Jan Alexander brought a metal bucket, an old iron pump handle and a lantern for show and tell when she shared the history of the Rural Electric Association as part of the Perk Series Lectures associated with Osher Lifelong Learning Center at Colorado State University.
She brought those items, and a few others, to illustrate just how hard life was in rural America before electricity. You had to be strong to crank water up from a well and carry it by the bucket to your barn or kitchen. You had to be persistent and determined to do homework by the flickering light of a lantern.
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A retired teacher, daughter of an old field salesman and wife of a Poudre Valley REA director, Alexander has been an observer of the challenges and opportunities presented by the energy industry since she was a child. Her lifetime experience plus an interest in politics led her to become knowledgeable about development of rural electric cooperative associations across the United States.
Thomas Edison invented the first incandescent lamp in 1879. Three years later Lower Manhattan in New York was one of the first places in the country to be able to switch on an electric light. It took 50 years before 10 percent of American farms were benefitting from electrification. Progress was much faster in New Zealand where two-thirds of the farms were electrified by 1932. Europe outdid them: 80 percent of French and German farms and 100 percent of the farms in Holland and Switzerland were electrified by then.
While populated areas in the U.S. were fast becoming electrified, rural areas were ignored for economic reasons. It was simply too expensive for commercial power companies to string electrical lines through miles and miles of land with very few customers. These companies had to answer to their stockholders. Rural electrification would have had a negative effect on their bottom line.
As early as 1909, president Teddy Roosevelt advocated a cooperative approach to bringing electricity to farms and ranches but it wasn’t until 1938 that Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the first rural electric cooperative in Barnesville, Ga., and authorized a 2 percent loan program to make it possible for rural residents to bring electricity to their homes. Forty-thousand people came to the ceremony.
Owners of for-profit power companies had scoffed at the idea that “a bunch of poor, dumb farmers” would be able to create and maintain a successful business model. The REA was immediately successful and grew rapidly. They operated for the benefit of their members, delivering profits to them whenever that was possible. There were no investors to appease.
The goal was to improve the quality of life in rural America. No longer would it take two hours to milk 20 cows (which often had to be done in the dark). Milk could be kept at the proper temperature even during the hottest days of summer. Washing and ironing became much less labor-intensive tasks. Children had light to study by and their grades improved. Wood splitting became faster and more efficient. Women no longer aged long before their time, a common phenomena when compared with urban women.
Over time, most U.S. presidents have supported REA although Eisenhower attempted to end the loan program. Jimmy Carter, Lyndon Johnson and Jack Kennedy were proponents. Richard Nixon revised the loan program to five percent, reserving two percent loans only for cases of extreme hardship.
In 1969 a Cooperative Financial corporation was established which became the banking arm and began to provide loans to members for disaster repair.
By 1976, 98 percent of American farms had electricity. In 1980 Ronald Reagan, in an attempt to cut 300 government programs, was thwarted by what had become a powerful national REA lobbying group.
There are 22 REA cooperatives in Colorado. Poudre Valley REA is one of them, established in 1940, with headquarters in Windsor. PVREA has 30 substations and three solar arrays east of Interstate 25. Seven of those substations are in Fort Collins where there are 100 meters per mile. In the rural areas, there’s an average of 9.3 meters per mile.
“It’s a creative grassroots story with a tortured past that has given us much that we now take for granted,” Alexander said.