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Wednesday, May 6, 2009 01:03 am

Golden living dreams of vision

Memories of the King Harvest Food Co-op 

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Springfield didn’t exactly seem like a happenin’ place to be in the 1970s, at least to me. I’d moved away, first to the University of Illinois in Champaign, then to Chicago with my husband, Peter. We came home during the summers to work on the family farm; but those physically exhausting, often 18-hour days and then the arrival of our first child left us little time or energy for socializing.

Over the years since we moved back home, though, we’ve gotten to know a group who were here in the 70s. Some were locals; others drawn here by the fledgling Sangamon State University. SSU didn’t much look like a college campus back then. The temporary buildings were a far cry from ivy-covered halls, but its very newness made it exciting — an institution of higher learning unfettered by musty traditions and antiquated notions of learning and living. Listening to my friends reminisce, I’m always aware and a little envious of the special bond they share — an esprit de corps that only comes from shared adventures and experiences.

It was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. College students and even some faculty believed the world was entering a new era of social justice, equality, peace and love. Many didn’t just believe it, they were committed to working for it. Though some of their idealism has faded or been lost in changing times and the realities of everyday life, that shared sense of purpose forged bonds that remain strong even today.

One of the ways they worked to usher in a new era was to form co-ops, owned and operated by members in order to avoid big business, big agriculture, greed, profit motives, and to provide a sense of community and shared responsibility.

At one point there were at least five co-ops in Springfield: the Spoon River Book Co-op (which was first), the Cookie Monster Day Care Co-op (staffed by parents who signed on for half-day shifts), the Black Thumb Printing Co-op (in the days before home printers), a housing co-op and King Harvest Food Co-op. There was even a Springfield Community News Co-op that coordinated various co-op activities, and published a master membership list.

The King Harvest Food Co-op got its start about 1971, according to one of its original founders, Harv Koplo. SSU student Larry Sombke had bought “a bunch” of Amish cheese in Arthur, Ill., then brought it to a class taught by professor Bob Sipe. The cheese sold quickly, and Sombke began making weekly cheese-buying trips. Before long, the “buying club” had been given its name, King Harvest, and was also offering grains. King Harvest moved from place to place — mostly in garages or church basements, but all on Springfield’s east side. The east side was close to campus, and the group felt that the co-op not only had a mandate to make good, low-cost food available but also to make it available in an area with few resources.

When a Decatur co-op closed in 1975, Koplo persuaded five people to each contribute $100 to buy its stock, and, for the first time, King Harvest regularly had shelves stacked with goods.

Until then King Harvest’s temporary locations had been free, but now it had grown large enough to need and be able to afford a permanent home. Staying true to its eastside commitment, King Harvest moved to a storefront at 12th and South Grand. It even hired a manager, Stu Kainste — for a whopping $50 a month.

King Harvest flourished in its new location and, with Kainste at the helm, grew to a membership that at its peak had about 500 families. Members paid dues ($12/month) and helped run the store, but anyone could shop there by paying a bit more. Now there were not just cheese and grains on the shelves, but produce, herbs and other foodstuffs, including milk from a local farmer.

“I really thought King Harvest co-op was going to save the world,” says Kainste. “I had plans to eventually put in a canning operation, using locally grown vegetables, and maybe a bakery. People were really into the co-op spirit. We’d get 125-150 people at the meetings.” King Harvest obtained CETA (Comprehensive Employment Training Act) grants to train people to run the store. “Sure, I had to spend 2-3 hours training someone to get an hour’s worth of work,” says Kainste “but it was worthwhile to help people.”

SSU students started King Harvest Co-op, but its member roster also included mentors such as SSU professor Dick Johnston and his wife Mary, who Koplo calls a “perfect Earth Mother.” There were neighborhood characters such as Mansion Howard, who died recently at age 92 and who Kainste calls “one of my heroes.” “He was a total braggart,” Kainste says. “but he could always back it up — anything from gardening to barbecue sauce.”

In the mid-80s, King Harvest began to decline. The building at 12th and Grand was falling apart. The CETA grants ended. Unsurprisingly, Kainste reached a point where he needed more income. Members disagreed about the co-op’s direction. King Harvest changed locations, straggled on for a number of years, and eventually slowly faded away.

But its spirit lives on, says Koplo, at Food Fantasies. That’s because Kainste has been managing it for years.

“Stu is still committed to selling good food as cheap as possible,” says Koplo. “He wants to democratize food and involve local producers and regular people to drive the local economy.” Kainste’s favorite statistic is that in the 1950s, 80 percent of the food eaten in Sangamon County was produced here. He’d like to see us get back to that.

Let the Sunshine In!

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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