One hundred years ago, Thurston County farmers and dairies performed an extraordinary coup. Even though the brand new and sprawling army base in the South Sound was across the Nisqually River in Pierce County, it was Thurston County residents that were feeding Camp Lewis.
The camp, which later became Fort Lewis and is now a part of Joint Base Lewis McChord, was established in Pierce County at the start of World War I. And, if it is true that an army travels on its stomach (a cliché which points out the truth of the enormous task it takes to feed an army), then Camp Lewis was being fueled by Thurston County food producers.
The formation of the new cooperative Thurston County Dairy and Farm Products Association was important enough to have its constitution printed in the newspaper weeks after its founding.
It was vital for Thurston County farmers to stand shoulder to shoulder, or as reminded by the Washington Standard coverage, “Success depends on co-operation.”
The economic benefits to local farmers were not lost on the community. From the Standard: “One thing is settled now: that only actual farmers of Thurston County can belong to the association, for it is a Thurston County affair from start to finish and Thurston County products are to be handled first. Thurston County farmers to get the first and greatest returns on the big concession.”
At first in the fall of 1917, the association only had cornered the milk contract, but by the next spring, they had expanded to having a monopoly on all dairy (including butter, cheese, milk, and expanding to ice cream), eggs, and all vegetables at Camp Lewis. The tightening control by Thurston County farmers came from the leadership of a Mud Bay dairyman, George Kelley. And, apparently, it was a counterattack against Pierce County dairymen and farmers who had attempted to extinguish any market Thurston County had on the camp. But instead of booting them off the Pierce County camp, the Pierce County farmers gave up ground.
At their peak, the association ran a creamery and a storehouse near American Lake and took in $100,000 from the army. The federal government was also studying the unique cooperative organization, to see if they could have it replicated near other bases across the country.
Despite their monopoly, by the following summer, vegetable growers had soured on Kelley and his management of the association.
The debate came down to who should receive the benefits of the association. Money from fulfilling the contracts to Camp Lewis flowed back through the association and to its members, which since formation had been mostly dairymen.
Despite having a monopoly on the vegetable contract, vegetable growers had no representation on the association’s board. In one contentious meeting that went to well past midnight, the members voted down giving vegetable growers two positions on the board (expanding it from five to seven).
At the same meeting, the vegetable farmers explained how they thought the association, in the body of Kelley, as its day-to-day leader, was not benefiting them. Kelley was set to try to buy as many vegetables as possible at the lowest cost, thereby increasing margins back to association members. But the vegetable growers would rather have seen the association spend more money on their vegetables since profit was split evenly, dairymen were benefiting from low prices paid for their products.
The veggie farmers tried every which way to get at Kelley. Ask him to resign? He refused.
Vote him off the board, because it was against the constitution of the association for him to be an employee and a board member? Voted down.
An amendment to pay board members for their work for the association, thereby removing Kelley’s economic incentive (as a higher paid employee who got a percentage of the take)? Voted down as well.
Eventually, in the wee hours of the morning after hours of debate, they agreed to let two non-farmers on the board to broaden the point of view beyond dairymen. They also took away interest payments to Kelley that he was taking to float the vegetable side of the operation. They also put him on the hook for mishandling any other products.
Even though his personal margins were thinned from the run-in with the farmers, Kelley received booming support from both Army and civic leaders. He took one on the chin, but he was able to continue leading the monopoly organization for the remainder of the war.
The camp hospital commander, the federal sanitary inspector, and the Olympia mayor all spoke out in support of Kelley after the vegetable farmers took a run at him. Mayor Jesse Mills, who himself put financing behind the association, had the most chilling warning for Kelley opponents.
He joined nearly 20 other financial backers of the association to say: “…in case you shall see fit to remove Mr. Kelley from his present position with the association, we firmly believe that the concession will be lost and that we will not have an opportunity to lend further support to your institution.”
But, once the war ended, and the pace of training and deployment at Camp Lewis slackened, Kelley again became vulnerable. Led by another primary organizer of the association, Kelley was finally voted out in the late winter of 1919. He was left in charge of the organization’s operation at Camp Lewis. By that spring, the association was unable to pay its debts and landed in court. It limped along for another decade before the courts sold off the association’s assets.