Economic Democracy on the Plains
Almost four years ago an idea was born at the South Dakota Farmers Union Foundation office in Huron. The Cooperative Legacy Project was begun as an effort to document the story of South Dakota’s farmer/rancher and other member-owned cooperative businesses, not through a recitation of names, dates and financial reports, but through the personal stories of some of the people who devoted their time and effort to that cause.
Longtime Farmers Union Communications Director and Union Farmer Editor Chuck Groth set to work conducting extensive oral history interviews with cooperative activists-former directors, managers, farm organization leaders and grassroots volunteers. Over the next three years those interviews, conducted in living rooms from Belle Fourche to Beresford and Custer to Wilmot, have added up to more than 120 hours documenting the life stories of more than 80 South Dakotans.
And what stories they are. Cooperative pioneers recounted memories of life on the farm and ranch during an earlier and simpler time. They shared good times and bad from country school days to blinding dust storms of the 1930′s and World War II from the home front to the front lines. Most of all they revealed their passion and commitment for the cooperative way of doing business. Going from farm to farm to gather support for new rural electric and farm supply cooperatives or contending with the eventual problems faced by growing patron-owned businesses, participants in the Cooperative Legacy Project were candid and open in creating a treasure trove of South Dakota oral history.
While a few interviews remain, the Project now shifts to locating the finances necessary to complete written transcripts of all of the interviews and then utilizing the most modern technology-including the Internet-to make this important chunk of South Dakota history available to schools and to all of the citizens of the state. It’s the heart of cooperation. It’s a story worth telling and a story worth listening to.