By JESSICA WETZLER
Daily News-Record 2//24/21
When Norman Wenger was a child, going to the local Rockingham Cooperative with his father was something he anticipated for days.
“It was kind of a highlight of the week,” he said.
Growing up on the family farm, Wenger saw firsthand how the Rockingham Cooperative helped his father’s day-to-day tasks. Whether it was buying feed or other supplies, the Rockingham Cooperative was the place to be.
As time went on, all roads on Wenger’s path led back to the cooperative. In 2004, he was named CEO.
Before graduating from James Madison University in 1975, Wenger was hired as a management trainee in December 1974. Throughout his 47year tenure, he held numerous responsibilities and positions and learned the inner workings of the company.
“My career was in Rockingham Cooperative,” he said. “I’ve been around a long time.”
And so has the cooperative.
On Tuesday, the Rockingham Cooperative celebrated its 100th anniversary and kickstarted a yearlong celebration.
Although the cooperative was officially founded on Oct. 29, 1921, Tuesday’s anniversary marked the first cooperative effort by area farmers that led to Rockingham Cooperative’s formation.
On Feb. 23, 1921, more than 1,000 farmers from across Rockingham County met to discuss the price of fertilizer sold in the area. The meeting was coordinated by Charles W. Wampler Sr., and initiated the idea of the county Farmers Club evolving into the cooperative.
Of those farmers was Charlie Garber’s great-grandfather, Harry Garber.
“He was a founding member,” Charlie Garber said.
Garber is a fourth-generation Rockingham Cooperative member and ninth-generation poultry farmer in Timberville. The ties to the cooperative come from both sides of his family as his mother’s side, the Raines family, was also members.
Garber said he remembers visiting the Rockingham Cooperative in Timberville with his grandfather when he was a child and found it to be a social gathering spot.
“The joke still is that you went uptown to talk to your neighbors,” he said.
Both Garber and Wenger have seen firsthand how the cooperative has evolved into what it is today.
Garber said that in its early days, the cooperative was where residents went to buy groceries and yarn to make clothes — becoming more than an agricultural business.
“It was a Walmart Supercenter 100 years ago,” he said.
What led to its success is something that can be summarized in three categories — membership, management and diversification, Garber and Wenger said.
“I can confidently say that Rockingham Cooperative is stronger than it’s ever been in any time of its 100-year existence,” Wenger said.
Wenger said that when looking back at the cooperative’s history, maintaining a focus on providing resources for local farmers was key to reaching 100 years. Add in diversifying the company to offer more products and serve more needs, as well as its dedicated employee team, Rockingham Cooperative stood out.
Garber said cooperatives tend to have a life cycle, and getting to 100 years is something to celebrate.
“This is a big deal,” he said.
Wenger said that in his position, it has been exciting to see the cooperative transform from a foundation built by C.V. Smith and Elmer B. Kaylor — the cooperative’s founders — to a more than 5,000-membership company.
“A 100-year anniversary is certainly a very important milestone,” he said.
The cooperative’s historical background can be read in the book “The House Cooperation Built” by Adam Ford, marketing and social media specialist for the Rockingham Cooperative.
Ford began working on writing a book detailing the cooperative’s history last year in preparation for the 100th anniversary.
Copies of the book can be found at the various Rockingham Cooperative locations.
“Adam Ford has put all this focus of history in his book,” Wenger said. “I think he did an excellent job on that.”
As Tuesday’s celebration began, Wenger said it’s only the beginning.
Throughout the year, Wenger said, there will be various customer appreciation days with the 100th anniversary theme held at all locations. There will also be a traveling Rockingham Cooperative history timeline exhibit that will be featured at county fairs and community events.
In November, the Rockingham Cooperative Farm and Home Show will take place at the Rockingham County Fairgrounds, but is subject to change due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“It is going to be a major event that I hope we can make happen,” he said.
The celebration will wrap up in 2022 with the cooperative’s annual board meeting and the official kickoff to its second century in business.
“We are heading toward 200 years,” Garber said.