One day in the winter of 1938-’39, Ralph Rice, a field man for the Rural Electrification Administration, invited five local leaders to meet with a lawyer named Louis Hallum at the Security State Bank in Aitkin, a county seat in east-central Minnesota.
Hallum owned a small electric utility serving two summer vacation communities hugging the northern shore of Mille Lacs Lake, and he was looking for a buyer. REA, Rice explained, could help the men reorganize the business as an electric cooperative and get low-cost federal financing.
Hallum himself had taken advantage of federal largesse three years earlier when he received a $100,000 grant from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration to build more lines.
Al Westerlund, a resort owner in Malmo, was one of the five men, as was another resort owner, a farmer, a road builder and the owner of a general store. By summer, they had incorporated what is now Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative, bought Hallum’s assets and applied to REA for a $100,000 loan.
The money, the incorporators said, was necessary for the “completion of an adequate, well-rounded electric system.” That definition included Hallum’s 36 miles of distribution line and 40 additional miles the co-op proposed to build to reach more farms.
Westerlund was elected secretary-treasurer of the distribution system, and Hallum’s son Warren was hired as project superintendent by a unanimous vote of the board of directors.
Then the hard work began.
“We had to go out and sell the cooperative,” Westerlund recalled in 1962 for Harold Severson, author the book The Night They Turned On the Lights: The Story of the Electric Power Revolution in the North Star State. “At $2 a share, it should have been as easy as selling cold soft drinks at a Fourth of July celebration. Instead, it was more like pulling teeth.”
Westerlund never forgot the winter night in 1940 he made his pitch in the living room of a farmhouse. When he stopped talking, the farmer pointed to the flaming carbide light on the table.
“That light,” he said, “is the only one we need on this farm. We don’t need your electricity.”
“Some people were glad to see us,” the resort owner said. “They had read of these cooperatives being formed in other areas and had heard they were succeeding. So they signed up readily as members and gave us their $2 without any fuss.”
Some days, he went from house to house on skis. He tried not to think about the farmers who didn’t want to obligate themselves to paying a monthly electric bill or lacked the imagination to see how electricity could take the drudgery out of farm life.
He wasn’t discouraged when Mille Lacs Electric had only 297 members when the first annual meeting was held on March 28, 1940. He and his colleagues on the board kept the faith, and by the time of the 1947 annual meeting the co-op had 1,466 members along 360 miles of line.
When Westerlund sat down with Severson 15 years later, there were nearly four times that number. Close to half of those 5,300 accounts were for resorts like his and for individual summer cottages.
Severson wrote of the “remarkable procession” from the Minneapolis and St. Paul areas when public schools let out in June: “An almost bumper to bumper cavalcade of cars, jammed to the bursting point with adults, children, pets, housekeeping equipment and clothing, starts heading northward.
“A favorite stopping place,” he continued, “is famous Mille Lacs Lake, one of the largest of Minnesota’s 10,000-plus lakes with 200-square miles of surface area.”
All because of co-op electricity.