Northeast of Kalamazoo, the fierce flat midwest begins to mellow into sandy hills. Middle-aged sugar maples and oaks arch over the county blacktop road. About 175 miles from the Loop is a gravel crossroads marked by what from a distance looks like a big white life preserver with a brown board underneath.
If you slow down and pull up close--taking due precautions against lead-footed Michigan drivers--you see that the life preserver contains two Christmas trees outlined in red-and-white peppermint striping, and that the faded yellow lettering on the brown board tells you to turn right for Circle Pines Center.
But the lettering won't tell you about the spirit and history that still set this 51-year-old cooperative camp apart from thousands of resorts scattered across lower Michigan. Seedy and inspiring, debt-ridden and vigorous, friendly and contentious, capable of fervent activity yet often strangely inert, Circle Pines has offered a second home and second family to members of cooperatives (including many from Hyde Park Co-op), folk dancers, folksingers, labor-union activists, Quakers, atheists, communists, educational reformers, Esperantists, white teens from the suburbs, blacks from the inner city, refugees from Adolf Hitler and Joseph McCarthy, civil rights workers, antiwar agitators, witches, vegetarians, back-to-the-landers, and human-potential seekers.
The founders of Circle Pines intended it to be "a center of cooperative culture" in the midwest, which would teach and demonstrate the superiority of "cooperation as a way of life" and "aid in establishing a system of production and distribution for use instead of profit." In other words, according to bylaws still in effect, Circle Pines was to "help build cooperative economic democracy in America."
Today, those founders might think the camp's mission has shrunk to a kids' summer camp and a weekend retreat for urbanites, distinguished primarily by its rustic facilities and an unusual amount of internal politicking. But the place and the people inspire a fierce loyalty: enough--so far--to overcome decades of penury, underpaid staff, burned-out board members, and a physical plant one step ahead of deterioration. Former codirector Don Shall left unhappily in 1984, but he doesn't condemn--he marvels. "By all reasonable analysis, this place has no reason to be open--except something called heart."
"My parents were charter members of Circle Pines [in 1938]," recalls Jerry Gordon, now an industrial research scientist in Wheeling. "They were members of the South Shore Cooperative Society, and when South Shore subscribed to fill a cabin at Circle Pines for the summer, we went out for one week--then for two weeks in the summer of '39, four weeks in 1940, and the whole summer every year after that.
"One of my earliest memories is planting trees. The government supplied free seedlings. When we bought the place, there were just three evergreens there--those on the front lawn of the farmhouse. All the rest that are there now we planted. Thousands and thousands of them. I remember you shoved a spade into the ground, wiggled it back and forth to make a space, plopped the seedling into the space, and tamped dirt back in--then poured part of a bucket of water on it. I must have been about six years old. One of my more pleasant emotions is when I walk through those groves and think that they're mine because I planted them."
But even before Circle Pines was a place, it was an idea--in particular, a series of week-long summer seminars for midwesterners trying to work their way out of the Great Depression through consumer cooperatives. Nowadays "cooperation" (to those not personally involved with it) sounds like a vaguely good idea. In the crisis of the 30s it had a sharper outline. For those who recognized the depression as a failure of market capitalism, but who distrusted bureaucratic or socialist solutions, co-ops looked like the "middle way" of rebuilding the economy in keeping with American values of voluntarism and self-sufficiency.
According to Scott Williams's history, The Story of Central States Cooperatives, the Central States Cooperative League--organized in 1926 in Chicago from the ruins of an earlier cooperative wholesaler--had for years organized workshops, offered speakers, published monthly newsletters and "propaganda posters" for its local societies, and in general positioned itself for the depression-era surge of interest. Its workshops or "institutes," wrote co-op activist David Sonquist, combined elements of the old chautauqua and YMCA camp ideas: "The students lived together cooperatively with the instructors while they studied, listened to lectures, sang songs, and learned to play together." At a time when the American dream of getting rich on one's own seemed to be dissolving, co-ops--with democratic control, one person one vote, and dividends paid back to members--were looking better than ever.
They certainly looked good to David Sonquist, a charismatic psychology PhD who interrupted his career in mainstream education in 1935 to work full-time in the co-op movement. Along with A.W. "Pop" Warriner of Central States, he led weekend house meetings in Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland, and organized more than 100 co-op buying clubs. He chaired Central States' board for three years and provided inspiration to the depression-cowed would-be cooperators. (Fred Thornthwaite, a Circle Piner now in his 80s, then a chemical engineer for Parke-Davis, recalls that Sonquist inspired him to quit his job and start organizing housing co-ops in the Detroit area.)
At some point the institutes began to meet under the aegis of the Ashland Folk School in Grant, Michigan. Originally founded in 1872, Ashland was an ethnic transplant modeled on the Danish folk schools that had brought practical education, active recreation, and national consciousness to rural Denmark. Ashland was shut down in the nativist hysteria following World War I, and then revived by Chester "Bat" Graham and others in 1928.
According to Ann Lauderdale--a Circle Piner whose unpublished thesis is a major source on the place's history--Graham moved the folk school toward political activism, making connections with farmers' unions, industrial unionists, and independent political activists. He organized the Lower Michigan Federation of Consumer Cooperatives and hired Sonquist as its full-time director of cooperative education. Not only did this provide extra impetus to the summer institutes, it also gave a cultural legacy to the co-ops and to Circle Pines. The summer institutes became known for free and open discussion and an abiding love for folk songs and folk dancing. To this day, no Circle Pines gathering is complete without a rousing farewell rendition of the Danish song "Han Skal Leve."
In the spring of 1938 more people signed up for Central States' summer institutes than the folk school could hold. At the same time, the state fire marshal condemned Ashland's building, and the Danish Lutheran Church made it almost impossible to build another. In the face of what may well have been political harassment, Ashland folded, and Central States took over the summer institutes. Sonquist and Warriner learned that the federal government was offering to lease its newly built Chief Noon-Day Camp, with space for 120 campers at a time, for $700 for the summer. This was more money and more space than they had really been looking for, and they faced a watershed decision--play it safe, or find a way to grow. They didn't think for long.
"The League took a daring leap into the unknown," wrote Sonquist. "[We] went back to our cooperative societies, eighteen of them, who advanced the rentals on their cabins to pay for the annual rent of the camp and the equipment necessary . . . the number and size of the Institutes were increased and the length of the camp season extended to 10 weeks [and a family camp was added]. . . . The response was immediate. Attendance totalled 700 camper weeks, or an average of 70 people per week. Many families found a new outlook on life. Many societies took on new hope and enthusiasm for their tasks. Again it was a people's movement."
The people were looking for more than a store to sell them canned goods two cents cheaper--they wanted a different way of living. A few years afterward, Sonquist recalled, "The very first week of camp . . . we faced the perplexing problem of organizing work teams which would distribute the work evenly, which would be automatically elastic, i.e. enlarge or diminish according to the size of the camp; and rotate to avoid the same people doing the same work every day. The whole camp met in 'Toad Lane Lodge' with our gas lanterns to light us, to discuss this problem. We filled the large blackboards with possible solutions, with their many consequences. Eleven thirty came, and no solution in sight, until by elimination and combining, one person hit upon the solution which immediately cleared up the trouble" and got the work teams running smoothly and fairly. According to Lauderdale, Circle Pines and the co-ops were also influenced by the Quaker concept of "expectancy," which holds that people act according to others' expectations and treatment of them. Many early Circle Piners saw their camp as a place to demonstrate both this progressive educational concept and cooperativism itself.
Besides studying cooperative theory and practice, the campers sang and danced ("one evening we had 32 couples doing the Swedish schottische," recalls an early dance teacher), put out a weekly newsletter (Pine Needles), wrote a morality-play drama (in which three cooperators outtalk a corrupt city council and a chain-store owner named Q.P. Swindle), and named their newborn camp "Circle Pines Center" after the co-ops' twin-pine emblem.
In 1939 the government delayed so long in leasing Chief Noon-Day for the summer that Circle Pines almost didn't happen again. So Central States OK'd a committee that would find a permanent campsite to buy--but then chickened out after an old farm was found a few miles south of Chief Noon-Day and $100 raised to take up an option on it. Rather than retreat, the campers forged ahead on their own to buy the farm. "A new cooperative camping association was organized to take over the purchase of a new camp site. As far as we know it was a new type of cooperative, unique in the history of the Movement," wrote Sonquist. The new cooperators pulled together a down payment of $1,000 by January 6, 1940. Circle Pines had gone from a temporary gathering to a permanent place in about 18 months.
But what a place! The old Stewart farm had once been the showplace of Barry County, a beautiful piece of land with fine vistas and lake frontage. But it had suffered the soil depletion and erosion of a century of competitive agriculture. The farmhouse roof leaked into all 12 rooms; its main floor sagged six inches; its well pumped no water; and, incredibly enough, there wasn't even an outhouse.
Clearly this was not going to be a quick fix, and Circle Piners spent the summers of 1940 and 1941 at the "government camp." But a Circle Pines board member persuaded the Quakers' American Friends Service Committee to sponsor two work camps at the Stewart farm during those summers. The college-age volunteers reshingled and repaired the farmhouse, installed a septic system, fixed the well, cleared away the wreckage of a barn and silo, and on one memorable occasion assembled a temporary dining hall at the lakeside in five days flat.
As Circle Piners' attention turned toward "our camp," a daily caravan came down from the north to pitch in. The Quaker work campers, wrote Sonquist, "inspired us all with their fine spirit. . . . So impressed were we with this project that we vowed to organize a Youth Work Camp of our own the following season."
Youth work camps and work projects as a part of all camping have been a central part of Circle Pines ever since. Practically the whole place has been built by campers of one age or another. Every Circle Piner can--and with the slightest encouragement will--point to "my" foundation, roadbed, water line, cabin, roof, paint job, or pine tree. "Most significant," wrote longtime camp builder and philosopher Bill Knox, "having experienced the thrill and power of group action, both young and old will return to their homes more confident and eager to apply these habits of group action to solve problems in their communities, factories and stores. From building a camp they turn to building a new world of justice, peace and fraternity."
The United States "solved" the depression, not by turning to mutual self-help, but by becoming a permanent war economy. At Circle Pines, the World War II years saw three new beginnings, one still lively, two never to bear fruit.
The war took most Circle Pines men away to fight and women away to factory jobs. "That left the kids at loose ends," recalls Jerry Gordon, who was a kid then, "and Circle Pines adapted and started a children's camp." His mother was its first director, later its most memorable art teacher. Within a short time the traditional subdivisions into "Acorns" (ages 8 to 10), "Juniors" (11 to 13), and "Youth" (13 to 15) had been established.
In 1941 the cooperators attracted the sympathetic attention of Frank Lloyd Wright. He visited the site, received a delegation of Circle Piners at least once at Taliesin, and made a number of drawings for a new CPC down by the lake, including a dining hall, pier, bathhouse, amphitheater, craft shops, staff residences, administration buildings, and numerous cabins. Wright apparently agreed to take less than his usual fee. Much of the needed stone, wood, sand, and gravel were to come from the land itself, and much of the labor from the members. Wright's blueprints hung on the walls of the farmhouse dining hall in the early 40s.
Expansion-minded Circle Piners such as Sonquist also treasured a plan to start a year-round folk school at Circle Pines. Once the group had committed itself to owning 284 acres, it had to do more than just run a few summer institutes. During November 1944 Sonquist and his wife traveled 2,700 miles studying "progressive school and community organizations" with a view toward admitting 15-25 post-high-schoolers to a practical curriculum. Under the tutelage of "inspired teachers," students given real-life problems, such as the design and construction of a chair, might be led, say, to a study of color.
Neither the Wright plans nor the folk-school prospectus became reality. "It cost money," says Jerry Gordon, "and that was something we never had very much of." Both ideas haunt Circle Pines to this day. Don Shall tells of returning for a May 1987 membership meeting, at which he got permission to take custody of two previously forgotten pages of Wright drawings for a paper he is writing. One person rose and said, "I hope you're not going to propose that we build it"--with as much bite and fervor as if the subject were brand-new. "Time just disappeared, right there in the meeting," Shall marvels. "I might as well have been Dave Sonquist, and I felt his pain."
World War II also brought a bright new strand into the Circle Pines tapestry--refugees like young John Glass, who arrived as an Acorn in 1945. "For a nine-year-old who had lived in three countries and whose extended family was either lost or scattered all over the world," he told those who attended Circle Pines' 50th-anniversary banquet last summer, "Circle Pines felt more like home than anything I experienced till then." His immediate family had escaped Nazi Germany a couple of months after the start of the holocaust; after that, he said, "the humane, democratic values of CPC and the co-op movement were most welcome."
Circle Pines had always been (and still is) in part a refuge for urbanites, a place where city dwellers could see and "own" the results of their labors. As the unpretentious 1930s shifted into the closed, conformist 1950s, it became a refuge of a different kind as well. Hitler was gone but something of his spirit lived on in Congress.
"I came [to camp] just after my mother was subpoenaed to the House Un-American Activities Committee," Howie Emmer said at the 50th-anniversary celebration. "It was all over the newspapers that 80 former--pinkos, you know, had been called.
"I had been kind of a regular kid who liked sports. The day after that came out in the papers, my friends said, 'Forget him.' And I had to decide who I was."
Even at Circle Pines a few people tried to purge "known communists." "But they were outvoted!" snorts longtime board member Vera King. CPC remained one of the few places in the midwest where political dissidents could still count on being treated as people, not lepers.
Sometimes it took more than toleration. "In 1963," recalls Lois Rosen, now executive director of Chicago's Labor Coalition on Public Utilities, "our daughter Rachel was ten. We applied for a scholarship to Circle Pines, and they gave her half. But that June Frank's shop went out on strike--a long one, five months. We wrote and said we couldn't accept even the half. They said, 'Send her anyway.' That was Leo Tanenbaum on the scholarship committee." Small wonder that many people count Circle Pines friends as their closest.
Circle Pines had always been integrated (though predominantly white), and in the 50s and 60s it offered the same kind of refuge to black people and interracial couples as it did to radicals. "I was dating my husband Leo in 1950," says Vera King--she is white, he is black--"and in the early 50s one didn't feel comfortable in a lot of places." King, an MD, is also a master of understatement. "This was a place where we did.
"We were involved in the civil rights movement before it was called the civil rights movement. My husband was a World War II veteran and was harassed by the FBI because his prewar civil rights activities were questioned. They were on the attorney general's ["subversive"] list and stuff like that. This was the kind of place where you could put yourself back together--it was fun, relaxing, energizing."
Especially in the 50s, Circle Pines tended to be a family vacation camp more than a camp to send the kids away to. "We used to camp there a lot," says Lois Rosen, "because we had kids up there, and we met friends with kids there. Often we'd have 10, 20, 30 people around the camp fire Saturday night talking over whatever. We had one of those pop-up trailers--it slept eight--and once I remember looking in and counting 21 teenagers in it having hot chocolate."
Vera King remembers a 10-year-old and a 12-year-old dragging her and Leo through their first square dance. She also recalls strolling down the road a few years later to where the new rec-hall roof was being nailed on. (The rec hall--a still-impressive open-sided structure supported on handsome exposed-stone-and-concrete pillars--is a classic Circle Pines construction project. It took seven years, and each pillar was the responsibility of a particular unit of the camp.) She heard a voice pipe up, "Hi, Mommy. Look where I am." It was David, her three-year-old. On the roof. He was next to Pipp Bauman, "a very successful dentist from Cleveland who, when he came out here, wore old clothes, let his beard grow, and worked like a laboring man." Keeping her voice neutral, King replied, "What are you doing up there?" Bauman answered, "He's helping me. He's sitting on the other end of the board I'm nailing."
"David had climbed up the ladder," King explains, "and Pipp, seeing him there, had put him to work--in a way that really did help, and kept him sitting still where he couldn't be in any danger. I walked on. I knew Pipp would take good care of him."
In the summer of 1954 Big Bill Broonzy came to Circle Pines as second cook. (Traditionally the camp hires cooks but does its own cleanup.) The trouble, recalls King, was that the great blues singer and guitarist "would sing all night with the kids and couldn't get up in the morning. The kitchen manager was furious with him. . . . Apparently he was an alcoholic at the time, but he never drank while he was here, and he never sang any of his off-color songs to the kids." Despite his kitchen difficulties, he came back the following year, and in the summer of 1955 or 1956 he and Pete Seeger teamed up for a long-remembered concert on the front steps and lawn of the farmhouse.
Other visitors of the era included former FDR brain truster Rexford Guy Tugwell, speaking on the area's land-use history; folk-song collector Alan Lomax ("he almost drowned in the lake when he went in without a lifeguard"); New York City's first black municipal judge, Hubert Delaney; and William Hinton--author of Fanshen, arguably the best up-close book ever written about any revolution--who served as work-projects director one summer when he was back from China.
But this cauldron of activity did not rest on a terribly firm financial base. Arnold Kuhn tells the story in the February 1957 Pine Needles: "Each year since the time before which memory of cooperators reaches not, there has been a financial crisis at Circle Pines. Each winter the question was would the camp be open again the next summer. And each summer in the miraculous manner in which Circle Piners do things, the camp was open and enjoyed by all--all who went there, that is; for never was the camp filled to capacity all summer long. And so there was another financial crisis in fall. If only the camp could be filled all season, our trouble would be over. And then in 1956 the illusion of years was shattered. The camp was filled all season--and there was a financial crisis in fall.
"We know now that our rates have been too low for years. We always thought rates should cover operating expenses, but we really didn't consider that any kind of establishment needs to provide income for capital improvements, too, in its costs."
The result: raised camp rates, and a capital fund drive. The fund drive was partially successful, but, according to then board president Lotte Meyerson, it did not raise enough cash "for even those improvements absolutely necessary for the opening of camp. . . . Some of these will have to come out of the operating budget, just as they have in the past, then at the end of this year we run the usual risk of not meeting all our obligations."
Not even the thriftiest cooperative is exempt from the law of entropy. Just to keep even with rot, rust, and decay--let alone to expand--you have to set aside a little something for maintenance and eventually replacement. To do otherwise is to live on hope, or, to choose an agricultural metaphor, to eat up your seed corn on the chance that some more will come your way by planting time. It is not enough to build once, even if you build as ingeniously as Bill Knox, who once insisted that the roof beams (cut from Circle Pines timber) in the 1950s-era cabins be set in place with their warpage, if any, bending upward, so that as they settled they would straighten. Sooner or later you must repair or build again.
For most of its years Circle Pines, as an institution, has proved almost totally impervious to this elementary business concept. A 1974 footnote to the story of the 1957 fund drive adds that CPC finances remain precarious, despite "our ever-renewed hope that the future will bring some alleviation of our problems." Current business manager Mary Olson made almost exactly the same points about what happens to organizations that try to live off their capital at the membership meeting this May. It did not seem to be old news.
Still, enough people, with just enough dollars, have always loved Circle Pines enough that it has so far escaped the logical consequences of this persistent denial of reality. That love may bring forth money, or a work bee, or a novel way of making do, or another loan that may never be called in, or a new, talented young staffer willing to work for next to nothing. Says Don Shall, with affectionate vexation, "It's a pyramid scheme of the heart."
Meanwhile, beneath and beyond the financial picture, new generations of Circle Piners were learning art, carpentry, gardening, astronomy, swimming, friendship, and more. At the 50th-anniversary reunion, late 50s camp director and master raconteur Don Rasmussen recalled the week when a hired cook from Detroit decamped, complaining indelicately of the place's ethnic diversity. Necessity bred invention, and on Monday morning Rasmussen served his campers their first-ever meal of what he called Paul Bunyan cereal. Since he hadn't got the recipe quite right, he had a selling job to do. He displayed an easily bent pipe ("this is how strong it will make you") and a horsefly ("this little fellow ate some yesterday") to show the kids how good it was for them. Tuesday brought Davy Crockett cereal; Wednesday, Robin Hood cereal ("it does good things for the poor"); Thursday, Elvis Presley cereal ("for contrast"); and Friday, Huckleberry Finn cereal. What could easily have been a rather grim--not to mention inedible--week became instead one of the high points of Circle Pines folklore.
Michael Duck went there in the early 1960s from LeClaire Courts. "We helped build the boys' cabin from scratch--dug the outline, pulled out the boulders, lowered the roof the next year. There was a real emphasis on a person's not only being an individual but an adult as well. I went to other camps, and Circle Pines put more emphasis on responsibility." Duck now works for City Colleges of Chicago, and he credits his supervisory skills in part to the fact that he was treated as an adult at CPC. "In appreciation of that kind of treatment, it has been easy for me to pass that on to other people."
Not everything they learned was what their counselors intended. In a reminiscing letter written before the 50th anniversary, Laurie Tanenbaum recalled how counselor Gerda Watson had been the occasion of 12-year-old Laurie's first wildcat strike. "She tried to get my junior unit to work through lunch, to make better use of a snazzy, rented electric saw for thinning the pine forests. We walked out and negotiated work time we could tolerate.
"Twelve years later I walked off the job with coworkers trying to stop the dumping of mental patients into inadequate shelter-care homes. And then I went on to organize Teamsters for a Democratic Union. Gerda and Circle Pines, look what you have wrought!"
The atmosphere of the place worked on the adults, too. Janice and Richard Greer began coming in 1960 to CPC, where an American Friends Service Committee member invited her to join their group in Chicago. "At Circle Pines we got the feeling that people could do things," she recalls. "I was involved in art and the alternative-school movement. If it hadn't been for Circle Pines, I might have become involved in AFSC, civil rights, and peace movements anyhow. But I wouldn't myself have started something [a private child-welfare agency]--going into a poor neighborhood I didn't know and starting something without any money. Circle Pines made you feel like--well, of course you can do it!"
Circle Pines was becoming less of a refuge and more of a launching pad as the 60s dawned--but it was rarely a launching pad for cooperatives. Even the adult week-long seminars petered out, as more parents tended simply to leave their kids at camp.
Circle Pines continued to mirror the country's mood. Campers skipped desserts and sent two of their number to the 1963 March on Washington. Brenda Travis, a 16-year-old Mississippian who did six months in a Mississippi prison farm for joining a sit-in, was released by a judge on condition that she leave the state--in effect, to become homeless. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee sent her for R and R to Circle Pines, where she thrived. Later in the decade, members of Students for a Democratic Society gathered at the camp after the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
For the adults "in charge," this wasn't such a great time. Jerry Gordon, who became board president in 1967, says, "We had a drug problem then--pot mostly, I think. The whole phenomenon of the overthrow of authority in society was accentuated at Circle Pines." But the phenomenon soon descended into mere mellowness, again following society. The information- and agitation-oriented Youth Institutes peaked in attendance at 113 in 1959. Attendance was down in the 20s in the early 1970s. The August 1972 Pine Needles contained this description of summer-camp staff by one of their number: "They seem, on the whole, to be on a fairly sensitive and aware plane, without a lot of hang-ups to make relating sticky." A 1973 youth camper wrote that to "do what I feel like doing . . . is what Circle Pines is all about." The so-called human-potential era had arrived in camp. To some extent, it hasn't yet left.
"My generation deserted the place," says 40-year-old Laurie Tanenbaum. "I think the people who had defined the place--whether our parents' generation or ours--became older and left." And as Steve Swann, representing the 1970s camp generation, told the 50th-anniversary gathering, "We had to pick up the pieces after the 60s, when the rest of the world woke up and discovered acoustic guitar and hugging each other and free love--all things that had been going on at Circle Pines for a long time. . . . People put down their guitars and started putting in tape cassettes. It was a time when the parties afterwards were more popular than the folk dances."
Memorial Day Sunday is one of the two big institutional days on the Circle Pines calendar. Other groups visit and confer on other weekends, and summer camp has long been the economic heart of the place. But the semiannual membership meetings are still where policy decisions are made.
This year, when I visit the meeting, both the weather and the reports from the staff are good. Physical-plant comanagers Tom VanHammen and Patrick Harris have been more or less keeping up with the 40 buildings, ten miles of trails, three wells, seven or eight septic systems, and 284 acres of ground; a new wheelchair-access ramp snakes around the front of the farmhouse. The day before, at the traditional work bee, members cleaned the barn, rec hall, and woodlot; planted flower barrels and part of the garden; refinished the front door; and put the dock in the lake.
VanHammen, who doubles as summer-camp codirector, reports that this summer's camp registration, at 310 camper weeks, is already ahead of last year's total (270) and above budget projections--"the first time in the three years I've worked here," says business manager Mary Olson, "that we've met any projected income." A new program will start in September: an "eldercamp" for those who consider themselves "elder." More girl campers, and some black counselors, are still needed for summer camp--"we don't do so well with minority youth when we have an all-white staff," notes Olson.
Then the group hears from Joel Welty, a longtime co-op activist who encountered CPC ten years ago, when he became township supervisor in the next township south. Welty offers a free copy of his 593-page 1987 novel Sylviron--a tale of an idyllic cooperative in the midst of a decaying, sullen 21st-century America--to anyone who makes a contribution to Circle Pines. The pitch pulls in a quick $90, and Olson thanks him. It is almost time for lunch.
At lunch, Jerry Gordon brings in a watercolor of flowers and cabins at Circle Pines painted by his mother. He's moving and would like to sell it, with the money to go to the camp. He had in mind a silent, sealed-bid auction, but soon everyone in the room is discussing, and voting on, that and several alternatives: a written-bid public auction, an auction where all bids must be paid to CPC whether the bidders get the picture or not, and a traditional open-outcry auction. The last choice wins, and soon a novice volunteer auctioneer is up front, enthusiastically taking a first bid of $20. She bids against herself, raising the price some more; the room roars with laughter. The bids creep over $100. Every time the auctioneer hastily starts to gavel the painting sold, someone shouts, "Slow down!" She does, and at the last possible instant comes a shouted "$110" and another rush of laughter. Finally the painting sells for $140.
"That was vintage Circle Pines," Gordon says a few days later. "Circle Pines has the capacity to excite activity, to excite the desire to help, to get people very much involved. You know, the girl at the far table who was bidding? It was the first time she'd been there!"
But all this festive activity does not necessarily translate into growth, or even survival. Out of 600-plus members on the books, only 138 have paid the $40 annual dues that enables them to vote. And of them, only a disappointing 41 have registered here today. Seats on the board go begging--anyone nominated is automatically elected. Mary Olson has trouble drumming up enough table wipers and dish shovers to complete the evening cooperative cleanup crew, and finally stops to point out that when non-Circle Pines groups come to confer, there's never such a shortage of volunteers. This past winter the staff went three months without pay when weird weather knocked out planned revenue-producing weekends. The payless paydays ended only after money that would have purchased the camp a functioning vehicle of its own was diverted.
Circle Pines has added to its long-standing problem with physical capital; now it also has a kind of slash-and-burn staff economy. By the time a given management team has made its imprint, established a spirit and continuity, its members leave, burned out either by the subpoverty pay or by internal political squabbles. This plunges the organization into confusion, sometimes two or three years' worth, after which new people must rebuild, which takes so much energy that after a few years . . .
As a matter of fact, Mary Olson's graph of recent Circle Pines operating revenues shows that she and Tom have brought the place back approximately to the point it had reached in the early 1980s under Don Shall and Barbara Hofer. The two teams' tales are not parallel--Shall and Hofer came as established professionals expecting to build up an educational and conference center, while Olson and VanHammen have to some extent (most satisfactorily) learned on the job. But the bottom line is remarkably similar. "The place is like a sponge," says Shall. "It's so needy. It just takes and takes and takes."
Many of the groups that might be expected to use Circle Pines don't anymore. "We needed a co-op retreat and conference center that would expose the idea to more people," says Judith Cawhorn, who was manager for consumer services at the Michigan Federation of Food Co-ops for nine years, until last November. "The spirit at Circle Pines is still really great. But at the end, the food co-ops weren't using it." One outside consultant called its facilities "low-cost, low-comfort conference space."
Unions? "It's been a long time since unions have attended there," says Lois Rosen. She and her husband Frank (general vice president of the United Electrical Workers) are longtime union activists and longtime Circle Piners, and they know the place is too rustic for most blue-collar folks these days. "People don't hold their meetings at the most expensive places," Frank Rosen says, "but they do want their own bathrooms." On the other hand, he muses, "being spartan, it doesn't attract people who are just interested in making money."
There is the story of one AFSC gathering during which many decamped to nearby motels after they encountered insects and an unexpected cold snap. And of course there are the gatherings that never happened. Says Laurie Tanenbaum, "We wanted to be able to attract people in the Washington government--but in order to attract that level of people we need something better than we've got."
Summer campers still find what they have for years, though. "I'm not sure it has changed," says Tanenbaum's 15-year-old daughter Cory Wechsler, a third-generation Circle Piner. "The whole place is like a huge family. Everyone is really really comfortable with each other. I feel really confident up there. People are willing to take whatever comes along. I love folk dancing--nobody does that here [in Chicago]. I like work projects where you can see what you've done."
Last summer these included reroofing a cabin and helping repaint the enormous farmhouse. As Tanenbaum says, pretending to marvel at something she knows well from her growing-up years, "They're forced to work hard, clean up, do all the rotten things you never want to do--and all come out of it feeling good about it!" Although the camp lacks some of the political charge and outward focus it had in the 50s and 60s, cooperation is still part of the program. The people there still "want very much to pull people in," says Cory. "This one girl [last summer] was very closed, but by the end of session she was standing on a chair singing 'If I Had a Hammer.'"
Nobody knows yet whether Circle Pines can summon the resolution to broaden its base and grow in order to preserve that culture and the place for a fourth generation. Jerry Gordon points out that it is an extraordinarily diffuse organization. The interstates have brought it hours closer to Detroit and Chicago, but the passage of time has also scattered its alumni to California and Nova Scotia.
Even Chicagoans have trouble finding the time to be involved. Rachel Rosen DeGolia--in her 30s with a job, two young daughters, and a husband in school--says, "Something will have to change at some point, or it will go down the tubes. I haven't ruled out some kind of future for the place, but I just don't have the time. I suppose, if I decided it was a major priority in my life, and I quit my job, I could have an effect. But I know how much effort it takes to accomplish something there."
The idea that Circle Pines might change frightens some, tires others. But Gladys Scott, who brought many a public-housing kid there in the 60s, puts a new twist on the favorite metaphor for the place. "You know, there's people in your family, if you could change them they'd be different? But you can't, and you love 'em as they are? That's Circle Pines."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.