What were Maple Ridge’s two cooperative settlements?

Ruskin

Webster’s Corners

· 1896c – “Canadian Co-operative Society” enters four acres of Twigg land at confluence of Stave and Fraser Rivers.

· Settlement named “Ruskin” after discussion group run by Charles Whetham, local interested in social reform

·1897 school is erected beside co-operative sawmill, store, garden

·1898 school moved to NE corner of Whetham property

·1898 post office opens

·1898 co-operative fails after low water on the Stave robs them of supply logs

·1899 Heaps Co. of Vancouver possesses the machinery and equipment of the Ruskin cooperative

·1900c: Kurrika and other Finnish socialists arrive on Malcolm Island.  Sointula: “Haven of Harmony”·1904: distintegration of the Sointula group after indebtedness cannot be cured, dissatisfaction with the land’s productivity, fire in one of the communal dwellings kills eleven.

·1905 “January 1” – first settlers from Malcolm Island arrive with Matti Kurrika, pursuing a shingle bolt contract

· Association formed: the “Sammon Takojat” (meaning forgers of the place of the Sampo). Begin shingle bolt cutting, opportunistic fishing season.

·Raise capital to purchase 159 acres around Webster’s Corners school. Price $2,700. Name compound “Sampola”: haven of the Sampo.

· 1913: sampola commune disbands – Sammon Takojat dissolved. Property subdivided among participants

What distinguishes cooperative settlement from typical settlement patterns of the era?

Cooperative settlement is based on the idea of the supremacy of “the commons”. What this means is that the community interest is considered more important than the will and interest of an individual within that community. The labour and resources of each member of the settlement may be shared in a variety of ways. In a true cooperative, the surplus or debt of the community resulting from its activities is shared by all members. Cooperative settlements come in degrees: in some, fully communal settlements, all members live and work together, while in others each family may live separately and keep private possessions. The crucial element distinguishing cooperative settlement from settlement under the provincial and federal land acts is that members of a cooperative association agree to pool most or all of the benefits of their labour for community purposes. Both examples of cooperative settlement in Maple Ridge evoked aspects of “utopian socialism”: a philosophical movement influenced by progressive Christianity in northern Europe from the 16th century on.

Who chose to settle cooperatively?

Maple Ridge hosted two cooperative settlements around the turn of the twentieth century. These settlements were located in Ruskin (circa 1896—1899) and Webster’s Corners (1905—1913).  At Ruskin, the settlers were English-speaking members of a limited company formed to run a sawmill on the Stave River.  At Webster’s Corners, Finnish-speaking immigrants set up a cooperative society, the Sammon Takojat, to work a quarter-section farm, the Sampola. The name “Sammon Takojat” loosely translates as “forgers of the place of the Sampo”, while Sampola means “haven of the Sampo”. The Sampo is a vessel of good fortune in Finnish mythology, which in the epic poem Kalevala is presented as a mill that could produce grain, salt, and gold magically.

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Mini (L) and Urho Teppo, with their children at Webster’s Corners.  Urho was president of the Sammon Takojat at the time of its dissolution

Why did they choose this?

The name chosen for the Stave River settlement, “Ruskin”, was a poor fit for the milling enterprise undertaken there. Named in honour of John Ruskin (1819-1900), the English art and social critic, the heavy equipment used by the mill belied its namesake’s call for a restructured agrarian society where technological progress and heavy industry would be suspect. The fact that the Ruskin settlers knew to set up their operation as a limited company may suggest they were familiar with cooperative living strategies and had come from a similar settlement elsewhere. The growth of socialism in Europe as a response to the inhumane working conditions of the Industrial Revolution had spilled into North America, and a great variety of cooperative settlements had sprung up throughout eastern Canada and the United States. Although many such communities were founded by religious minorities who faced discrimination in society at large, others were based on political socialism with implied affiliations to a mainline denomination of Christianity or without official religious affiliation.

The Sampola commune at Webster’s Corners was based on cooperative labour guided by leader Matti Kurikka. The settlers and Kurikka had fractured from a similar cooperative community at Sointula, on Malcolm Island, where in 1904 a devastating fire had killed eleven living in communal housing. The Sointula commune was reportedly indebted and the loss of so many members tipped its disintegration. Looking for new opportunities, Kurikka led other committed socialists to a defunct shingle camp in the outskirts of the Maple Ridge municipality. Taking a contract to log, the group set to work, hoping to generate enough money to purchase a farm property.

The Lutheran-influenced socialism prevalent in Scandinavia did not advocate violent revolution against entrenched wealth, as did the “scientific socialism” famously proposed by Marx and Engels. Instead, “utopian” socialists, many of them Christians, proposed that the ethical and economic strength of the society they envisioned would gradually and reasonably convince all communities to strive toward it. Cooperative settlements in the rural hinterland of North America evinced this form of socialism by making demonstrations of an ideal without inconveniencing or challenging the order of property and wealth in settled areas. This pattern repeated itself widely in North America during the 19th century as European settlement generally trended westward. Whether or not such a community was religious, all cooperative settlements were motivated by a belief in the reward of sharing resources and placing some limitations on private initiative and property.

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Engagement portrait of Olga and Juho Myntti, taken in Finland. The couple emigrated to the Sointula commune shortly afterwards (1900)

How did the cooperative settlement function?

The settlers at Ruskin formed a limited company, named the Canadian Cooperative Society, in which each member was awarded an equal number of shares. This legally gave members of the society equal weight in deciding the direction of the company at its meetings and made each equally liable for losses and gains made by the company. The company was intended to make enough profit from the sale of milled timber to operate a school for its families’ children and a store where its members could supply their homes. Housing was not communal, but all families lived on the four-acre property surrounding the mill site.  It is unclear if the land was rented from or donated to the settlers by the landowner, a Mr. Twigg. The company mortgaged its equipment and issued its own scrip to keep employee wages at the company store. The community erected a schoolhouse for its children on the mill site in 1897. When this was soon found unsatisfactory, neighbour Charles Whetham donated a piece of his land for it to be moved. The community had succeeded such that in 1898 it was awarded a post office.

Unlike the earlier Ruskin settlement, the Sampola commune engaged in a broader range of activities and therefore placed greater emphasis on the self-sufficiency which characterizes utopianism. Members of the commune cut timber for shingles, raised poultry and livestock, mined gravel from the Kanaka, and occasionally fished the Fraser River in order to support their community and thus their families. The land for the Sampola commune was purchased from a settler for the sum of $2,700 – it totaled 159 acres and included frontage on Dewdney Trunk Road, the valley of upper Kanaka Creek, stands of mature cedar timber, and the existing barn and farmhouse. The area, called Webster’s Corners, was already the location of a handful of homesteads, a school, a post office, and store. The Sammon Takojat quickly went to work erecting cabins, shared, for its members and then delivered a large building incorporating its communal kitchen, dining hall, and sauna.

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Olga Myntti with members of the Sointula community in a clearcut on Malcolm Island (1904)

How did the cooperative settlement end? What caused the end?

Cooperative settlements were short-lived in Maple Ridge. The Canadian Cooperative Society at Ruskin was disbanded in 1899, only three years after its formation. The cause was reportedly a bad timber season on the Stave, which made the society default on its payments for the logging machinery. The mill site and equipment were possessed by the Heaps Logging Company of Vancouver, which reopened, expanded, and operated them in conjunction with a logging railway extending throughout the Ruskin and Whonnock areas. The Heaps enterprise had also failed by 1914.

The Sammon Takojat, founded 1905, was disbanded voluntarily in 1913 when the population of Sampola had grown to the point the effort could no longer be self-sustaining. The access of the commune to resources like timber which supported their effort also diminished as settlement accelerated in the Webster’s Corners area and more land was occupied. The members of Sampola were each granted a portion of the commune to be disposed of as they wished. Many stayed in Webster’s Corners and continued to support Finnish cultural life and pro-labour politics there. The resilience of the community and its commitment to certain core ideals was demonstrated by the fundraising and construction of the Sampo Hall 1915-1916. The Finns of Webster’s Corners were also instrumental in setting up a communal waterworks to service the cluster of farms near the Kanaka and, starting in 1923, a consumers’ co-op which allowed them to buy and sell farm goods at wholesale prices. During the Depression, some Finnish emigres left Maple Ridge to pursue a utopian society being set up in Karelia, a northeastern province of Finland that was ceded to the Soviet Union in 1940.

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The Sampola commune. At left is the farmhouse which already stood on the property in 1905

Are there lessons for us in this experimental way of living?

The idea of cooperative settlement is at once easy and difficult to grasp. As a society we have deeply-held ideas about the implications of socialism and about the individualism and strength we imagine our ancestors demonstrated. It is important to remember that not all efforts to enter the land in Maple Ridge followed this rigid idea of “pioneer” independence. Nor did those private families believe or act as if they were totally alone on the landscape. The romance of independence and self-sufficiency was imaginary throughout Maple Ridge, which was mainly settled so that its natural resources could be developed and their products sold elsewhere.  Cooperative effort, whether announced or implicit, was required to do this. In Webster’s Corners, cooperative ideas about society continued to hold and be expressed by the community that outlasted the commune. The people of cooperative settlements all expressed dissatisfaction with the ways and means of industrial society, and sought to correct what they saw as the harms inherent in it by vesting the benefits of economic activity in the community at large. In their dedication to community and promotion of work ethic, their values were not particularly different from our own.