Friday, April 27, 2012

Cooperative living down on the farm: Cook College's Helyar House

If you make it to Cook College Ag Field Day tomorrow (and I hope you do!), take a few minutes to stroll down College Farm Road to Helyar House. The 1960's-era building is the modern representation of the resourcefulness of an innovative professor and the persistence of his students during the Great Depression.

Like many students in the 1930s, a host of young men at Rutgers' agriculture school struggled to meet the costs of tuition and college living expenses by doing odd jobs around campus. The farm itself had plenty of opportunities for enterprising young people to keep after the animals, make sure the furnaces stayed lit, and so on. In exchange for their labor, the students with these jobs would get a small room as sleeping quarters. It was a spartan existence, and likely a lonely one.

Agriculture professor Frank Helyar saw an opportunity to change the situation a slight bit. A good part of the ag school campus had been a working farm before Rutgers bought it, and it included an old farmhouse once occupied by a minister named Phelps. Why not open the building to students who were willing to work in exchange for room and board? Beyond the jobs they already had around campus, the residents would also manage the house, make the meals and so forth.

Apparently it was a hard sell to administrators who couldn't see the difference between this planned house and a fraternity, but Helyar stressed the cost-sharing arrangement and the need to provide students with a good living experience. The first group of young men who moved in proved him right: they were hard workers and made the cooperative living arrangements work. Along the way, they also put a spin on the fraternity concept and called their house Alpha Phalpha, the second part being an adaptation of the last name of the house's previous owner.

By the time I got to Rutgers, the frat-derived name was gone in favor of honoring Helyar, and the house had already been taken down in favor of the newer building, but the affable young men who lived there still basically ran the house on their own. It was a great environment to visit, and I'm sure it was a great education for the residents as it still is today. Female and male students at Cook College's successor school can apply for space at the house, which continues to offer a significant cost savings when compared to other on-campus residence options. I'll bet Professor Helyar would be proud and happy to see that his Depression-era concept lives on.

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