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An old black-and-white photo of a prune-drying shed contains at least two clues to how rural electrification got a foothold in Douglas County, Oregon, in 1938 and 1939.
Cordwood is stacked high against one outside wall, and the shed is raised off the ground on timber piers.
Prune plums—a small, purple Italian varietal—were a major crop in the Umpqua River Valley back then. The fresh fruit had to be dried, usually by burning wood in a brick furnace under the shed floor.
But electric drying saved time and money that could be spent on other things, and that motivated local prune-plum farmers. They were among the members of the Camas Valley Grange who paid a visit to the Tenmile Grange one night in 1937. Many meetings later, the farmers incorporated West Douglas Electric Cooperative and applied for a $132,000 loan from the federal Rural Electrification Administration (REA).
West Douglas Electric held its first annual meeting on February 6, 1939, at the Lookingglass Grange hall, and soon after that, the pint-size utility signed a contract for the construction of distribution lines.
Then, “on Thursday, September 7, 1939, in the early morning, successful tests indicated the lines worked properly,” says a photo book published by Douglas Electric Cooperative (DEC), West Douglas’s successor. “That Thursday afternoon, about a dozen prune dryers, for the first time, were operated by commercial electrical power.”
Meanwhile, farmers in the northern part of Douglas County were moving forward with their own plan to get central station electricity.
They retained Maurice Hallmark, a lawyer in Roseburg, the county seat, to file incorporation papers for North Douglas Electric Cooperative on June 22, 1940. (He had done the same for the West Douglas group.)
Rush Clarke, a prominent prune-plum farmer whose father, W.B., owned and operated a sawmill, led the northerners. According to current Douglas Electric Administrative Assistant Cris Pearson, Rush’s prune-drying shed, built in 1910, still stands.
The northern co-op borrowed $183,000 from REA, and on July 15, 1941, energized 117 miles of line to serve 125 consumers.
At first, both West Douglas Electric and North Douglas Electric purchased wholesale power from California Oregon Power Company. Later, North Douglas signed a 20-year contract with the Bonneville Power Administration.
Less than a year after North Douglas got into business, the boards of the two co-ops voted to merge, with North Douglas agreeing to sell its assets to West Douglas. The membership ratified the merger and a new name, Douglas Electric Cooperative, on June 30, 1942.
Clarke was elected president of the new board and another prune-plum farmer, Adolph Doerner, was elected vice president.
At the time, Douglas Electric had 1,193 members living along 361 miles of line, giving it a consumer density of 3.3 consumers per mile. The distribution system sold 103,843 kWh the first month, an average of 87 kWh per household.
Today, Roseburg-based DEC has 10,200 consumers and 1,695 miles of line. Its consumer density is 6 consumers per mile, and the average residential usage is 1,081 kWh per month.
The prune industry there didn’t fare so well. The last commercial prune-dryer in the county shut down a few years ago.