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Sudden Life and Sudden Death in East Texas
The birth and failure of co-ops at Texas A&M
by Jim Jones of NASCO, October 28, 2002

Sudden life and sudden death of cooperatives perhaps must always be wrapped in mystery. In the beginning, little is written about where the idea comes from or why it succeeds. In the end, no one is interested.

So it was with some misgiving that in the winter of 2002 I traveled to College Station in eastern Texas to ferret out one of the strangest and most mysterious stories and cooperative history. What I discovered there may have lessons for us all.

The co-ops at Texas A&M grew out of great need. In 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression, a small group of friends in Moody, Texas talked about their plans for college. In the fall, they attend Texas A&M, located in the tiny town of College Station. But in that summer of 1932, they were concerned about how to live so far from home with almost no money for housing and food. The prospects were grim.

Someone suggested that they live together to save money. When they looked into the idea, they were told by the school that they would need a faculty sponsor in order to live on their own. Enter Dr. Daniel Russell, professor of Rural Sociology. But he was a rural professor with an urban background: he was at one time a Chicago policeman, and he received his PhD from the University of Chicago. Even in the early 1930s, Chicago was a hotbed of cooperative activity, with Hull House and other efforts offering ideas for new ways of living.

For whatever reason, the combination of Russell's drive and the needs of a group of students proved to be a heady mix. A story written in May of 1938 tells the story of Professor Russell, twelve youths, a "haunted house," and one of the most astonishing rates of cooperative growth in our nation's history:

The haunted house was a large two-storied place at College Station, near the college's Experiment Station farm. Vacant for a number of years, it was dilapidated, isolated, deserted and &endash; most important &endash; obtainable at a ridiculously low rental.

Professor Russell proposed to the faculty that they be permitted to try out the idea of an organized experimental house. Not without qualms, the deans approved.

The landlord of the house &endash; it possessed neither sanitary accommodations, plumbing, or water connections &endash; was approached. A bargain was struck. If the landlord would furnish lumber and other materials, the boys, their fathers, and friends would sink a well, run pipe connections to the house, and make all necessary repairs.1

The proposal was accepted. A Washington County extension agent named Dutch Hohn actually rented the house for the boys, and Russell was faculty sponsor.2

A cooperative plan of house management was developed, with the members of the group sharing the work. "Typically this assignment requires from thirty to forty-five minutes daily."3 The house was called Moody, in honor of Moody High School.

The co-op was a great success, and Russell was a tireless organizer. The number of people living in cooperatives grew exponentially: 12 in 1932, 110 in 1933, and still more every year, until in 1938 there were 1,171 members (23% of the student body) in 52 housing units. "Having taken over all the suitable buildings available near the campus, it was forced to push farther and farther away until now it has fifty units spread over four miles. This wide scattering of its houses has forced the cooperative into the operation of a transportation system of its own…"4

Then, in the fall of 1939, the cooperatives disappeared.

As I leaned more about the A & M co-ops over the last 30 years, the less I understood. How could the co-ops grow so quickly? How could they disappear without a trace? For many years, I assumed that World War II had brought an end to the co-ops. After all, A & M was essentially a military school, and the war must have had a devastating affect on the student body. How wrong I was.

Over the years, I kept trying to find someone who would go to College Station and look for the story. Although many people were interested, none had the time to do the investigation. Finally, while visiting family in Houston, I made a side-trip to the university archives. It was there that I learned the astonishing truth about both the growth and sudden death of the Aggie co-ops.

The most interesting information on the rapid development of the groups was found in a paper donated to the University by Professor Russell himself, called "A Few Facts Concerning the Texas A. & M. Cooperative Student Housing Program." Clearly, the key to growth was a system of sponsorship by local individuals or groups:



Student groups may be sponsored by: county agent, vocational agriculture teacher, parent-teacher associations, Loins Club, Rotary Club, denominational group0, chamber of commerce, women's clubs, American Legion, county school superintendent, former student club, or numerous other civic organizations.


Student groups are organized on a basis of common interest of locality or social ties. For example:

(1) Locality

-- Collingsworth County Cooperative Group

-- Northeast Texas Cooperative Group

-- Washington County Cooperative Group

(2) Social Ties

-- Catholic Cooperative Group

-- Industrial Education Cooperative Group

-- Junior College Group of Transfer Students


Sponsors lend moral support and leadership in contacting and organizing those financially handicapped high school graduates of a locality who desire to further their education.


Several sponsoring groups have financed the building of structures to house their respective student groups. The students in turn repay the loan with interest through the payment of house rents over a period of eight to ten years.


Sponsors are responsible for leadership, planning, and fostering of groups before the students are sent to college.5


Russell evidently went beyond his role as faculty advisor to essentially become the manager of the cooperatives. The "Few Facts" goes on to say that "The head and the staff of the Department of Rural Sociology serves the general capacities of administration, planning, organization, management and sponsorship of the Student Cooperative Housing Movement" in areas ranging from organizing new groups to coordinating a purchasing co-op and monitoring the finances of the 52 existing houses.

The college support for the effort was astounding. Not only was the faculty and staff heavily involved in a supporting role, but the school even built homes for some of the groups. In 1936, Texas A & M spent $100,000 to construct fourteen model houses on its land, each with a capacity of thirty two students.6

By 1938, the cooperatives were gaining a national reputation. Not only were magazines and Readers Digest carrying stories, but Daniel Russell even traveled to Chicago to appear on an NBC radio broadcast. Numerous newspapers in small towns around the state were carrying stories. The Rotary Club of Brenham built a house of its own for 20 students, and the American Legion constructed a building for 84. Other cooperatives were started at Southwest Texas State, the North Texas State Teachers College, and then in Austin, at the University of Texas. It began to appear that the sky was the limit for cooperative housing.

In 1939, Daniel Russell began negotiations for rental of a hotel in a nearby town, trying desperately to keep up with demand. There were 600 more students who wanted to become members than there had been in the previous fall. A County Agent, E.B. McLeroy, was particularly active around the state, holding meetings throughout the summer to organize and educate student groups in their home towns.

Then, without warning and just days before the start of the fall semester, the A & M governing board ruled that all students must live on campus.

The full story was told in an editorial in the college newspaper, dated September 22, 1939:

The A. & M. College faces the gravest situation in its history as a result of the ruling of the College Board of Directors prohibiting living anywhere except in College dormitories, or in cooperative houses located on the campus, until such quarters have been filled…

At first thought the rule will please many A. and M. men. But consider the rule's immediate results. Many students have been forced to drop out of school because they could not meet the added cost of dormitory life. Hundreds of new students could not enter for the same reason.

Literally dozens of students with jobs in Bryan or College Station, boys who had already proved themselves at A. & M. and whose own efforts and ingenuity had earned their educational opportunity, were forced out of school this fall.

Over a dozen cooperative groups, enjoying the support and interest of as many counties and cities of Texas, were forced to disband and the boys to remain out of school or go elsewhere. The present role amounts to an arbitrary limitation of enrollment…

The AGGIE fears insufficient study and too little research has been given this vital matter by the Board. It is no secret that Executive Officers of the institution are aghast at the results of the rule. Not consulted was a local committee charged last spring with a complete study of student housing. That Committee made the most comprehensive study ever made of student housing problems at A. & M. Apparently its report was filed into oblivion…"7

The local support of sponsoring groups guaranteed outrage and opposition throughout Texas. A number of legislators met with the head of the Board on August 26, as soon as they had notification of the ruling. The group met with the whole board on September 2 and left thinking that the action would be rescinded, "inasmuch as it would possibly mean that the door was being closed on around 1,500 students who would be unable to attend…"8

Why should such a strange and disastrous action be taken? How could it be politically possible? It isn't clear that this is why the decision was made, but it would be worth further investigation. A clue is found in the editorial cited above: "The rule puts an effective weapon in the hands of those seeking to establish two additional A. & M. Colleges at Arlington and Stephenville."9 ["Perhaps the idea at A&M was that by making away college less affordable (remember the period we are talking about) that the state would put more funding into regional colleges like at Kingsville or Permian Basin. Especially important with rural voters wanting to keep family closer to home. Texas politics at its finest. Understanding a university's agenda is pretty odd." -- Howard Lenett, April 2004] It also should be noted that in Texas the governing board of both Texas and Texas A&M are appointed by the governor, not elected.

In the short term, the college built houses continued as cooperatives, but later they were converted to more traditional uses. In 1040, the American Legion house was purchased by the school, and it too was later converted. Eventually, the college owned buildings were torn down. In 1957, a letter from the Department of Student Affairs states that "…A. & M. College of Texas does not have any cooperatives. We did have a few cooperatives prior to World War II, but they have not been instituted since 1942."10

And so ends a stirring yet tragic story. What can we learn? I can't help but wonder why other co-ops haven't looked for sponsors. Or why faculty are no longer as involved with our efforts. Would they be if they were asked to help?

We know from far too many other experiences that university administrations can have their own agendas, often with disastrous effect for the cooperatives. But in this day of greater student freedoms, could the same thing happen to a co-op with over 20% of the student body in its membership?

Questions remain, but we now know a bit more about our cooperative history. Our next challenge will be to learn from it.

1 "Haunted House Makes Good," John Ashton, Associate Professor in Agricultural Journalism, A & M College of Texas. Liberty Magazine, May 7, 1938.

2 "Brenham Rotarians Establish…," Brenham Banner newspaper, June 30, 1938.

3 "Campus Cooperative," by William H. Moore. Free America magazine, April, 1938, pp. 3-5.

4 Ibid, "Campus Cooperative," page 3.

5 "A Few Facts Concerning the Texas A.& M. Cooperative Student Housing Program," evidently written without attribution in 1938 or early 1939. Signed by Daniel Russell with the date of October 10, 1953, which may have been the date of donation to the archives.

6 Op Cit., "Haunted House."

7 "At the Crossroads," an editorial in The Texas Aggie newspaper, College Station, Texas, September 22, 1939.

8 "Lions Club Will Fight for Co-op House at A. & M.," Palestine Herald, September 8, 1939.

9 Op Cit., "At the Crossroads."

10 Letter from Bennie A Zinn, Head, Dept. of Student Affairs, Agriculatural and Mechanical College of Texas to Paul Strauss, North American Student Cooperative League, April 15, 1957.

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