Rural development was all the rage in the 1960s. Most of the electric co-ops organized in the 1930s and '40s had finished building their distribution systems, and many were looking for other ways to improve the quality of life for their members.
People living in small towns and rural areas clamored for better telephone and water services and improved television reception, amenities that could also help grow local economies. That small manufacturing plant with 50 good jobs wasn't coming to town without them.
The Rural Electrification Administration (REA) and NRECA put their administrative and political weight behind rural development, and one memorable success story came out of northeast Alabama, where
Sand Mountain Electric Cooperative (SMEC) completed a "hat trick:" electricity, telephone, and water.
SMEC formed in 1940 and quickly grew to 1,800 customers and 309 miles of line in a purchase that year from Alabama Power Company. Construction slowed during WWII, but member applications kept rolling in. By 1946, there were 4,000 service requests necessitating 1,000 miles of line, which the co-op completed in 1950.
But even before that, something had to be done about telephone service in DeKalb and Jackson counties, which was either spotty or nonexistent. The board of directors authorized the co-op's employees to help in any way they could. The result, coming in 1954, was Farmers Telephone Cooperative.
The next year, an SMEC member survey revealed that only about half of the homes the co-op served had running water. So the co-op, with REA's backing, started promoting home water systems, an initiative that was community-minded and an easy way to build load.
But as farm families began to drill wells, install pumps, and consume more and more water, the water table in the area dropped to the point where deeper and deeper wells were required, and at great expense.
Someone proposed a solution: start a water utility that would pump water from the nearby Tennessee River to the more thickly settled communities, leaving the groundwater for homes in the sparsely settled areas. The co-op kept the idea alive through its newsletter.
In 1960, co-op Manager Mark Stewart was invited to lead a discussion about the water issue at the civic club in Section, Alabama. He had been at the forefront of the organization of both Sand Mountain Electric and Farmers Telephone, both of which were financed with REA loans.
A committee was appointed that night to look into what it would take to start a water utility, and over the next few months, a plan of action took shape. After 2,000 people showed an interest in becoming customers, an engineer was hired to conduct a feasibility study.
Things moved rapidly after that: Within a few months, the engineer designed a water system serving 1,500 households in four communities, bids were solicited and received, a contractor was chosen, and work began.
The water system was financed with bonds, but before the underwriters released the funds, they stipulated that Stewart manage the new utility for the first two to five years of operation, a critical time for any new business.
"Sand Mountain area rural citizens can look forward to living with all the conveniences of town-dwellers: electric service, telephones and, now, a central system to supply them with plenty of pure water," an
RE Magazine article stated at the time. "These people have demonstrated again what can be done by working together cooperatively to make their community a better place to live."