Author: Bonnie Durtnall

Publication Date: 2003

Edited: 2021


Historic Guelph V4P58The Guelph Co-operative Store; one of the strongest in Canada between 1909 and 1912. (Source: Canadian Co-operative Association).


This is the story of an enterprise founded by an unlikely group of entrepreneurs. It is a tale of a 'risky business' undertaken by working-class men who felt the need to help out their fellow workers. It is the chronicle of the Guelph Co-operative Association, its rise from a small bakery to three general stores, and the men who helped to make it, at its apex, the most successful co-operative retail enterprise in Ontario. The story begins with the price of a loaf of bread.


In 1902, the cost of a four-pound loaf was ten cents in Guelph.1 This was higher than bakers in neighbouring communities charged. The Guelph Trades and Labour Council (GTLC), led by President Joseph B. Dandeno, felt that this was too much for the average working man to afford. To investigate it, they appointed a special commission which met on September 12th of that year. The complaint was found to have merit, but no solution could be found.


Expensive bread was not new It was a problem faced by the working class of Guelph for much of the 19th century. The price of a four-pound loaf rose as high as 17 cents in 1877. In 1880, the same size loaf ranged in cost from 13 cents wholesale to 15 cents retail, if purchased on credit. Alarmed, the 1884 GTLC, comprised of carpenters, bricklayers, and moulders, sent a requisition to bakeries requesting them to sell four-pound loaves at ten cents. The following year, the GTLC again sought a decrease after bakers raised the price. Only union bakeries complied, creating a temporary solution. The GTLC continued to apply pressure in the 1890s, but bread prices persisted in fluctuating from a low of ten to a high of 15 cents per loaf.


This outstanding issue remained unsolved until 1903, when the GTLC decided to find a permanent solution. The police were made aware of the continual violation of a Guelph Bylaw that stated all bread was to be sold in four-pound loaves. The Master Bakers of the city, in response, petitioned and received from City Council an exemption for '[*]' loaves, which could be sold in three-pound loaves, providing they were stamped accordingly. The price of bread was then 12 cents. In the fall, a special committee recommended that the GTLC take direct action. At a December meeting held by the executive, the decision was made to start a co-operative bakery. The Guelph Mercury noted on December 12, 1903, that, "The plans for the co-operative are being got into shape." This new Guelph enterprise was on its way.


The notion of co-operative associations was not new. In Berlin (Kitchener), the Union Broom-makers started one in 1902, after a falling out with the Berlin Brush Company. Brantford and Hamilton had small co-operative concerns. They were all fundamentally based on the British model. The movement began in Great Britain in the 19th century when a group of flannel weavers near Manchester, known as the Rochdale Pioneers, decided to form a co-operative society. They set up a store in 1844, to share profits, with each member contributing an equal amount of the initial funds. A constitution was drawn up which became the basis for all future co-operatives and contained the four following principles:


  1. Regardless of the number of shares held by a member, s/he has one vote.
  2. Anyone may join.
  3. The market price determines the cost of the goods.
  4. After expenses are removed, all profits are returned to the shareholders in proportion to their purchases.


Also, any interest on capital invested in shares is limited.


The British Co-operative movement spread throughout Europe. It made its way to Canada and around 1900 Alphonse Desjardins organized the first credit union in Levis, Quebec. Small co-operatives took root in places such as Brantford, Hamilton, and Guelph. In Guelph, it had the help of a few enterprising men, specifically Joseph Dandeno.2


Joseph Dandeno was an active member of the GTLC. He had been a polisher and finisher at Bell's Organ and Piano Factory since 1889 and became president of the newly established GTLC in 1901, the third man to hold this position. Dandeno retained it until 1903, when he withdrew his name and opted to sit as a trustee. Dandeno was still working at Bell's when he took over the job of creating the GCA and putting into operation their first enterprise - a bakery. It was a daunting task for someone who had never been involved in such an undertaking. It was difficult on a number of levels. First, it was necessary to persuade Guelph's working class of the valid need for a co-operative. Next was the practical business side - how to raise the capital to buy or lease the property to set up a bakery? Questions surrounded the purchasing of baking equipment, the hiring of bakers and van drivers, setting up a delivery system, arranging publicity, and creating a financial method of operation. And all must conform to the co-operative model. Dandeno was not alone in his task. He had other GTLC members to support him and offer suggestions. In 1904, they included A.A. Anderson, William Drever, O. R. Wallace, F.I. Benallick, and A. Callender - strong supporters of the GTLC and actively involved in supporting workers' rights.3 Thirty-one of the members present at the initial meeting in December 1903 immediately offered to subscribe $10 each. This was extravagant, considering it was the average weekly wage of some workers. Dandeno was fortunate in that he could draw upon one working class supporter who was not only a business owner, but also an alderman - Samuel Carter.


Dandeno and his helpers worked hard to ensure the project would be a success. A solicitor was consulted, and papers drawn up to create the organization, under the, Provincial Act Respecting Co-operative Associations.4 The Co-operative was to be governed by a body consisting of seven trustees elected by ballot, a president, and vice president. The trustees were to select, from the shareholders, a secretary, treasurer, and manager. Of all positions, the manager was the most important. He was given complete charge of the facilities, and was responsible for keeping the books, maintaining the stock, protecting the shareholders' investment, obtaining insurance, and reporting to the trustees. The Board of Trustees were to set the wages or salaries to be paid. Initially, Dandeno was both President of the Co-op and manager. Under his direction, the Co-op bought out the business of Charles Powell located at St. George's Square, which became the GCA Bakery on April 18, 1904.


The meeting to announce the coming realization of the GTLC plan was well attended, with Joseph Dandeno, as President, occupying the chair. According to the Guelph Mercury, "He reviewed the reasons for the present movement, and quoted figures from the Labour Gazette to show that during 1902 and 1903, the price of bread was lower in other places in Ontario than that charged here, while the wages paid and other conditions were similar. Good bread at a reasonable price would be the policy pursued."5 Secretary William Heatley then updated the events before Alderman Samuel Carter spoke on the advantages of a co-operative store, citing his father's involvement in the 'old country' and his own personal belief in the worthiness of co-operatives in general. The meeting was a success and more subscribers signed up. At a later meeting, held on April 16, 1904, a manager was engaged, G. J. Anson of Galt. His tenure was to last only one year before Dan Bohlender was to take over the day-to-day running of the business. Neither man was to have a lasting impact on this new enterprise which was launched from the premises in the Square.


The establishment of the Co-operative Bakery was not accomplished without opposition. One of the strongest opponents was the Retail Merchants' Association (RMA). In fact, this nationwide organization was vehement in its attempts to slow down the acceptance of co-operatives in Canada. They felt, according to co-operative historian Ian MacPherson, that, "Co-operatives would cheat workers, offer false hopes, and undermine independent merchants."6 Realistically, it was the loss of business that the RMA feared. The RMA lobbied the federal government, between 1906 and 1908, in an attempt to prevent the passage of a bill that would endorse co-operatives. Nor were they above using threats to try to achieve their aims. In a letter to Wilfrid Laurier dated March 15, 1907, the Ontario Treasurer of the RMA, William Moyer, stated that as the bill was, "A direct blow at the retail merchants. They are naturally opposed to it, and with the influence they have all over the country, its passage through the House would mean certain defeat to the Government at the next election."7 Five hundred delegates showed up in Ottawa in 1908 to convince the government of the folly of passing such a bill. In Guelph, the RMA expressed their discontent in an article in the Guelph Mercury, stating that the rise in the price of bread was directly due to the existence of the GCA Bakery.


Yet the bakery was an immediate success. In August 1904, the Industrial Banner, an active union supporter, wrote the following:


"The trade unionists of Guelph have been successful in launching a co-op bakery. Operations commenced on April 18th, and 1,000 four-pound loaves were baked the first week. Since then, the output has increased at an encouraging rate, at present nearly 4,000 four-pound loaves being disposed of, besides a large cake and confectionery trade. Three rigs are now constantly on the road, and the success of the venture is fully assured."


In fact, for that first period, stock amounted to $2,000, with 400 subscribers. As of April 23, 1904, sales consisted of 350 large loaves of bread and 100 dozen cakes. It was a very good start. It was also obvious that they needed to work out a few bugs. The supply and delivery systems were inadequate for the demand. They needed to expand their output and to add a few more drivers, so the Co-operative decided to purchase horses and wagons.


Under Dandeno's presidency, the Co-operative began to take steps to expand. His approach was multi-faceted. In January 1905, the GCA was incorporated. This made it a legal working entity, with the right to carry on certain trades and businesses within the city of Guelph. In 1906, a grocery department was added, increasing the attractiveness of the GCA to its subscribers. New premises were found at 38-39 Quebec Street. Here, the main office and store were permanently established and different phone exchanges set up for each department. Joseph Dandeno retired from the presidency on January 24, 1907 at the annual meeting of the GCA. The Guelph Mercury recorded the tribute paid to him by his successor, Samuel Carter:


"Whereas Mr. Joseph Dandeno has deemed it wise to tender his resignation as President of this Association, and for the able, dignified and impartial manner in which he has presided over its deliberation since its inception in 1903; and whereas the said president by his well known ability of promoting, by his generous sacrifice of time, was largely responsible for this Association being formed among us. Therefore, be it resolved hereby that we tender him thanks for the effort he has put forth in making our Association abound with prosperity, which he has zealously watched and cared for, and has seen the babe grow to sturdy boyhood, settling in quarters of its own, where we hope in the near future he will develop into the full grown man."


Joseph Dandeno, however, soon disappeared from Guelph. In 1910 his name was gone from the Vernon's City Directory and by that point more changes had been wrought under the guidance of the new president, Mr. Samuel Carter, and manager George F. Bibby.


Samuel Carter's background was completely different from that of Dandeno's. At the time of his involvement with the Co-op, he was an owner of the Royal Knitting Company, a successful business he founded in 1883. A native of Ruddington, England, he arrived in Guelph in 1882-1883 and promptly set up business. In 1900, he became an alderman, and president of the GCA in 1907. The start of his reign was not, on the surface, providential. A fire destroyed the stock of the GCA on March 10, 1907, shutting down operations for a day. Dan Bohlender oversaw the renovation of the premises and placed the business back on its feet. That year two more departments were added. A butcher set up shop in the building and shoes became a new line. Under the administration of Carter and Bohlender the profit margin for subscribers increased. Shareholders received 10 percent dividends; total sales reached $29,795.9 It was to grow even more when George F. Bibby replaced Bohlender as general manager in 1909.


Samuel Carter required a dedicated manager in 1909 for several reasons. The store was expanding. Over this time period the single Co-operative store on Quebec Street would add more wares. Enamel or graniteware and crockery were included, and coal became a staple in 1909, when even the city purchased it. That same year, a branch opened at 4 Ontario Street in St. Patrick's Ward which was managed by Irving Husson from 1912 to 1920.10 It became a family affair, with Edna Husson keeping the books for the GCA from 1914 to 1917. A second branch was established at the corner of Paisley and Arnaud in 1920. By this time, the Co-operative stores were fully stocked, supplying working class subscribers and non-subscribers with groceries, shoes, meat, coal, toys, crockery, cookware, and other basics. The main store on Quebec Street had three storeys packed with reasonably priced goods. On its exterior facade facing directly out onto Quebec Street, the co-operative motto proudly proclaimed, "EACH FOR ALL AND ALL FOR EACH."

 Historic Guelph V43P64Samuel Carter, President, Co-operative Union of Canada, 1909-1921.


Another reason Carter needed to rely on the staff was the result of his involvement in the national and international co-operative movement. He helped found the Co-operative Union of Canada (CUC) and at the first annual congress was made President. In this role he helped in the formation of co-operatives across Canada, raised the profile of the GCA, and established international relations. Guelph attended all the CUC congresses and hosted two: one in 1919, the other in 1921. Guelph was listed as an affiliate of the British co-operative movement for 1916. It was also considered the strongest of the co-operative stores in Ontario and one of the strongest nationwide between 1909 and 1921. It survived the depressions and recessions of the early years. In 1921, for example, eight co-operatives in southern Ontario alone went bankrupt. The Guelph store, however, continued to grow and improve into the early 1920s. Samuel Carter retired from active co-operative involvement in 1923, having left the GCA in early 1922. He had done much for the Association, including encouraging the participation of women. When he retired, women were prominently placed in the organization and there was a strong Co-operative Women's Guild. Women not only helped ensure that the annual GCA banquets and picnics were successes but sat as trustees on the board.


The new President was David Bentley. The manager, George Bibby, had also retired, and was replaced by J.N. Pears, a former salesman. Pear's background influenced his approach to merchandising. Under his management, the Guelph store received a new look. A series of campaigns was launched in The Guelph Mercury, illustrating a fresh approach. Christmas Club membership allowed persons to, "Pay what you like. All articles chosen placed aside for you and delivered when required."11 The building itself was renovated, re-opening to the public on October 31, 1923. The Guelph Mercury reported on November 1st that, "For three hours last evening there was a continuous stream of people entering and leaving ... Mr. J. Pears, the new manager, has been working indefatigably in his task of modernizing the store, and those who visited the place last evening were forced to confess that he had succeeded almost beyond expectations."


Historic Guelph V43P65


This was the last hurrah for the GCA. Although the store was successful in 1923, the slump in the economy of 1924 must have dealt the business a death blow. The last mention of the GCA was in 1925, when the Vernon City Directory noted it to have three stores. It was mentioned, as well, by the CUC at their annual congress.


The GCA had vanished by 1926. There are no newspapers of the time to explain its sudden demise. Yet it had provided a model to other workers. It had been successful despite the involvement of its unlikely entrepreneurs, working men who knew nothing of running businesses. In the end, however, it had proven to be a 'risky business.'




  1. Information on the price of bread is taken from the various newspapers of the time. Specific dates are provided when applicable. The local papers frequently printed a summary of the meeting of the Guelph Trades and Labour Council, citing the general gist of what was said and done.
  2. The information on Joseph Dandeno is gleaned from newspaper articles on the Guelph Co-operative Association and the GTLC as well as from the City Directories of the time period.
  3. It cannot be stressed enough that these men were working class. They had daily jobs and volunteered their time with the GTLC and the GCA.
  4. Labour Gazette. March 1904, p. 908-911.
  5. Guelph Mercury. April 6, 1904.
  6. MacPherson, Ian. Building and Protecting the Co-operative Movement: A Brief History of the Co-operative Union of Canada, 1909-1984. Ottawa: Co-operative Union of Canada, 1984, p. 25.
  7. Ibid. p. 26.
  8. Information is obtained from his obituary printed in the Guelph Mercury, June 17, 1944; The Special Industrial Edition, 1908 and MacPherson, p. 6-10.
  9. The Labour Gazette printed a summary of the GCA financial position in March and October in either its local reports or as part of a general co-operative section. This ran from 1904 until part way through 1916 when the format of the publication was changed.
  10. Much of this information is taken from the City directories of the period and flushed out with small items mentioned in the annual reports of the GCA or monthly write-ups on the GTLC.
  11. Guelph Mercury, October 19, 1923. The ads were creative during this time period. They included puns. One ad stated, "Have our bread delivery call on you today. Remember. He has the goods."