The tidy way of thinking about rural electric service in the United States is that it started on May 11, 1935, the day President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an executive order creating the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). But there were pockets of rural service for years before that.
In 1914, for example, farmers in Yellow Medicine County, Minnesota, formed the Stony Run Light and Power Company. It served 26 farms that year and grew to 50 by 1921, according to Linda A. Cameron of the Minnesota Historical Society. Power came from the municipal hydroelectric plant in Granite Falls, the county seat, which had opened in 1911.
The patrons paid for all the equipment, including poles, line, and meters, at a per-farm cost between $400 and $750, Cameron writes on the historical society's website. Annual fees ranged from $30 to $75, depending on electricity use.
It's possible that this micro-utility was the first electric cooperative in the U.S. What's certain is that it merged with one, Minnesota Valley Cooperative Light and Power Association, in 1947.
Another first electric co-op claimant is Farmers Electric Cooperative (FEC) in Kalona, Iowa, the successor to a stock company named Farmers Light and Power Company, organized by a group of farmers in 1916. The following year, according to the FEC website, the group built 6 miles of line even though it hadn't yet nailed down a power source.
Each farmer put up $175 and provided the labor—his own—to dig the pole holes, pike the poles up off the ground, and string the conductor. When a house mover was killed lifting a span a couple of years later, the farmers assessed themselves $20 each to pay compensation.
More stories of pre-REA rural electrification are found in Nebraska and Rural Electrification Through 1940, a 187-page thesis Roberta Barndt wrote to earn her master's degree in history from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 1976. The Nebraska Rural Electric Association was one of her sources.
In the early 1920s, when fewer than one in 10 Nebraska farms had central station power, “several groups of farmers in Nebraska constructed short lines at their own expense to the nearest power source," she wrote.
One such group built a 6-mile line to serve 10 farms in Howard County, near Grand Island. The patrons split the construction cost of $6,000 and paid for all maintenance and repairs afterward.
They charged themselves 5 cents per kilowatt-hour for retail power, which they bought wholesale from a local utility. They even persuaded the wholesaler to read their meters and keep the group's books.
It was “the cheapest electric power available to farmers anywhere in the state," Barndt wrote.
California had both for-profit and not-for-profit rural electric service. According to Golden State Power Cooperative (statewide), small, community-based utilities sprung up as early as the late 1800s. These “mutual associations," as they were known, typically comprised a small group of neighbors, perhaps three or four adjoining farms, or a dozen or so inhabitants of a crossroads community.
“Together they dug the holes, set the poles, and strung the wires by hand, connecting their homemade electrical systems to a small generator, usually diesel-fired, which would be adequate to power a couple lights for each house and barn, plus a few small motors … when the plant was fired up," the statewide's website notes.
By 1917, close to 18% of California farms—around triple the national average—benefitted from central station power because, agricultural historian Richard Hirsch explains, they lived between the hydroelectric dams in the Sierra Nevada mountains and the big coastal cities.
“Utility company managers realized they could obtain higher load factors by selling electricity to a diversity of customers, especially farmers who used electric pumps to irrigate," he wrote in a recent issue of the journal Agricultural History.
By 1925, 40% of the state's farms paid a monthly bill to a utility, and by 1931, that number rose to 63%.
Beyond such poles-in-the-ground examples, other groups put early pressure on lawmakers to help with rural electrification. The Washington State Grange, for instance, collected more than 60,000 signatures—twice the number necessary—on a petition in 1929 demanding the state legislature pass a bill allowing rural communities to form their own publicly owned utilities.
When the legislature failed to act, the voters passed a statewide referendum in 1930, 54% to 46%, according to the Washington Public Utility Districts Association.
The first such utility, Mason County Public Utility District No.1, started serving customers in 1935, the year REA was born.