It’s nice to be first, but sometimes, second is pretty good too.
Pontotoc Electric Power Association (PEPA) in northeastern Mississippi proudly touts its position as the second electric co-op to go into business in the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) era of rural electrification. Alcorn County Electric Power Association (often called ACE) beat it by eight months in June 1934.
Before the Rural Electrification Administration got up to speed, ACE, in Corinth, Mississippi, was where rural policy officials in Washington and at TVA chose to test the electric co-op business model. It was known as the Corinth Experiment.
PEPA goes by the slogan “Second Oldest Electric Cooperative in America.”
The history page on the co-op’s website pinpoints the precise day and time PEPA became a going concern in a footnoted narrative by Chuck Howell, the co-op’s general manager.
“At midnight between Thursday, February 28, and Friday, March 1, 1935, the Tennessee Valley Authority read a meter on a primary metering point located on State Highway 6 at the Lee-Pontotoc County line and officially transferred its interests in the electric distribution system to Pontotoc County Electric Power Association.”
Go back to September 30, 1933, and PEPA was holding its first organizational meeting at the county courthouse in Pontotoc. The following February, it filed incorporation papers at the state capital in Jackson.
By this time, TVA had purchased the assets of the investor-owned utility serving Alcorn, Pontotoc, and six other counties in the region for $850,743.
“Due to the high capital costs of line construction in rural areas with very low customer densities, Mississippi Power Company served only the towns proper and practically none of the rural areas in these counties,” Howell writes.
TVA began to build distribution lines in Pontotoc County, connecting the villages of Springvale, Randolph, and Toccopola, which were transferred to PEPA on that February midnight.
The next year, PEPA extended its line south into Calhoun County and dropped the word “County” from its name to reflect its regional coverage.
The co-op helped the city of Pontotoc install its first two traffic lights in 1937. Howell notes that at that time, traffic lights came only with red and green signals, not yellow.
That same year, TVA built a 44-kilovolt transmission line across Pontotoc County and a new substation just west of town to stabilize voltage. Then in 1947, TVA upgraded the substation and extended the line so the co-op could handle more load, facts Howell found in the archives of the Pontotoc Progress newspaper.
A fully fledged utility now, the co-op needed more and better space for its headquarters. The board of directors decided to remodel a building that had housed a wholesale grocery business.
According to the January 19, 1950, issue of the Progress, “The remodeling job includes a year-round heating and air-conditioning system, partitioning of office space, engineering and drafting room, metering laboratory, vault for storage of records, auditorium for seating about 45 people, appliance demonstration room…”
The two exterior walls facing the street were mostly glass with a sun canopy extending over the sidewalk, making the building “one of the most modern in the state.”
Three years later, PEPA built a branch office in Bruce, the Calhoun County seat, and three years after that (1956), the “Second Oldest Electric Cooperative in America” was credited with an auspicious “first”: the first bucket truck in Mississippi, a Sky Worker with a reach of 40 feet.
General Manager J.C. “Cy” Sneed “has lost his mind spending that kind of money for a bucket truck,” another utility general manager said when he heard it cost $10,000.
But Sneed had the last laugh.
“We used that first bucket for 14 years and sold it for $9,000,” he said many years later. “I think it was a pretty good investment.”