Idaho’s Fall River Rural Electric Cooperative, like so many electric co-ops across the country, succeeded a small private utility that had done a good job serving in-town customers but couldn’t serve all the farms and ranches in the countryside that wanted power.

It all started with a 1912 visit to the Teton Valley by Utah newlyweds Jens and Laura Jeppesen. Jens, 36 and a self-taught mechanical engineer who had already built a steam power plant and a flourmill, was hunting for a place to build a hydroelectric plant and distribute electricity to nearby homes and businesses.

He rounded up some local investors, and a year later Teton Valley Power & Milling Company (TVP&M) was a going concern. The theater in the town of Driggs was soon selling tickets for moving pictures and the Mormon Church was being wired for lights. 

Driggs is just west of Grand Teton National Park. It’s the seat of Teton County, where Fall River REC has a district office.

Near the mouth of Teton Canyon, Jeppesen fitted the Teton River with a 650-kilowatt turbine. But there were problems with it and other plant components almost immediately. 

A canal above the penstock washed out in a storm, leaving customers without power for a month while a flume was built to replace the canal. Snowdrifts blocked the flow of water down to the turbine. In 1915, “six men, working hard, could not keep the mush ice from forming on the screens.” Then the water wheel iced up, damaging the turbine. 

Power was off more than it was on.

With his disgruntled customers and stockholders breathing down his neck, Jeppesen built a steam plant in Driggs for generating electricity and milling wheat barley, oats and alfalfa for valley farmers.

“But the upkeep was high … costing $40 every 18 hours,” the entrepreneur recalled years later in the Teton Valley News. “The income from sales of electricity was only $25 every 24 hours.”

So the unstoppable Jeppesen went big. He hired a crew to drill and blast a 60-foot-long tunnel at a bend in the river to direct water to two penstocks that carried the water to two turbines 80 feet below. The tunnel was 8 feet in diameter.

The power plant was completed in 1923, and at 2,150 kilowatts, was three times the size of the plant it replaced. It allowed Jens and Laura and their four children to prosper from a Depression-proof service everybody wanted. 

The Jeppesens’ company served Driggs and Ashton and other towns in the Teton Valley, but it also built lines to farms where it saw profit. In fact, the company, like the co-op it preceded, tried to build load by educating farmers on how electricity could modernize their operations. 

TVP&M promoted irrigation, yard lights, milk sterilizers, grain cleaners, lamb, pig and chicken brooders and other agricultural technologies. It tried to fulfill the promise of the investments sheepherding and farming families had made back in 1912.

Still, when the Rural Electrification Administration got up and running in 1935, there were dozens of unelectrified farms and ranches in the greater Teton Valley area, especially north and west of Driggs. In December 1938, a group of local leaders took action. Meeting around the warm wood stove in the Howe Lumber Company building in Ashton, they organized Fall River REC. 

The co-op received its first REA loan ($80,000) the next year and used it to build 62 miles of distribution line. Loans of up to $10 were offered to members so they could wire their homes and barns ahead of energization. More lines were built in 1941 and 1947.

TVP&M kept adding customers, too, and it had a friendly business relationship with the co-op, according to an article about the Jeppesens published in the summer 2004 issue of Teton Valley Magazine.

TVP&M turbines on the Teton River were still generating power in the mid-1950s (as they are today), when the private utility began having trouble keeping up with growth in its service area. The larger Fall River REC had the resources to extend lines to rural areas TVP&M could not reach.

The Jeppesens sold out to Fall River REC in November 1960, and the co-op continues to serve Teton and four other counties in southeastern Idaho, as well as Teton County, Wyoming and Gallatin County, Montana. It reaches 14,000 co-op members living along 2,217 miles of line and owns four hydro plants.