WALLACE STEGNER: IN PRAISE OF COOPERATIVES
In early 1947, the Bismarck Veterans Homeowners Cooperative Association’s management committee developed a mimeographed newsletter for mailing to co-op members and in one of its first issues included excerpts from an article written by the noted author Wallace Stegner in the April 1947 issue of the magazine “47,” noted by some as “The Magazine of the Year.” In it, Stegner wrote of a cooperative housing effort under way in California with remarkable similarity to what members of the Bismarck co-op were undertaking.
The newsletter said: “These excerpts are being reproduced here because of the amazing parallel between what is being planned and accomplished in a notable California group housing project, and what has been accomplished and is being planned for Highland Acres by the Bismarck Veterans Homeowners Cooperative Association.”
Here are Stegner’s words:
“Last year, the ARCHITECTURAL FORUM, commenting on a community of seven cooperatively built homes in a Chicago suburb, admitted somewhat wryly that ‘whatever social theory inspired the development, the results go a long way toward justifying such an approach.’ It is the only way most middle-income can build at all. If one is a veteran he may have a chance at an overpriced cheesebox about whose design he can say virtually nothing. If one is very wealthy or has close friends among the building community he may be able to appropriate the house he wants. But the average man in need of a new home is helpless against the enormous inertia of an outworn building procedure, against the strangle-hold of the realtors, against the red tape and delays of an inadequate government program, against high labor costs and the plain shortage of materials.
“Leagued with a sufficient number of his fellows, he can overcome those obstacles. He can build just about the kind of house he wants, and build it at anything from 10 to 30 per cent less than it would cost if he built it alone.
“There is no way of knowing exactly how many associations for cooperative or mutual home building have grown up in the past two years. No issue of an architectural magazine seems complete today without plans or pictures of a new group. An architect as eminent as Richard Neutra publicly espouses co-operation as the best possible expedient in our housing emergency. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, Department of Labor, finds it necessary to publish a pamphlet on the organization and management of co-operative housing associations.
“One of the largest groups of its kind, and certainly one of the most thoroughgoing in its planning, is the Peninsula Housing Association of Palo Alto, California. Its present membership is between 200 and 300 families. At its maximum it will have 400. When it completes the project on which it is well started, it will have created not merely 400 modern homes of sound and beautiful design, but an entire new community. This community is new from the grassroots up, and it is one which should demonstrate more thoroughly than they have ever been demonstrated in this country, the advantages of co-operative planning and building.”
Stegner went on to tell the story of the success of the co-op. It wanted to purchase about 250 acres, a large tract like that of Highland Acres in Bismarck, of rolling land overlooking the south end of San Francisco Bay. Starting with five members, the co-op grew to 150 members, each of whom paid $200, with all but $50 of it returnable on withdrawal. Then the co-op sold shares that were exchanged for title to a building lot — exactly the same process being used in Bismarck. In July 1946, almost exactly on a time parallel to what was happening with Highland Acres, the co-op acquired the land and gave members the chance to pick a lot on a first-in, first-pick basis.
They chose the name Ladera — from the Spanish word for Hlillside, another parallel with Highland Acres. And then, Stegner wrote:
“Ladera will in no sense be a housing project or a row-house development. Varieties of terrain, slope, view, and family need will result in varieties of houses. The basic floor plans can be subjected to almost endless variations, and for a little extra cost any owner may have an entirely personal set of plans.”
“A site plan of the whole plot will utilize curving or circular traffic arteries, dead-end lanes, patches of park, whatever the topography seems to demand. Building lots can be partitioned into varying sizes and shapes. Between 50 and 100 acres will be withheld as commons and park lands. Because of these, almost every lot in the tract can be placed adjacent to a park. Privacy can thus be made possible in remarkably small space; since planting is considered as part of the building operation, this can be achieved within the space of an average city lot.”
Plans also included a shopping center, as did those for Highland Acres, with service businesses organized as cooperatives, and buildings designed as part of the integrated community, erected on land owned in common by all the members of the co-op.
Stegner also wrote of the financial advantages of the plans, including savings in buying a large tract of land instead of individual lots from a developer, cheaper financing because of the volume of loans (“the association can beat down both buried costs and interest rates”) and a savings of up to 20 percent in construction costs, including equipment such as washing machines, kitchen and bathroom fixtures, cabinets and dishwashers.
“These savings are substantial enough to make the difference between building and not building for most of the families in the Ladera project,” Stegner wrote. “The people planning this project are as representative a cross section of the population as one could find in a long hunt. Few are wealthy. Some are limited to what they can do with a white-collar salary. But they will get their houses — not jerry-built boxes, but the kind of houses they have dreamed of. They will get their houses through their own ability to plan and work together.”
Stegner concluded his essay like this:
“The survey chains that are stretched out across the Ladera site are now measuring more than the lots of future homeowners on the Stanford Hills. They are measuring the ability of the American public to throw off a system that has proved utterly incompetent and even antisocial. They have put in its place some of the spirit that used to animate barn raisings when democracy was younger and simpler.”
He might just as easily have been writing about Highland Acres in Bismarck.
The association could have found no better sales pitch than Stegner’s article. On Jan. 9, 1947, the Bismarck Veterans Homeowners Cooperative Association filed its plat for Highland Acres Addition to the city of Bismarck with the Burleigh County Register of Deeds and the Bismarck City Engineer. The plat was for 127.5 acres of land, and the Bismarck Tribune of that day noted the following “interesting features:”
- ONE — Streets located on the contour. These make the land more useful for residential building purposes and at the same time reduce the cost of street improvement.
- TWO — Large blocks. These allow for more land to be used for residence purposes, less for streets.
- THREE — Cul de sacs, of which there are five. These are carefully designed dead-end streets on which traffic will be light and which therefore will be desirable for families with small children and persons who like quiet.
- FOUR — Fourteen children’s playgrounds, all located within the interior of the blocks, so the small patrons will be protected from traffic hazards.
- FIVE — Large lots. The average size is 70-by-150, allowing 10,500 square feet per house. They are one-third larger than the standard 50-by-150 lot now common in Bismarck.
- SIX — Sidewalks in the interior of the blocks instead of along the streets. These are in line with the most advanced practice in high-class subdivisions elsewhere. Because fewer sidewalks are necessary, they also reduce costs.
The plat also included a school and playground in the center of the addition and a shopping center at the addition’s entrance in the southeast corner.
In the end, four cul de sacs were constructed, and a school and two churches were built in the addition. Three more cul de sacs were added in later additions on the development’s east side, as were several long streets with large lots and no streetside sidewalks. The dream of the interior sidewalks and small parks was abandoned for cost purposes, but a large green space surrounding Jackman Coulee as it winds through the addition still serves as a place for hidden forts and makeshift bridges across the creek in summer and sledding hills in winter, for children of the neighborhood.
Hopes were high for a year of building as 1947 began. But the project was bigger than anyone had imagined. Major hurdles to be cleared were the grading of streets, installation of water lines and obtaining building materials. By early February, 90 of the original shareholders had agreed to purchase a lot and paid an additional $200 as “earnest money.”
That income, plus a $50,000 loan from the North Dakota Central Credit Union of Jamestown, a subsidiary of the North Dakota Farmers Union, allowed the association to make the remaining payment on the land. Now planning for actual construction could begin.
But it was critical to arrange financing for the individual homeowners. The business plan called for the association to contract for the construction of the homes in the addition and then sell them to the individual lot owners. Lot owners would need financing to pay for their homes.
After some lengthy negotiations, which stretched all the way into October 1947, the Guarantee Mutual Life Insurance Co. of Omaha agreed to finance the homes for 4 percent interest.
Meanwhile, anticipating the beginning of construction, 50 stockholders had paid for their lots and participated in a lottery to see who would choose their lot first. The association hired a full-time construction engineer who took an option on 20 to 50 homes to be built by Farwest Construction of Tacoma, Wash., which built partially prefabricated homes.
By the end of October 1947, more than 20 stockholders had arranged for financing and signed construction contracts. Importantly, the association had entered into a contract with the city to install water lines into the addition and to the lots selected for the first homes. Sewer lines had not been contracted for, however, so each home would have to install its own septic system for sewage disposal.
But first streets had to be graded. Summer dragged into fall and by November, there still were no streets, although they had been staked in preparation for grading.
With city permission, the association contracted with its own street-building firm, a Fargo company that agreed to do the work and postpone payment until the following April. Incurring that debt was the beginning of the group’s long-term financial problems.
Street work and water line installation began in November and continued well into the winter. But in December, Guarantee Mutual, which had anticipated construction of the actual homes to begin in the fall, withdrew its financing offer.
Facing road-building and water line installation bills, the association went back to its friends at the Credit Union and borrowed an additional $15,000. But with Guarantee Mutual gone, that didn’t solve the problem of mortgage credit for the homeowners.
Earlier, the Central Credit Union had told the Bismarck Association it wanted to be partners — co-ops wanted to help fellow co-ops. Luckily for the Bismarck co-op and its members, there was another institution that existed to help the people of North Dakota — the Bank of North Dakota, the nation’s only state-owned bank.
The Bank of North Dakota dated to a time 30 years earlier, when the socialist-oriented Nonpartisan League captured control of North Dakota state government. The League’s platform included state ownership and control of marketing and credit agencies. In 1919, the state Legislature established the Bank of North Dakota and the North Dakota Mill and Elevator Association. BND opened July 28, 1919, with $2 million of capital.
BND has responded to the state’s needs since its inception. When teachers were paid with warrants rather than cash during the Great Depression, BND paid them in full, rather than with the 15 percent loss they would take when trying to cash them elsewhere.
In the 1940s, BND sold back farmland that had been foreclosed during the ’30s, usually to the original families who owned it and had been allowed to remain on the land and farm it, and began making home mortgage loans in North Dakota communities when community banks were not doing so.
In early February 1948, the Bank of North Dakota agreed to provide both construction loans to the co-op and long-term mortgage financing for the homeowners. The homeowners’ mortgages were to be guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration. The total initial commitment of the Bank was $168,000.
The winter of 1947-48 went into the record books as one of the most severe in our state’s history, paralyzing the northern Plains, including North Dakota. But frustrated by the lack of building in 1947, the association decided to plunge ahead in spite of the adverse weather. Delzer Construction of Bismarck, a company still in existence today, began digging the basements by blasting the frozen crust off the ground with dynamite and then sending power shovels in to scoop out the unfrozen dirt below.
By early April, the last carload of building materials from the Farwest Co. arrived in Bismarck, and the Bismarck Veterans Homeowners Cooperative Association, now deep in debt and a year behind schedule, was at last ready to begin construction.
The first thing it did was build a house at the entrance to the addition, to serve temporarily as an office for the association. The house was to be used as the association manager’s home while construction throughout the addition continued, with plans to eventually move the house onto a lot inside the addition once work was far enough along.
The house was located “at the end of Avenue C,” and it remains there today at 1016 West Ave. C, with Richard Griffin as its owner.
GOODBYE TO KEN SIMONS
Sadly, the man who had served as the inspiration for the entire housing project did not live to see the first house built. The Bismarck Tribune’s Pulitzer Prize-winning editor, Kenneth W. Simons, died unexpectedly on April 19 at age 48. Simons had led The Bismarck Tribune’s reporting of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression and had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Community Service in 1938.
Shortly after his funeral, the association’s board of directors convened and voted to send a letter of condolence to Simons’ widow. It read, in part:
“BE IT RESOLVED by the Board of Directors of the Bismarck Veterans Homeowners Cooperative Association Inc., assembled in meeting this 20th day of April 1948, that this board, having been greatly shocked by the passing of Kenneth W. Simons, who has been a father and friendly counselor of this association since its beginning, express to Mrs. Kenneth W. Simons and the other members of the immediate family our heartfelt sympathy in this hour of tremendous loss to them; that we also express to them the sense of grateful appreciation that the members of this association will always feel for the friendly influence by which he guided this organization thus far toward success in the face of seemingly insurmountable difficulties; that we express to the family our appreciation to them for their part in inspiring him, through roots firmly placed in a loving family relationship, to pass on the fruits of this relationship by way of the good influence he was thus enabled to exert for harmonious and fruitful relationships among all with whom he came in contact. We firmly and solemnly resolve further that it shall be our most inspired purpose to achieve a full measure of success for the project which was so dear to him, that it may be a living and fitting memorial to his name.”
(Note: Kenneth Simons’ son, K.W. “Bill” Simons, was well-known to many of today’s North Dakotans. K.W., as he was known to most of us, was the longtime editor of the Nonpartisan League’s newspaper, The Leader. He died in 2007 at the age of 79.)
At an April association board of directors meeting, the board approved a motion stating, “It is the desire and intention of the board, upon transfer of the school grounds to the city, to stipulate that the school shall be named the Kenneth W. Simons School.” They were unsuccessful in that effort, though, with the school board choosing to name the new school, when it was built later, after the historic addition in which it was located — Highland Acres Elementary.
Next: Building begins, with strict protective covenants.