October is National Co-op Month, so it seems fitting for Access Energy Cooperative to look back to our beginnings and reflect on the reasons for the creation of electric cooperatives. This is a remarkable story that demonstrates the exceptional nature of the Americans who populated rural America, then and now.
Nineteen hundred and thirty five. It’s hard to imagine what life was like outside urban areas back when news took days to reach you, there were only dirt roads, manual labor was common and many had no electricity.
Rugged people made a living by strength, persistence and hard, often crushing, work, relying on their neighbors when things got tough. A way of life alien to most of us today, although a few are still around who remember when the lights first came on. While 95 percent of urban dwellers had electricity, only one in 10 rural Americans was so blessed.
It was in this same year on May 11 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed executive order 7037 creating the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). Immediately, “cowboy” cooperatives took the bit in their teeth and started putting together electric cooperatives all across America. Access Energy Cooperative got its start in July 1938, as S.E. Iowa Cooperative Electric Association.
Some might think so-called “cowboy co-ops” would be restricted to the West, but the case can be made that every cooperative was formed by the cowboys of their area. Tough, self-reliant, hardworking, honest, resilient men and women willing to take bold action to serve their interests and create a better life for their families. They worked together for their neighbors and for their communities.
While the actual character of the cowboy cooperative didn’t reflect the Hollywood image, the cooperative model matched the cowboy ethic perfectly. A book written by a retired Wall Street executive, James Owen, captured this ethic and boiled it down to the following 10 points:
Live each day with courage.
Take pride in your work.
Always finish what you start.
Do what has to be done.
Be tough, but fair.
When you make a promise, keep it.
Ride for the brand.
Talk less and say more.
Remember that some things aren’t
Know where to draw the line.
Seems just another way of laying out
the cooperative principles that we run our
businesses by to this very day. It appears that cowboys and cooperatives were a natural fit.
So these cowboys got busy organizing electric cooperatives and began the work of bringing light to rural America. The crew of the 1930s dug holes by hand. They walked the poles up into place to carry the electric lines. All this had to be done with picks, shovels, ladders and whatever else was handy. Most of us have seen these poignant photographs, sepia images of remote places with men scrambling to light the rural landscape. Wires had to be man handled into place on the poles and cross arms. Creating the proper tension and securing the conductors to the insulators was all done by main strength and by sight. And when the lines were damaged either by man or nature, it all had to be redone the same way.
Safety equipment was non-existent. There were no hard hats, and fire retardant clothing wasn’t even a glimmer in anyone’s eye. Climbing poles often involved ladders rather than spikes and safety belts. Many of these cowboys gave their lives to bring the benefits of electricity to their homes and communities.
Today these tasks are completed using digger and bucket trucks assisted by mechanized tensioners. Distribution systems are controlled by smart devices, and cooperatives can provide more consistent levels of service and quality at a much lower cost. The work still is not easy and remains dangerous, but modern safety tools, clothing and practices reduce the risk substantially. And technology continues to improve our ability to control system operations and costs while continuously upgrading our plant facilities, and improving quality and member service.
Given all that has happened, some might think the cowboy cooperative is a thing of the past. But they would be wrong to think that. The cowboy cooperative is needed just as much in 2014 as it was in 1935. Changes are sweeping through the electric utility industry; and if the cooperatives are to retain the benefits that electrification has brought to rural America, bold, decisive action by a new breed of cooperative cowboy will be required.
A new generation of members is coming onto cooperative 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.
Community involvement is a staple of Access Energy Cooperative. Today we are actively involved in many community projects as a means of improving where we live and work beyond the simple provision of power. 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.
Engaging our membership in the future will be challenging, but so was bringing electricity to rural America. While the tools differ, the cowboy cooperative mindset and ethic have not changed. The points identified by James Owen still reflect values consistent with our cooperative principles.
Employees and members alike will continue pitching in and doing whatever they can individually and collectively to be sure that the interests of our community are well served, and that electricity remains affordable and reliable. Just as it was in the 1930s, working in our self-interest will be for the benefit of the families in our communities – and that’s who we, here at Access Energy Cooperative, are here to serve.
Source: Tom Tate, NRECA