By David Fenimore
It was not long after San Francisco’s Summer of Love. Every hippie style imaginable was on display around the North Shore: buckskin jackets, feathered hash pipes, tie-dyed shirts and beaded headbands, bell-bottomed trousers and Birkenstock sandals, long, flowing hair and beards on men, granny dresses on women, and plenty of evidence that brassieres had, at least temporarily, gone out of fashion.
Along with the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, another revolution was brewing, one that promoted vegetarianism as a way to save the earth. Frances Moore Lappé had published Diet for a Small Planet in 1971, arguing that the social and environmental impacts of meat production were contributing to global pollution and food scarcity. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, 1962, had warned against chemical fertilizers and pesticides. And Garrett Hardin’s article in the 1968 issue of Science called The Tragedy of the Commons along with Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog promoted cooperation over individualism as the key to conservation and fair distribution of resources.
The decade following the 1960 Winter Olympics at Palisades Tahoe saw the accelerating growth of ski tourism and single-home construction. Baby boomers were fleeing the cities for mountain jobs. One of these emigrants was an energetic, engaging young man from San Francisco, “Amigo Bob” Cantisano. The son of a Bay Area disc jockey, this tie-dyed and dreadlocked visionary had already taken on the mission of spreading the chemical-free farming gospel. Following Beat poet Gary Snyder’s advice to “think globally, act locally,” Amigo joined with like-minded North Shore and Truckee residents to start the We the People Natural Foods Cooperative.
“The co-op,” as everyone called it, began in 1973 as a food buyers club headquartered in Tahoe City’s Stereoscope Bakery. Founding member and Incline Village resident Meri McEneny remembers “big, heavy boxes of staples like raisins, cheese, rice, flour, and a few happy, hearty souls to slice and bag.” Once, the co-op bought 3,000 pounds of potatoes from a Northern California farmer. This worked out to more than 50 pounds per member.
In late 1974, the co-op moved into the building now occupied by the Tahoe Vista post office. Within a year, membership had swelled to more than 300 and the co-op relocated to larger quarters at 580 National Ave. By then We the People was a full-fledged retail storefront with custom-built shelving, refrigerated cases, and bulk bins for whole grains, flours, and dried fruit.
Members paid an initiation fee and agreed to donate four hours of labor per week in exchange for deep discounts on their purchases. Aside from a paid manager, the entire operation remained run by volunteers and overseen by a board of directors. “Everyone contributes whatever they can,” Amigo Bob told a Tahoe World reporter at the time. “More and more, we’re trying to avoid the middleman.”
In those carefree days, one store manager lived in a tipi on the edge of the regional park and a few members slept on mattresses behind the produce section. One young cashier was celebrated for being able to breastfeed her infant son while working the register. Health regulations and inspections being fairly casual back then, it was not unusual to see someone’s dog nosing the bulk bins, or a snotty-handed toddler helping themselves to chocolate-covered raisins.
The co-op bought a refrigerated truck that volunteers like Truckee resident “Soybean Bill” Millholen drove to Sacramento weekly to pick up crates of organically grown fruits and vegetables, along with fresh-squeezed juices, raw milk products, and other so-called “health foods” of the era. The truck was eventually sold to Michael Funk, who went on to create a regional distribution network called Mountain People’s Warehouse, which merged with another East Coast wholesaler to become today’s United Natural Foods.
For a central core of members, We the People served as a family-friendly social center and singles club. Reno resident Skip Wagner, who joined in 1975, found “a community … I don’t know anybody from high school anymore,” he says, “but I run into friends from co-op days, and we pick up where we left off 40 years ago.” Another early member, Connie Whitfield, who nows lives in Mount Shasta, remembers the co-op as “a place for us all to connect, spiritually and with our whole hearts.” The store even fielded its own NTPUD softball team, the Flying Zucchini Brothers. Other members played on the all-women Pink Panthers team.
In May 1975, Amigo Bob and his wife, Kalita, moved to a foothills farm. Along with consulting and organizing on behalf of planet-friendly agriculture, for which he was called by National Geographic “a soybean farmer’s nightmare,” Amigo grew olive trees and marketed his own oil. In 2003 he became aware of the many introduced varieties of fruit and nut trees that had proliferated during the Gold Rush, and founded the nonprofit Felix Gillet Institute to preserve and propagate them.
By 1977 the co-op had expanded to occupy a former auto shop at 8465 Speckled Ave. in Kings Beach, and a year later it moved into the old Plevel donut shop at 8106 North Lake Blvd., where Lake View Asian Massage is located today. Not configured for a retail grocery at first, this otherwise ideal location was renovated by members skilled in the construction trades. On one memorable afternoon, the builders poached several ponderosa pines in the forest behind Kings Beach, trimmed the trunks, and wedged them into place as roof supports so that a load-bearing wall could be removed to make room for the freezer chests.
With business booming, We the People added an assistant manager and a juice bar serving breakfast and lunch. Ron Ramsey, who was a veteran of casino kitchens, devised a menu and taught others how to cook. (A famed Tahoe woodcarver, he also created many store signs, gratis.) One regular customer was Star Trek actor and North Tahoe resident Leonard “Mr. Spock” Nimoy, who invariably ordered Ramsey’s signature dish, Huevos Kinky Beach. With the acquisition of a beer and wine license, the juice bar began serving weekend dinners, with live entertainment.
It came to a sudden end in late 1980. If you’d driven by the co-op on that crisp fall morning, you would have seen manager Denny Hayes and board member Dan Yori standing stunned and silent in the parking lot out front. What had happened? The metal floor grate over the forced-air furnace had been removed for cleaning. Its temporary replacement was a half sheet of plywood. When the temperature unexpectedly dropped that night, the furnace came on, ignited the plywood, and set the back half of the store on fire.
The building was saved, but thousands of dollars of stock was ruined. The refrigeration was rendered inoperable, and the premises were red-tagged. Worse yet, while the structure was insured, board members discovered to their dismay that the policy did not cover its contents.
With almost no cash cushion in its always lean operating budget, the co-op had to close. A brief attempt was made to return it to its roots as a buyers club, but evidently most of the membership had grown used to shopping in a store, and this effort soon petered out. Not long afterward, former co-op manager Mark Calhoun opened Tahoe Community Market on the West Shore, which soon became New Moon Natural Foods.
By then, CSA (community-supported agriculture) programs had begun connecting local buyers to small farmers, and 2013 brought the opening of Tahoe Food Hub in Truckee. Other co-ops and natural foods stores flourished in Reno, Grass Valley, Auburn, Sacramento, Chico, and elsewhere. Over the decades, natural foods — and meat-free, plant-based diet options — have populated supermarket shelves, restaurant menus, and home kitchens around the world.
“It appears,” as the New Moon website says in its history section, “those hippies were on to something.”
~ During most of the 1970s, co-op member David Fenimore was definitely “on something.” Many friends he met back then, some of whom contributed to this story, remain his nearest and dearest. Amigo Bob died in 2022; his spirit lives on among family, friends, and former associates, and particularly in the Felix Gillet Institute, felixgillet.org.