Providing for Local Needs Through The Co-operative Movement and The United Order
For decades after members of the Church of Jesus Christ of latter-day Saints, often referred to as Mormons, emigrated to The Great Basin, they faced a constant struggle in obtaining the essentials they needed to survive. Bringing goods from eastern manufacturers was risky, requiring vast amounts of time and energy, especially before the coming of the Transcontinental Railroad. Many merchants, especially those who were non-members of the church (referred to by the members as Gentiles,) were acc
used of charging wildly inflated prices for their goods, and resentment spread through the Mormon communities.
Church leaders urged their local settlements to provide as many goods for their own use as possible. The nation’s Co-operative Movement of the mid-1800s, which encouraged locals to collectively own company stock (often by commodity providers), spread quickly to numerous Mormon colonies. Under this system, local farmers and consumers often bought stock in local manufacturers and other entities, hoping to receive dividends from their commerce. Later, a movement within the church, known as The United Order distributed private property from owners, to a collective organization, that in turn provided “stewardships” of the properties to individuals involved in this voluntary collective order. The United Order was eventually discontinued, living a relatively short life. Brigham City has been recognized as one of the more successful locations of both the church’s Co-operative and United Order efforts.
In 1868, Brigham Young and other leaders founded church-owned Zion’s Co-operative Mercantile Institution, commonly referred to as ZCMI. For many years ZCMI
used the slogan, “America’s first department store.” Many of the goods produced by Co-ops in outlying areas found their way to ZCMI and its outlets through regular commerce.
Cash was short on the frontier- much of the commerce was conducted through the exchange of goods and services. An interesting passage detailed that some Co-ops printed their own script. “For convenience in exchange the Co-op issued a paper currency about two by three inches in size, known as “Home D,” in denominations similar to greenbacks, except that they have five, ten, twenty-five and fifty cent values. Dividends and labor were paid in “Home D” and merchandise.’
An 1875 letter from Brigham City’s local Stake President Lorenzo Snow, sent to Brigham Young, detailed some of Box Elder’s efforts to provide necessities under the local, burgeoning Co-operative movement . In 1898, Snow became the fifth President of the Church of Jesus Christ of latter-day Saints.
Snow began, “I will first confine my explanations more particularly to our Co-operative Institution, and give you some details respecting its organization, progress, present condition and magnitude… At this stage of progress we concluded to commence some manufactures. We erected a large and extensive tannery with various conveniences and modern improvements at a cost of ten thousand dollars.’
“After these departments were in working order, we established our woolen factory, the building and machinery costing a trifle less than forty thousand dollars. Our next move was the establishment of a sheep-herd, which consists at present of two thousand five hundred sheep, which were put in on capital stock, or rather, the original flock. Some two years ago we established a dairy on an excellent and extensive range near Bear River. Our mercantile department is under the supervision of Brother Wm. L. Watkins…and at this time is the only store in the city.’
“The store, tannery, butcher shop, boot and shoe shop, woolen factory, sheep-herd, farm and dairy constitute the Brigham City Mercantile and Manufacturing Association, and is organized under the laws of the Territory.’
“The objective of the co-operation is not so much for the purpose of creating large dividends, as it is that the people may obtain easily what their necessities demand….We sell many of our manufactured goods at wholesale prices to Zion’s Co-operative in Salt Lake City.’
“…we feel that it has been through the blessing of the Lord that so much of this work has been accomplished. I feel under the most sacred obligations to you for counsel and advice which I have received during my Presidency in this Stake of Zion. Respectfully, your brother in the Gospel, Lorenzo Snow”
“The institution was later controlled by a United Order Council consisting of sixty influential citizens of the country.”
Source: A History of Box Elder County By Frederick M. Huchel