Sunday, January 15, 2012

Two Days in Manchester: The Tale of My Trip to America's Credit Union Museum

After dreaming of taking such a trip for the better part of a year and planning it for the past few weeks, last Wednesday I finally left my home in Burlington, Vermont for a two day visit to America's Credit Union Museum in Manchester, New Hampshire. It being northern New England, nasty weather was naturally on its way, so I hit the road in the early afternoon to avoid the impending deluge of ice and snow, and arrived in time grab dinner and drinks with my New Hampshirite friend and fellow mutualist nerd Julia Riber-Pitt.

After some good beer and interesting conversation at Jillians (a local restaurant and pool hall), my mile-long stroll back to the hotel was livened by a parade of gorgeous old historical buildings. Manchester is a classic 19th-century New England industrial town, with enormous, long red-brick mills (now repurposed for a variety of functions) lining both sides of the river that flows through the center of the city. Indeed, America's first credit union, the original site of which is now occupied by the museum, was established to serve the French Canadian immigrants who worked in those mills, and many of the houses that lined my path were built in that era as well.

By the time I reached my hotel, I was having so much fun with my self-guided historical tour that I made the fateful decide to continue walking for a bit. I'd barely made it a block past the hotel, however, when a police car swung in front of me with lights flashing and parked at a forty-five degree angle. A Manchester cop hopped out with one hand on his radio and the other on his gun, and I was quickly barraged by a series of questions about where I was going, what I was doing, and, when I unthinkingly put my hand in my pocket (it was cold!), I was gruffly told to "keep your hands where I can see them!" The officer asked to see my pape... er... "identification," and then radioed my driver's license information to the dispatcher.

We waited in awkward silence for a minute or two before I inquired as to why I'd been stopped. The cop replied with the fishy story that there'd been a bank robbery earlier in the day and that I "fit the description of the suspect." "Well, at least they didn't rob a credit union," I almost quipped back, but then thought better of mouthing off to a cop who clearly didn't have any compunction stopping and demanding the ID of someone for the suspicious act of walking on a side-walk at ten at night.

What was actually going on was clearly a form of the "stop and frisk" practices that have been the target of a great deal of protest in NYC. Essentially, a police officer sees someone they view, for whatever reason (in New York, "walking while black" is a big one), as suspicious, and will stop and interrogate them, then demand to see ID. Though the legality of such prying stops of people not actually suspected of a crime is pretty hazy, cops can easily cover their asses by making up a generic story such as the one I was told, while the real reason for the stop is to check to see if there are any outstanding warrants on the person or if the person has a record that might warrant a search of his or her person.

Fortunately, between my white male privilege force-field and the fact that I've maintained a clean criminal record, word came over the radio that I was not the droid they were looking for, and the cop sent me on my way. The fun of my ramble thoroughly deflated by the Manchester PD's fishing expedition, I returned to my hotel and got a bit of shut-eye in preparation for my first day at the museum.


That night the weather, as predicted, turned into quite the nasty ice-storm. I thus awoke to an email from the museum director noting that, as she lived high on a hill, she was going to be a bit late getting in, so I took the extra time to avail myself of the Econolodge's meager continental breakfast. The hotel itself was in one of the old mill buildings, and so I had some fun in the breakfast-room examining an enormous wrought-iron furnace door that was about nine feet off the floor and about nine feet in diameter. Also during breakfast, I got a little better idea as to why my stop-and-frisk happened where it did. While eating my English muffin, the man sitting at the next table with his wife and small child leaned over and said "I love this hotel. You can find anything here if you go looking for it." He gave me a meaningful glance and then, just to make sure I hadn't been overwhelmed by the subtlety of his approach, continued, "Ya know, like hookers." After thanking the man for his kindly offer, I made a bee-line for the door and began gingerly navigating the icy roads to the museum.

I arrived a touch after 10am, and, while making travel miserable, the snow and ice had left the museum looking absolutely gorgeous. Originally the home and office of the professional-class Franco-American Boivin family that had been at the center of America's first credit union, the building has been lovingly restored to its full early twentieth century glory both outside and in. In fact, according to museum director Peggy Powell, during the renovation of the section of the first floor that had housed the original credit union office, they actually visited a Quebec nursing home to interview the daughter of the founder, who had been five years old when the credit union was founded. Thanks to her recollections, the style of the furniture, the color of the wallpaper, etc., all accurately recreate the space where Franco-American mill workers would come to make deposits and take out loans in 1908.

The entry hall.

America's very first credit union office!
The little man goes to war.
After inspecting the front rooms, Ms. Powell took me on a whirl-wind orientation to the rest of the museum. The remainder of the first floor has a number of displays that form a general time-line of the credit union movement's history, while the second floor contains diverse themed displays, including a feature on famed credit union cartoonist Joe Stern (the creator of the "little man under the umbrella")  and an in-depth display (including a short film) that tells the story of African Americans in the credit union movement. Finally, the third floor consists of a capacious meeting/conference space, which the museum primarily uses to host financial education programs for middle-school students enrolled in a program called "CU 4 Reality."

Following this tour, I headed to the second floor reading room to tackle the first thing on my agenda: reading Roy Bergengren's book Cumet. Occasionally mentioned in a somewhat self-deprecating way in his subsequent writings, I'd interpreted his description of the work as a "fantasy" in the modern sense of the word: a speculative fiction novel. Instead, what I discovered was that Cumet is a thirty-four page pamphlet advocating a specific program for credit unions, rather than an narrative epic consisting of brave knights overthrowing usurious orcs by means of cooperative credit. Despite my mild disappointment, it was nonetheless an interesting read (and an important historical document), and, after taking a break to tour the exhibits and have lunch at an awesome Mexican place with Julia Riber-Pitt (you can read her reflections on the museum here), I spent the remainder of the afternoon writing up a review.


Day 2 Base Camp - The Reading Room
I returned to the museum Friday morning refreshed and excited for my second day of research, and immediately plopped myself down in the reading room. On Thursday, I'd had a set goal to read and review Cumet. My task on Friday, however, was more loosey-goosey: I wanted to explore the museum's collection and see what sorts of interesting sources I could find.

The first thing I looked through were the books, and I was pleased with what I found. While lacking a few of the Roy Bergengren books that I've been searching for in vain for the last year (such as Soul), the Museum's collection of both state and individual institutional histories is quite impressive. While a few state leagues have published official histories that can be found on book websites such as Amazon, it turns out that many more have created informally published works that are likely only to be found in their respective leagues' offices and the America's Credit Union Museum's reading room, making the museum a truly essential resource for anyone interested in comparative state histories.

Another fascinating source to be found in the reading room is a bound set of the Massachusetts Credit Union League's newsletter from 1924 to the early 1970s. I spent an hour leafing through some of the volumes, and stumbled upon some very interesting information which will be featured in an upcoming Credit Union History post. I'll not say more so as to keep you, dear reader, in suspense, but suffice it to say that those newsletters are a rare and rich source of information for anyone interested in character of the early credit union movement at the local, rather than national, level (although there are some interesting bits that highlight how the national movement was seen by rank-and-file credit unionists).

I was starting to get a bit cross-eyed from all the old documents by 1pm, so I took a quick lunch break and, upon my return, sat down with museum director Peggy Powell to conduct an interview. I'll hopefully put up a full transcript of the interview soon, but, in a nutshell, we ranged widely over the museum's origins (it was inspired by the Maison Alphonse-Desjardins in Quebec), the ways in which credit union history is remembered and portrayed, the role she sees the museum playing (both as educating the public and helping to refresh the memories of those in the movement about why we do what we do), and her hopes for the museum's future as a possible center of scholarship and archival repository of old credit union documents.

After finishing our conversation, I hurried to my car and hit the road a bit early in an attempt to avoid the next wave of terrible New England weather, but no such luck was to be had. As my Subaru churned north at about forty miles per hour through a blinding snow-storm, I had plenty of time to reflect on my trip. In spite of the overbearing police and the sketchy hotel, my overall experience of Manchester was a positive one - I can honestly say that I like the city.

And, of course, the Museum is AWESOME. The fact that it's in the beautiful original building that housed the country's first credit union gives it a powerful sense of place and context that would have been utterly lacking had they simply built a new museum in a major metro area, and the exhibits were interesting and well put together. Those factors, combined with the small but growing collection of important documents, make America's Credit Union Museum an essential pilgrimage site for anyone interested in credit union history. I, for one, am already plotting my return!

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