story to tell. According to her, it blew the minds of some of the men working at the market to see her or the ICC's Liz Vlwles pull up in the trucks and lift and load crates of produce. They'd roll out the red carpet for us and say, “here, try this, try that.”
Mifflin also trucked to Minneapolis to get oats direct from the mills. At the same time, Mifflin would often haul cheese, vitamins and other things up to the Twin Cities area. Because other business was snowballing and because they could get better deals, the co-op’s purchasers often bought 10,000 pounds of oats, 600-1000 pounds of rice every other week, and sometimes contracted to buy entire truckloads of railroad salvage soup.
This necessitated renting a nearby storage facility. In the early 70's, other than Whole Earth, and Eagle Heights Co-op, there were few places where a person could find whole grain and natural foods. To save time and energy in the face of the nearly overwhelming crush of business, the staff began to stock more items in bulk dusting these years. Garbage cans were purchased and set up on pallets running down the middle of the store so that people could serve themselves from out of these "bulk bins."
Bruce Tillinger claims that during the early 70's, Mifflin was on the “cutting edge” in terms of bringing new products to Madison. Students living in the neighborhood came from all points of the compass and often provided information about different and better products available in other areas. Tillinger explains that Mifflin played a key role in speeding up Dannon Yogurt's timetable for moving into Wisconsin. In 1974, Tillinger went to their Chicago warehouse and picked up a $300 order. When he came back for another $300 worth the next week, the Dannon people couldn't believe it. Thereafter, it became evident that there was already a market for their product in Wisconsin.
Unfortunately, our author moved out of town at this point in the series. The rest of Mifflin's story remains at this point untold. Hopefully, at some time in the future the rest of the tale will be researched and written.