Any Bitterroot Valley rancher who’d been to Missoula in the early 1930s and seen the comforts that came with central station power couldn’t help but wonder what it would take to get a line run out to his place.
Holmes Maclay, whose ranch was a dozen or so miles south of the city near the small crossroads town of Lolo, took the next step one day: He asked Montana Power Company for a quote.
The number he got—$10,000 for 1,000 feet of line—almost knocked him off his horse.
“That kind of money was impossible for him to raise,” says a history of Missoula Electric Cooperative. “In fact, that amount would have bought his ranch.”
Luckily for Maclay and hundreds of other Montana ranchers and farmers, the Federal Emergency Relief Agency had already begun a survey that would lead, in a few short years, to the establishment of electric co-ops and affordable power in the state.
The purpose of the survey was to find out how much electricity ranches and farms would use and whether it would justify the cost of running power lines out across places like the Bitterroot Valley.
Similar work was going on in Helena, the capital, where the State Water Conservation Board (SWCB) was looking into the electrification opportunities and needs of proposed federal dams and irrigation projects.
In 1935, the Montana legislature passed the State Electricity Authority Act, which created an electrification division within the SWCB. It soon became a place where co-op organizers could go for engineering advice and help filling out loan applications to the Rural Electrification Administration in Washington.
A group from Missoula County that included Maclay was one of the first in line. M.M. Oliphant, the county extension agent, and SWCB engineer J.M. Garrison filed a loan application for $80,960.15 that was approved in October 1936. The money would be used to build 72 miles of distribution line to serve 326 consumers.
The Missoula County Electrification Association was set up as a not-for-profit stock company, with shares priced at $10 each. Maclay and 10 other organizers sold them to ranchers and farmers in their local areas.
That December, Maclay and four others signed the incorporation papers. At the first stockholder meeting on Jan. 5, 1937, it was reported that 95 people had purchased at least one share, according to the co-op history. At a stockholder meeting in late March, Maclay was elected president of the board of directors.
Things moved quickly from there, although board members complained that they were so busy with association work, they couldn’t keep up with their farm and ranch work. In August, they hired a local man, L.L. Howland, to fill the role of project superintendent at a salary of $125 a month.
The first lines—a total of 75 miles—were energized in the spring of 1938. They reached the homes, ranches, and businesses of 125 stockholders.
Missoula Electric Association had only one more thing to do to enter the mainstream of the rural utilities then cropping up across the country: In July 1939, stockholders attending a special meeting voted to convert their fledgling utility to a not-for-profit cooperative (under the Rural Electrification Cooperative Act adopted by the Montana legislature earlier that year) and to change its name to Missoula Electric Cooperative.