Depression of the 1930s put a financial squeeze
on the entire nation, rural America included. At
the same time a growing population demanded more
efficient food production from the agricultural
community. It was apparent to many that electricity
could help gain that greater efficiency. Recognizing
the needs of rural Americans and the benefits that
the rest of the country could realize, President
Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order creating
the Rural Electrification Administration on May
As was the case
with many Depression-era government programs, the
Rural Electrification Administration (REA), was
begun as part of a general program of unemployment
relief. Just three months after its creation, REA
was more closely defined as a lending agency. Created
was an orderly program of low-interest government
loans, which made rural eletrification a national
Many in the U.S.
Congress, as well as local farm leaders, believed
that rural people not only needed electric service,
but needed it under rates and conditions that permitted
full and productive use. They believed that electricity
was too important to the development of rural America
to make the people there wait for commercial electric
companies to take on the job. Given existing experience
with the cooperative form of business, the idea
of using nonprofit, cooperative organizations to
encourage rural electrification caught on quickly.
In 1936, Senator
George Norris of Nebraska and Representative Sam
Rayburn of Texas authored the Rural Electrification
Act, which set up REA as a lending agency and granted
preference to nonprofit organizations in obtaining
loans through REA.
The task of organizing
rural electric cooperatives generally fell to a
handful of energetic, local leaders. They had to
organize meetings, collect the initial fees, sign
up potential consumers, and work with REA on program
details. In most cases this was done on a volunteer
a mountain of obstacles, electric co-op lines were
built and energized: the lights came on. Rural electrification
officially came to Wisconsin on May 7, 1937, when
Richland Electric Cooperative went into service.
By 1945, the last of Wisconsin's electric cooperatives
had been organized (not counting six subsequent
mergers). Nationwide, there are now about 930 rural
The history of
rural electric cooperatives (RECs) since those modest
beginnings is one of growth and benefit. In Wisconsin,
electric co-op leaders have achieved numerous "firsts,"
including the creation of the nation's first statewide
association for RECs, publishing the nation's first
statewide publication for REC members, creating
one of the premier generation and transmission cooperatives
in the country, founding an insurance company that
now underwrites coverage for a majority of RECs
in the U.S., organizing the first merchandising
co-op to supply RECs in numerous states with line
materials, and other innovations. Electric co-ops
in Wisconsin have become vital parts of the rural
communities they serve, offering services beyond
just provision of reliable electricity.
More than 42 million
consumers today are served by rural electric systems,
including more than 635,000 in Wisconsin alone.
Electric co-ops serve 12 percent of the U.S. population,
but their service territories spread across 80 percent
of the nation's land mass.
individuals has shaped these organizations for more
than 75 years, and the dedication of consumer-members-young
and old-will assure continued success and service
to rural America.