Clever politicians try to reduce national problems down to local ones that any voter can understand. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt did that with the rural electrification problem. He took action on it in 1935 because, he said, of the exorbitantly high rates at his mountain getaway in Georgia.
Minnesota Senator Henrik Shipstead did FDR one better: He took action because his cabin in the state’s lake country didn’t even have electricity.
Shipstead, like his Senate colleague George Norris of Nebraska, had seen up close the drudgery, isolation and economic disadvantage of not having lights and power on the farm. And he knew about two significant rural electrification experiments in his state.
In 1914, farmers in Yellow Medicine County started a cooperative, Stony Run Light and Power Company, which by year’s end had 26 members. The co-op bought power wholesale from a hydroelectric plant in Granite Falls, the county seat.
“Farmers on the line paid for all equipment, including poles, line, transformers and meters, at a per-farm cost of $400 to $750,” according to a Minnesota Historical Society article written by Linda A. Cameron. “By 1921, the number of farms on the line grew to 50. Annual fees ranged from $30 to $75, depending on power usage.”
Two years later, an agricultural engineering professor at the University of Minnesota launched the groundbreaking experiment in rural electrification known as the Red Wing Project. Extensive data on electricity usage and quality of life changes was collected from nine farms over a number of years. The project’s success prompted 23 other states to conduct similar experiments.
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The Red Wing data was foundational to Roosevelt’s Rural Electrification Administration and paved the way for the first REA-financed co-op in the state, Meeker Cooperative Power & Light Association in Litchfield.
Meeker energized its first lines in November 1936 and a few months later, set up a demonstration project on member Charles Ness’s farm. According to Cameron, appliance and farm implement companies furnished 67 pieces of electrical equipment for it. Two thousand people attended the grand opening in June 1937, and within the first two years, 37,000 others from the U.S. and abroad had visited the farm.
Sen. Shipstead’s cabin was on Lake Irene in Douglas County, two counties over in the center of the state. A power line reached it and 45 nearby farms in September 1937.
The line was operated by Douglas County Cooperative Light and Power Association (now Runestone Electric Association), the state’s second REA-financed co-op. Douglas County Cooperative L&PA had received a $50,000 loan from REA and built 56 miles of line that year.
Minnesota probably would not have been a leader in the electric co-op movement if it hadn’t been for Shipstead, who listened to his Lake Irene neighbors talk about the ways in which affordable electric service could improve their lives, and then advocated for them in Washington.
Born in nearby Kandiyohi County in1881, the eighth of 12 children in a Norwegian immigrant family, he grew up listening to his politically minded father extolling the virtues of the simple farmer. Shipstead won election as mayor of Glenwood in 1910 and to the state House of Representatives in 1916. The next year he joined the Nonpartisan League, then ran for governor under the NPL’s banner in 1920.
He lost, but two years later was nominated by the new Farm-Labor Party to run for a U.S. Senate against incumbent Republican Frank B. Kellogg, whom he easily defeated in a three-way race.
“In the Senate, Shipstead emerged as a progressive advocate for farmers, workers and small-business owners,” Cameron wrote. “He pursued agricultural and labor reform, natural resource preservation, inland waterway navigability, non-interventionism, rural electrification and banking reform.”