Arkansas farmers had to be sold on rural electrification in the early 1930s. Most of them were too busy scratching out a living in depleted soil to take time to find out what central station power could do for them. Farm Bureau representatives, county agricultural extension agents and home demonstration agents did the selling.
Once co-ops started organizing, the agents’ offices (usually in the county courthouse) became beehives of activity, according to the autumn 1987 issue of “The Arkansas Historical Quarterly.”
Before the federal Rural Electrification Administration would consider funding a project, detailed maps had to be drawn showing roads, terrain features, homes, farms, schools and businesses. Surveys of potential consumers had to be completed: Would they pay $5 for a co-op membership fee? How would they use electricity on their farm? Would they provide free easements for poles and lines?
Once all the information was in, it was sent to Elbert E. Karns, the state’s top agricultural engineer. Part of his job was to combine projects that were not feasible on a single-county basis. He also plotted the proposed power line routes.
Karns met frequently with Farm Bureau representatives and extension agents.
“He was also involved in countless county-level meetings to help explain the REA programs to farmers,” says the Arkansas Quarterly article.
In the late summer of 1936, Karns and an REA official began an eight-county speaking tour to further spread the word. One farmer who heard them describe the opportunities presented by the REA program declared, “It was one of the most fantastic pictures that I had ever heard.”
By November that year, co-op organizing was underway in 26 of Arkansas’s 75 counties, and 11 multi-county projects looked feasible. Filling stations, general stores, recreation centers, schools, churches, cotton gins, large irrigation pumps, coal mines and sawmills, as well as farms and rural homes had all put up a $5 membership fee.
One extension agent described “an almost religious fervor to the work.” He and other co-op organizers held “several meetings every day and at least one and sometimes more every night” for two straight months.
“I have driven that old car as it has never been driven before,” he said. “My travel money ran out, and I kept on traveling.”
Right behind the extension agents came the home demonstration agents.
“Many a home demonstration club woman trudged up and down the hot dusty roads of summer signing up families and getting easements,” said their state coordinator, Connie J. Bonslagel, in a 1939 report. “Home demonstration agents met with committee groups at night, holding inspirational REA meetings and pointing the way to better farm life through the use of electric power.”
After a co-op was organized and a board of directors had been elected, a fresh cadre of crusaders hit the road. Rayburn Sullivan, the extension agent in Craighead County noted in 1937 that serving as a director was not merely a mark of prestige.
“The directors would have to be people who would be willing to spend a lot of time getting the cooperative moving,” he said. “They would have to spend a lot of time visiting with other people to get them interested in the cooperative.”
They would have to be the salespeople who closed the deal.