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Wasco County, Oregon, is served by two local not-for-profit electric utilities: Wasco Electric Cooperative and Northern Wasco People’s Utility District (PUD). Both are emblematic of the Pacific Northwest’s public power movement that shifted into high gear in the late 1930s, after the federal government built giant hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River and created the Bonneville Power Administration to transmit the massive amounts of electricity they would generate.
Both are based in The Dalles, the county seat. Northern Wasco PUD serves the municipality and a few nearby communities, while Wasco Electric serves the rural areas of the county, whose rolling wheat fields harken to America the Beautiful’s “amber waves of grain.”
In 1930, Oregon voters approved a ballot measure enabling the creation of people’s utility districts, or PUDs, to compete with investor-owned utilities (IOUs). The Housewives Council of Portland and the Oregon State Grange had been pushing for years to loosen the IOUs’ iron grip on the electricity market, according to Rural Electrification in Oregon: 1930–1955, a study by Katie Archambault.
Northern Wasco PUD was approved by The Dalles voters on August 15, 1939, but it had to wait almost 10 years to serve its first customers because of stiff opposition from the incumbent utility, Pacific Power & Light (PP&L). Even then, the city council wouldn’t give the PUD an exclusive franchise, which meant it competed with the IOU for customers, sometimes on the same block. Rate wars between the two utilities lasted until 1976, when PP&L sold its facilities to the PUD.
Over the years, Wasco County Electric expanded to serve consumers in four other Columbia River Basin counties: Sherman, Jefferson, Gilliam, and Wheeler. The co-op’s footprint now covers more than 5,000 square miles.
Before 1940, PP&L showed little interest in helping farmers and ranchers get lights. It kept its line extension fees and kilowatt-hour rates above their reach.
Eric Johnson, a rancher whose place was near The Dalles, could see the IOU’s lines from his house but could not get service. Tired of banging his head against a wall, he invited 16 neighbors to meet at the Dufur city hall on April 4, 1940, to discuss alternative ways of getting power. They decided a co-op might work, and so they elected a board of incorporators and hired a coordinator to sign up co-op members at $5 each.
By June, the incorporators had hired an engineer to map out a distribution system, and two months later, the federal Rural Electrification Administration approved a $240,000 loan to build 264 miles of line to serve 342 co-op members.
Wasco Electric’s first annual meeting was held on October 29, 1940, at the civic auditorium in The Dalles. The incorporators, recast as the board of directors, hired Johnson to be the co-op’s superintendent and Irma E. Gedney to be its secretary. They rented an office at 316 E. Third St., just a few blocks from Wasco Electric’s current address.
Line construction began the following March, with co-op members helping the hired crews clear rights-of-way, dig holes, and set poles. On May 24, board President W.E. Davis, wielding a long stick like a magic wand, flipped the substation switch that energized the first 26 miles of line.
It was a momentous occasion that brought several hundred farmers and ranchers into town for a picnic lunch and to listen to speeches about how they, as co-op members, had achieved something PP&L said couldn’t be done.
Archambault, in her study, said Wasco Electric was particularly conscientious about providing area coverage and, by the late 1940s, had closed almost all the unserved gaps in Wasco County, including a 29-mile stretch of line that served only seven farms.
“By 1952, those farmhouses were using $20,000 worth of power a year,” she wrote.
She cited another example in Sherman County, where 165 farmers had assembled one night to hear proposals by PP&L and Wasco Electric. When it was his turn to speak, Johnson pointed to a map of the area and challenged the PP&L representative: “All right, if you will promise to serve everybody on this map as we do, we’ll give you our maps and let you serve the farmers.”
The PP&L man couldn’t say yes and keep his job, and Wasco Electric soon extended its service area to the east.