Even before President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made rural electrification a national initiative in 1935, a few small, independent utilities tried to make a go of it. They were owned by factories with excess hydroelectric power, land development companies, groups of farmers, and entrepreneurs.
One of these utilities was in northeastern Florida, and it was the predecessor of Clay Electric Cooperative, now one of the largest co-op distribution systems in the country.
The Florida land boom of the 1920s attracted an ambitious minister named John J. Lawrence to the lake region of Clay County, northeast of Gainesville. Taken with the mild climate and the beauty of the lakes and woodlands, he persuaded his brothers Jess, Joe, and Claude to join him in his visionary enterprise: the Lawrence Developing Company.
The company purchased thousands of acres on the shores of Lake Geneva and started building a town named Keystone Heights, after the Lawrence brothers’ home state of Pennsylvania.
Soon there was a need for public services. Starting in 1923, the development company pumped municipal water from the lake. Electricity was provided by a small Delco light plant the Lawrences purchased in 1924 but soon sold to one of their employees.
Ed Wiggins, described in a Clay Electric history as “a short, wiry, energetic pioneer type,” boosted the plant’s capacity to 115 kilowatts over the next 10 or 12 years and built 100 miles of line in Keystone Heights and a half-dozen nearby communities.
Needing capital to expand in 1937, he wrote a letter to the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) in Washington, D.C. When he was rebuffed, he asked his congressman, Lex Green, to intervene, and pretty soon an REA official arrived in Keystone Heights to appraise Wiggins’s little utility.
Wiggins was at first uncomfortable with the government’s area coverage requirement; he knew that serving rural homes was unprofitable. But he came around, and he and the REA man appeared together on a local radio talk show promoting the idea of creating an electric cooperative.
Wiggins formed an organizing committee, saw it disband during an economic downturn, and then went door to door talking to potential co-op members. With a few hundred commitments in hand, he traveled to Washington.
Clay Electric Cooperative was incorporated within months of his return to central Florida. The first membership meeting was held at the Keystone Inn on Dec. 21, 1937. The people attending came from six counties: Clay, Alachua, Putnam, Columbia, Union, and Marion.
Two months later, REA approved a loan for $205,000, and Wiggins’s co-op started building lines.
At first, Clay Electric owned and operated two small generating plants, probably diesel. Then, as demand grew after World War II, the co-op signed a wholesale power contract with Florida Power and Light.
The investor-owned utility remained Clay Electric’s primary supplier until 14 Florida distribution co-ops formed a G&T, Seminole Electric Cooperative, and built a coal-fired plant north of Palatka that went into commercial operation in 1984.
Six years later, Clay Electric welcomed its 100,000th member, becoming the third co-op in the country to reach this milestone. Today, the Keystone Heights-based system serves 173,000 meters and maintains more than 13,000 miles of lines.