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The History of Electric Cooperatives

The Cowboy Co-op: The history of electric cooperatives
BY TOM TATE

     Since October is National Co-op Month, it’s fi tting for Butler REC to look back to our beginnings and reflect on the reasons for the creation of electric co-ops. It’s a remarkable story that demonstrates the exceptional nature of the Americans who populated rural America. It’s hard to imagine what life was like outside urban areas in 1935, especially through the lens of our 21st century existence. Life for a large portion of the American population was, basically, a frontier life.

     Rugged people made a living by strength, persistence and hard work. While 95 percent of urban dwellers had electricity, only one in 10 rural Americans was so blessed. It was in this same year when President Franklin Roosevelt signed executive order 7037 creating the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). Immediately, “cowboy” co-ops took the bit in their teeth and started putting together electric co-ops all across America, including Butler REC in July 1938.

   Not limited to the West, every co-op was formed by the cowboys of their area - tough, self-reliant, hardworking, honest, resilient men and women willing to take bold action to create a better life for their families. Neighbors banded together for the betterment of their communities.

     The term “cowboy” conjures up Hollywood images of steelwilled individuals fi ghting injustice against great odds. Today that image and the co-op model fi t together perfectly. A book written by retired Wall Street executive James Owen captured this ethic and boiled it down to the following 10 points.

1. Live each day with courage.
2. Take pride in your work.
3. Always fi nish what you start.
4. Do what has to be done.
5. Be tough, but fair.
6. When you make a promise, keep it.
7. Ride for the brand.
8. Talk less and say more.
9. Remember that some things aren’t for sale.
10. Know where to draw the line.

     So these cowboys got busy organizing electric co-ops and began the work of bringing light to rural America. They dug holes by hand and walked the poles up into place to carry the electric lines. All this had to be done with picks, shovels and ladders. Wires had to be manhandled into place on the poles and cross arms. Creating the proper tension and securing the conductors to the insulators was all done by hand. And when the lines were damaged it had to be redone the same way.

     Safety equipment was almost non-existent. The hard hat was gradually being introduced. Fire retardant clothing wasn’t even a glimmer in anyone’s eye, and climbing poles often involved ladders rather than spikes and safety belts. Once power was flowing, members reported how much they used and the co-op mailed them a hand-prepared bill. There were no automatic meter reading systems or computerized billing options.

     Today, these tasks are completed using digger and bucket trucks assisted by mechanized tensioners. Distribution systems are controlled by smart devices, and co-ops can provide more consistent levels of service and quality at a much lower cost. The work remains dangerous and arduous, but modern safety tools, clothing and practices reduce the risk substantially. And technology continues to improve our ability to control system operation and costs while continuously improving quality and member service. Automated systems abound that improve the accuracy of bills and simplify data management.

     Given all that has changed, some might think the cowboy coop is a thing of the past. But they would be wrong. The cowboy coop is needed just as much in 2014 as it was in 1935. Changes are sweeping through the electric utility industry,
and if the co-ops are to retain the benefits that electrification has brought to rural America, bold, decisive action by a new breed of co-op cowboy will be required.

     A new generation of members is coming onto co-op lines. Members who saw electric co-ops as “saviors” by bringing in the simple benefits of light, refrigeration and other appliances are fading into memory. We must now wrestle with the perception of just being another utility–quite a fall from the savior ranks.

     Community involvement is a staple of Butler REC. Today we help our community in many ways, sponsoring many public and school activities, making charitable contributions, providing scholarships, and safety demonstrations for schools. As these efforts continue, we recognize that community for many of our new members resides on the Internet–a collection of electronic representations of individuals rather than meeting in person. New members expect immediate response and limitless information. It is a challenge worthy of a cowboy.

     Engaging our membership in the future will be challenging, but so was bringing electricity to rural America. While the tools differ, the cowboy co-op mindset and ethic have not changed. Co-ops will continue to work for the common good. This means employees and members alike pitching in and doing whatever they can to be sure that electricity remains affordable and reliable. Just as it was in the 1930s, working in our self-interest won’t be selfish, it will be for the benefit of the families in our communities–and that’s who we are here to serve.

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