Beginnings on West College
The cooperative movement came to Oberlin College in the spring of 1950. When a group of about eleven upper-class women and men seeking an alternative to what they considered to be expensive, low quality food, and restrictive housing policies brought a proposal for a co-op house before the administration, the College – after a period of some reticence – gave way to student demand. After consulting with the manager of the local Consumer Co-op, the students created their business plan for a cooperative residence of 28 female roomers and 28 additional male boarders. The Faculty approved the plan, and in the Fall of 1950, Pyle Inn opened as a co-op on West College Street.
In addition to economic and culinary reasons, the founding co-opers had social and political goals. They hoped that the co-op situation would allow the group to practice social ideals, prepare members for a future as “productive, resourceful members of a democratic society,” and revitalize the concept of “Learning and Labor,” the Oberlin College motto.
Some early co-opers had other benefits in mind. Helen Lewis, ’49, wrote a letter to the Oberlin Review the year after her graduation advocating co-op living for marriage. She explained that an Oberlin education alone had its merits, but didn’t “tell a poor frightened bride how to handle a frying pan.”
Since Pyle Inn members felt they had been given only provisional approval, they were serious about making the co-op work. Boarders worked five hours a week at two kitchen jobs, and those who lived in the house worked an additional two hours at a house job. Weekly meetings were held to discuss problems and rules were strictly enforced. These diligent efforts paid off: at the end of the first semester, Pyle Inn Co-op showed a 40% savings over College board rates.
Relaxed social atmosphere was another attraction of co-op life. Most people agreed that the “interesting, intellectual conversation” made co-op meals worthwhile, while “folk sings” drew students from all over campus. Some claimed there was less tension between the sexes in co-ops with their geographic and social segregation less demarcated than in the College houses. Co-ops also provided relief from the strict dress code (and the strict house mothers who enforced them!) still in place in the College dining halls where men had to wear jackets and ties and women had to wear skirts. The open snacking policy was another advantage. The meals themselves were not usually culinary delights, but the food was varied: parsnips, artichokes, rabbit, and pizza graced one Pyle menu.
The following spring, Grey Gables was chosen as the second co-op, providing room and board for 35 women and board for 35 men. That same spring (in 1951), six students formed an Inter-Co-op Council to administrate the two co-ops the next year.
The co-ops quickly developed distinctive personalities and reputations. Pyle was thought to be sedate, responsible, and political. Grey Gables was reputedly loose and bohemian-it attracted folk music enthusiasts. And the nooks and crannies at Grey Gables afforded comfortable spots for lovers seeking to avoid the “necking ban” across the street at Pyle.