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During the Depression years of the 1930s our founder, Fred Thornthwaite, became dissatisfied with the capitalistic economic system of the time and began looking for one that would benefit many.  This began his devotion to cooperatives and his strong belief was that co-ops could do a better job at meeting people’s needs.  Fred and his wife Virginia dedicated their heart and soul into building Cooperative Services, Inc. for the next forty years.

Fred Thornthwaite built the core of our co-op by organizing the Parke Davis Credit Union and participating in the Co-op Homesteads for families in Madison Heights.  Residing in the Co-op House in Highland Park, he promoted co-ops at union meetings, motivated and inspired young people at student housing co-ops in Ann Arbor, and worked at Metro Co-op in Detroit.  Out of this work, Cooperative Dairy Services began, with 20 to 25 members, 12 of whom put up $20 each as a down payment on a co-op milk route.  Fred Thornthwaite was its general manager.

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Cooperative Dairy Services grew and in 1945 purchased Wyandotte Dairy from the cooperative’s savings of $5,000. The business eventually had 18 milk routes, 3 stores and 18 outdoor milk vending machines which were positioned mainly at gas stations.  Cooperative Dairy Services shared education meetings with Fordson Cooperative, owner of a grocery store and a gas station and sponsor of Co-op Services Credit Union.  In 1958, Cooperative Dairy Services and Fordson Cooperative merged and formed Cooperative Services, Inc.  Co-op Services Credit Union changed its name to Zeal Credit Union in 2014 and is still under the sponsorship of Cooperative Services, Inc. Zeal continues to be one of the largest of its kind in Michigan.

With competition from chain grocery stores increasing, Cooperative Services moved in another direction.  After a five-year process with the Federal Housing Authority, Wyandotte Co-op was built in 1965 to provide 160 apartments for the elderly of low and modest income. Rents were as low as $100. The building’s future residents had regular meetings about their cooperative when the building was still under construction. Once moved in, the new members eagerly joined committees and elected officers and floor representatives.  They carried out the cooperative mission by “working together to help each other.”

The dairy finally closed in 1968 but was soon replaced with another cooperative venture, Co-op Optical Service.  As a division of Cooperative Services, Inc., its goal was to provide consumers with low cost eye exams and glasses. Labor unions and city employee groups added optical care from Co-op Optical to their contracts. The business grew by the late 1970s to include a lens grinding lab, and nearly a dozen retail outlets in the southeast Michigan area. In the early 1980s, Co-op Optical was separated from Cooperative Services to become an independent cooperative.

We built our second affordable senior apartment building only one block away from Wyandotte Co-op.  To build Bishop Co-op Apartments, CS Construction Company was formed. Soon we went on to build LaBelle Towers, Royal Oak Manor and Trenton Towers.  We formed our own architectural division, Co-op Planning and Design, which designed seven co-op apartment buildings and eight buildings for Co-op Optical before they and CS Construction closed. All co-ops used the HUD programs for elderly housing.  This set the pace for many years to come.

In order to become a national organization and to show the politicians in Washington the benefits of a co-op, we decided to build one near Washington, D.C. We were awarded HUD funds for Essex Co-op in Maryland and built it with our own construction company. We got tremendous support from a local political leader, who visited co-ops in Michigan first. He was very impressed and championed our cause in Essex.

Our co-ops are built in all of our four regions using HUD dollars, low-income housing tax credits, and/or additional funding from private foundations and state and local governments. Our 7,000 members have created a strong network of cooperatively managed apartment buildings.

On July 1, 2005, CSI Support & Development Services became the non-profit parent company of Cooperative Services, Inc. We continue our pledge that was in our original mission statement and we continue to be guided by the basic co-op principles set forth over 160 years ago in Rochdale, England.

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