In the 1930s, when towns across America were being wired for lights and appliances, the country’s rural families were left in the dark. Large, investor-owned utility companies didn’t see a profit in setting poles and stringing electric line to rural farms and families. Those families had little hope of getting “the electric,” and nearly 90% of them continued to live in the only manner they had ever known; a dismal cycle of hardship in drudgery.
But beginning in 1935, the hope for electricity in rural America became a reality. President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) with an executive order signed in May, 1935. With this action was the recognition that if rural America was ever to become electrified, there was need for government involvement. The federal government had a plan to provide assistance to the people of rural America and help them bring the power into their lives. They could organize cooperatively and secure loans to electrify rural areas. The message swept the land. It was the beginning of the full-scale electrification of America, a partnership of the people with their government. People called it “the REA.”
The true catalyst was the involvement of the rural people themselves. Farmer-owned cooperatives organized to apply for the REA loans. Rural electric organization meetings increased and intensified. REA field men, meeting day and night, outlined procedures and principles to the rural leaders. It took tremendous effort, patience and hard work, as these committed men and women went up and down the country roads, working from farm to farm, to get the needed signatures of new members and obtaining the hard-to-come-by $5 “sign-up” fees.
Then began the long hours of mapping electric lines with the engineers, acquiring land easements for the lines from their neighbors, and finally, preparing the loan application to REA. At the same time, REA engineers and specialists in Washington worked at a frenzied pace to keep up with the demand from rural America.
The stories of the early days of rural electrification are all unique but similar – rural men and women educating and organizing – for power. They met, they planned and they created their own cooperative institutions. All over the country, the poles began to dot the landscape and, overhead, new lines of power were coming into the lives of rural Americans. Line crews, often aided by eager members themselves, cleared rights-of-way and dug holes, while others came behind with the poles and hardware. Last, the crews came to string the wire.
The new cooperative enterprise soon appeared on Main Street. The first offices of rural electric systems were most often humble, storefront affairs, but they were welcome additions to rural communities determined to pull themselves out of the throes of a Depression-ridden rural America. The co-op staff consisted of a manager, a bookkeeper, a line foreman, and a crew.
The cooperative, a unique new enterprise, soon found itself in the forefront of community affairs. The directors that the cooperative members had elected were their neighbors and friends, farmers and ranchers like themselves. These directors met monthly to set policy and give guidance to the cooperative manager.
Soon after light and power came into the home, farmers and ranchers began to realize the potential for electricity in their daily work. Electricity could grind feed, shell corn, pump water and saw wood. It powered milking machines and lifted hay into the barn. Electricity furnished the bright lights in the barnyard, giving precious extra hours to bring in the harvest. At the heart of all these lightened labors and the increased productivity was the electric motor – the new “hired hand.”
There was a quickening of life in the community. Schools, churches and meeting places now had lights and other electric conveniences for the first time. All the electric improvements created new economic activity along Main Street. New business and new kinds of businesses began to appear – electric wiring, plumbing and new electric appliances could be found in the stores. In addition, electricity brought new industry. With electric power available from the co-op, factories could locate in rural areas, consequently generating more jobs. These new employment opportunities gave hope, promise and a future to the younger generation in rural America.
How the people in partnership with their government electrified the rural areas is one of the greatest achievements of cooperative and economic democracy this nation has ever known. This is the way Claiborne Electric was founded, and it’s a rich history we are proud of.
Today, Claiborne Electric has 84 employees, almost 23,000 electric meters and more than 4,000 miles of electric line. All of it is still owned and democratically controlled by the members – about 17,400 of them. Those members still help set policies and elect a Board of Directors to oversee the Co-op. It’s the way we chose to do business when we were founded in 1938, and it’s the way we choose to do business today. Claiborne Electric is a much bigger company now, and technology has made the way we do business much more sophisticated, but we were, we are, and we always will be your friends and neighbors.