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Americans' confidence in institutions of all kinds is in decline, and that's particularly true of banks. Gallup polls show their favorable numbers dropping from 60% to 30% between 1979 and 2018.
An August 1960 article in RE Magazine about electric co-op credit unions offers a window into a more trusting time.
Like the co-ops themselves, these not-for-profit banking institutions were locally controlled and small. Workmates and neighbors made loan decisions.
In 1960, 22 electric co-ops operated credits unions. NRECA even had one. Organized in 1954, it had, according to the article, "78 enthusiastic members" and total savings of $31,000. The previous year it had made 71 loans totaling $22,000.
One of the 22 was Westby Co-op Credit Union. It was formed in 1940 when four co-ops based in Westby, Wisconsin, banded together because none was big enough to operate its own credit union. Twenty years later, the little banking institution had 239 members.
The four were
Vernon Electric Cooperative, Westby Farmers Union Co-op, Tri-State Breeders Co-op, and the Westby Co-op Creamery. Their members, many of them farmers, came from all around.
"Practically every family in a 50-mile radius of Westby is eligible for membership because of their membership in one or more of our Westby co-ops," Treasurer N.F. Leifer, also general manager of Vernon Electric, told the magazine.
Another Wisconsin credit union, at
Dairyland Power Cooperative up the road in La Crosse, had been in operation for eight years in 1960. It had 141 members and savings of $44,498.
Treasurer Lois Schomers ran it from her desk in the G&T's front office. It was open from 9 to 5 Monday through Friday, and "there have been no losses due to unpaid loans," she noted.
A.G. Loudon, general manager of
Clay Electric Cooperative in Keystone Heights, Florida, said an employee credit union was a natural fit for his membership.
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"We discovered many of our employees needed money to make down payments on new homes, to purchase furnishings, or to meet a financial emergency. We had other employees, further along in years, who had excess funds to invest. It seemed obvious that the two groups should be doing business with each other. We looked for a method, and we found the credit union program."
Only employees or members of their families were eligible to join, and 94 percent of employees had already done so, he said. They were encouraged to save through payroll deductions.
He said the 12% interest these Clay Electric staff members paid on loans were contrasted by 18% to 24% on purchases made with time-payment agreements and 36% to 40% on loans from local finance companies.
The most common reason for borrowing from co-op credit unions, the RE article said, was debt consolidation for a combined lower interest rate, along with medical bills, vehicles, furniture, and family vacations.
The article, written by an official at the Credit Union National Association, noted that the organizations were generally run by two committees: supervisory and credit.
The supervisory committee is "the watchdog," it said, providing the security and trust essential to the institution's success.
The credit committee, "the heart of the operation," makes loan decisions guided by the credit union motto: "Not for profit, not for charity, but for service."