New York has only four small electric co-ops. The biggest,
Steuben Rural Electric Cooperative (REC), has just over 6,000 members, but it probably wouldn’t have reached even this modest size without earning a reputation in the 1950s and ’60s as the friendly utility in the Finger Lakes region.
That was a time when dozens of new cottages were springing up on the lakes’ shores, weekend getaways for city folks from Rochester, Buffalo, and Syracuse. Steuben REC embraced these new consumers, while New York Gas & Electric (NYG&E) made it a hassle and an unanticipated expense to get hooked up to central-station power.
A symbol of this difference in the late 1960s was the security light near the old tavern at the head of Goodhue Lake, whose heavily wooded shores were lined with cottages. NYG&E told the tavern’s owner he would have to pay for a line extension, as well as to have the light pole and the light fixture installed. Steuben REC, to his surprise, did the entire job free of charge.
When ground was broken for a new cottage, a representative from the co-op was there to meet the builder. Within days, temporary power for construction—saws, drills, space heaters—was in place. This, too, was free, as were the kilowatt-hours consumed during construction.
To Manager Walt Flynn, that was just good business. If a co-op couldn’t give its members more and better service than an investor-owned utility, it might as well close its doors.
Weekenders were also buying old farms in the Finger Lakes region, and Flynn had a business philosophy about those, too: “We never take down service to farms and rural homes which have been abandoned,” he told RE Magazine in the fall of 1969. “We know from experience that in just a short while, some fellow from the city will buy the place to fix up as a country home away from home.”
And that was measurable in kilowatt-hours. “After renovation, the place ends up using more power than it did as a working farm,” he said.
Steuben REC’s biggest single load was Steuben Crushed Stone (SCS), which turned local sandstone into aggregate for concrete. Nearly all the company’s crushers and conveyors were electric. NYG&E quoted $120,000 to run service to the operation.
“Imagine the elation when the co-op offered to install service free of charge,” an SCS engineer remarked at the time.
During the late ’60s and early ’70s, mobile homes were beginning to take the place of drafty old farmhouses, which were notoriously hard to heat and expensive to maintain. Flynn and Gerald Allen, his power use advisor, made friends with owners of mobile home parks and listened when they said they needed underground lines and individual meters to compete for new customers.
With mobile homes becoming larger and more luxurious every year, the co-op was projecting kilowatt-hour use close to the typical stick-built rural home in the service territory.
Agriculture, the oldest sector of the local economy, was also benefitting from Steuben REC’s progressive outlook. Dairy farmers were copying the improvements former co-op President Leo Dickson was making to his operation, where 200 Holsteins took shelter from the cold, snow-bound upstate New York winters in a modern, airplane-hanger-style barn.
Dickson and his three sons had electrified the feed parlors and installed electric heating pads in the cows’ stalls. The output of the electric milking machines stayed fresh in a couple of 2,000-gallon bulk storage tanks kept cool with electric refrigeration.
Already a model for what electricity could do for the modern dairy farm, the Dicksons’ next improvement was an electric silo.
Meanwhile, Steuben REC had recently brought another farm into the 20th century by extending a line 2 miles without charging the new member.
“The private power company had lines a half-mile away,” owner Anna Zyla explained. “They wanted so much surcharge for connecting us, we refused to pay on principle even after we could afford to pay.”