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Hidden Places: Who knew? Huge CoVantage Got Its Start 67 years Ago in Tiny, Windowless Basement

The basement of the derelict Antigo Co-op Oil building smells like old money.

As well it should. For this tiny office served as the birthplace and incubator for what is now one of the Midwest’s economic powerhouses.

It was in this hidden space – sheltered from view to all but those willing to brave the steep stairway and claustrophobic setting – that Antigo Co-op Credit Union was founded on Dec. 3, 1952, a Wednesday for the trivia buffs out there.

This Monday, the renamed CoVantage Credit Union will hold an open house at its revamped Antigo headquarters and the public is invited to take a look from 6 to 8 p.m.

The Antigo Co-op Credit Union’s original assets were $1,500. They are now $1.8 billion. That basement office measured 500 square feet…maybe…and the headquarters now tops 72,000 square feet.

Phenomenal doesn’t even begin to describe the growth.

The Journal’s Hidden Places crew had to take a look, and they took along Charlie Zanayed, Sherry Aulik, Deb Clay and Katie Devore, among the current CoVantage brain trust.

CoVantage staff members, from left, Sherry Aulik, President Charlie Zanayed, Katie Devore and Deb Wirth stand at the safe in the basement of the old Antigo Co-op Oil Association, the original home of CoVantage Credit Union. The inset shows the modest building, which is no longer in use.

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First some history.

The cooperative movement – which basically boils down to the notion of people banding together to help one another – actually dates to ancient history. But the idea really began to take off in the 1700s in Europe and the United States.

Financial cooperative banks, called credit unions in the U.S., were invented in Germany in the mid-19th century, designed to help the working class of farmers and laborers. They were similar to the Japanese village unions known as gojoko, in which each person in the village union could borrow funds interest-free for 100 days, while the entire membership shared the cost in case of default.

One of the early founders, Dr. William King, established sensible rules for the organizations, including a weekly account audit, three trustees, and not having meetings in pubs, ostensibly to avoid the temptation of drinking the profits.

In the U.S., the first credit unions were established in 1908 with St. Mary’s Bank of Manchester, N.H. having the distinction as the oldest in the nation.

By that notation, CoVantage, at 67, is just a youngster.

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CoVantage keeps great records and they put the date of the charter at Dec. 3, 1952.

The Antigo Daily Journal has always prided itself on taking the pulse of the community. But Artemas and Earl missed the boat on what was, in hindsight, the biggest local story probably ever.

The news of the day included notations on the opening of the city’s municipal disposal plant, Con’s Store moving to a new location, and a Technicolor film showing of “Alluring Wisconsin,” apparently a real crowd-pleaser, in Mattoon.

The most exciting thing in the newspaper was a promotion at Hackbarth’s Old Quaker Store, located just north of the city limits. It was having a “Name the Pony Contest” for boys and girls, with the winner receiving a black and white Shetland pony, with saddle, bridle and halter, free just before Christmas.

That’s even better than a blue heeler!

The credit union made its first loan a few weeks later, for $400.

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Antigo Co-op Credit Union stayed in that little space for 10 years, increasing its assets almost a thousand-fold to $1.2 million.

By 1963 it had outgrown that basement space – although the crew suspects they may have infringed on the upstairs a bit by then – and moved into a 58 by 40-foot new office at 619 Sixth Ave. It must have seemed palatial.

The Journal did a bit better on that move, reporting the upgrade and noting membership of 2,200 people.

Officers were Sylvester Holub, president; David Simon, vice president; Forest Bartz, secretary; and Daniel Kosinski, treasurer.

Directors were Louis Bolle, Otto Buboltz and Dean Faulks. Richard Goodman was office manager, Merle Wendt, assistant manager, and Ronald Garalowicz, field representative.

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Charlie, Sherry, Katie and Deb have plenty of years of CoVantage experience, but when Tanya Hall, gracious tour guide for the Antigo school district, opened the doors to that onetime gas station and office building and they traveled down that dark stairway, they couldn’t help but be flummoxed. They simply overwhelmed the tiny space. Charlie could barely stand upright.

Charlie, being the head honcho, immediately turned to the safe. Unlike the Geraldo’s dud of a show at the unveiling of Capone’s strongbox on TV three decades ago, this one was full of stuff, but no cash.

There was nothing else to see, unless you include the picture of Clifford the Big Red Dog, a vestige of the building’s day as a resource center for the Antigo school district.

There were also no personal memories. CoVantage moved on long before any present staffers were involved – or in most cases even thought of – and their recollections only stretch back, at least in Deb’s case, to a series of Sixth Avenue offices.

But in that little space, a couple people had a vision, drive, and a community eager to use what they had to offer.

And it worked.

What’s the expression, from little acorns…..

Source: Antigo Daily Journal

Hidden Places is an occasional Antigo Daily Journal column that looks at some of the more unusual, unknown or hidden places, people and events in the northwoods and occasionally farther afield. The crew is always looking for ideas and willing tour guides. Contact Lisa at adjlisa@solarus.net.