Saturday, September 5, 2015

Artisans' Co-Operative Community

The Great Depression hit Bayocean as hard as anywhere else. The town had just emerged from a bankruptcy war with the Potters, and a road finally built to it, when tourism was killed by the stock market and banking collapse. It must have lifted the spirits of locals, especially the Mitchells, when sixteen men and women of the Artisans' Co-operative Community drove up in a couple rickety vehicles on February 16, 1934. They only had $20 and some lofty ideals in their pockets, but they were offered free use of the Bayside Inn in exchange for much-needed repairs (October 6, 1935, Oregonian). 

Within several months, the Artisans had grown to a community of forty-nine men, women, and children. Members fished, dug clams, and caught crabs; then canned the meat and sold it up and down the Willamette Valley, mostly at farmers' markets. They were purchasing the Bayside Inn and had a net worth of $5000. 
Scan of Artisan script in the possession of Joyce Loftis, daughter of Alvin and Blanche Sweger

Artisans were mostly Salem residents who had first tried communal living at Black Rock, which had been located just above Falls City. Bert and Louise Smith led disgruntled members away and found their way to Bayocean by luck. Louise worked out a deal with Marion County to trade the Artisans' canned seafood for fresh fruit and other commodities. She emphasized the Artisans weren't communists; they were people who had lost their jobs and wanted to pool their skills to support themselves (Oregon Statesman, May 26, 1934). 

In April 1935, with the help of Senator Steiwer, the Artisans received a Federal Emergency Relief Administration grant of $3900. That may seem small, but in today's dollars, it's $68,000. They used the money to buy more fishing boats and gear, and a printing press, which they used to print their own currency and stationary at 1231 Edgewater Street in Salem. Glenn Hammaker ran it (Oregon Statesman, May 16, 1935). 

When the Artisans were inspected by Albert Wieland of the Self-Help Cooperative Division of FERA, he told the Tillamook Headlight Herald (Aug 8, 1935) that "everything was very satisfactory and stated that it is now the only cooperative of the kind in the United States which is not on relief." In a report filed by the administrator of the program in 1936, there were 214 cooperatives listed. 

After interviewing Francis Mitchell for his May 18, 1949,  article "Coney Island For Clams," Charles Oluf Olsen reported that "In the depression, an artisan colony breathed a spark of life into Bayocean surroundings. That project was 'killed' by more prosperous times." In a letter to the Tillamook County Pioneer Museum dated October 21, 1970, Charles Carson fondly recalls operating a crab market on Bayocean's dock from 1912 through 1915. He was sorry to see that the place was already "dead" when he returned for a visit in 1924, adding that it was "only to be rejuvenated for a short time by the WPA fiasco during the depression." 
Photo and names provided by Joyce Loftis
I found out what Mitchell and Carson meant from Joyce Loftis, whose parents met at the community in October of 1934. Alvin (Al) Sweger was already there, having grown weary of riding the rails with his friend Glenn Hammaker to find work. Blanche Parrish came from dust-ravaged South Dakota in a truck with her brother Derewood, his wife Angy, and their parents Harry and Ethel. 

Blanche wrote in her diary that she loved Bayocean, having her own room in the Bayside Hotel, and dancing and playing games at night in the living room with the many people who had been drawn by word of the Artisans' success. But some of them didn't want to work as hard as others, which caused resentment and bickering. The men had to work based on tide tables, and that meant getting up at odd hours. They would be woken by children playing, and in turn, would wake up others as they prepared to go out. Not enough sleep exacerbated the conflicts. Harry and Ethel only put up with it for a few months. Al and Blanche held out until October 1935. By then they were in love and Al found a good job in Portland. Blanche stayed with her parents in Forest Grove until they were married on December 1, 1935. Derewood, Angy, and six-month-old Elvin left with a few remaining members in July 1936. 

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