In the spring of 1935, Dr. J.R. Travis and Francis Pitts spent countless hours driving Caroline County, Virginia’s country roads, stopping at farms, schools and churches.
Their purpose was to explain the federal government’s new rural electrification program and persuade folks to pay a $5 membership fee to join an electric cooperative. These mostly poor people also had to agree to spend at least $3.50 a month for electricity once the power lines had been built.
Travis and Pitts had already talked to officials in Washington and knew they needed to sign up at least 300 members and plan on building at least 100 miles of line.
Unlike in other rural areas around the country, these goals proved easy to reach. By October they had collected 500 membership forms. Then in November, they and the other community leaders assisting them collected another 300.
The Caroline Progress newspaper in Bowling Green, Virginia, heralded this success with a front-page headline that read, “REA Project Arouses Wide Interest.” And below that: “No project in many years, if ever, has aroused such widespread interest among Caroline County people as the proposed electrification of the rural areas of the county.”
Virginia law didn’t provide for electric cooperatives, so Travis and Pitts incorporated Farmers Rural Utilities (FRU) as a not-for-profit company on November 29. They asked four other local men, all community leaders, to join them in forming FRU’s first board of directors.
Less than two months later, the board hired William Brown to plan a distribution system and get it built.
“Borrowed two small tables, two chairs, and typewriter … and moved into office quarters, using hallway pending preparation of the two front first floor rooms for our use,” he wrote in his journal on January 28, 1936.
By this time or soon afterward, FRU received approval from the federal Rural Electrification Administration for a $366,000 construction loan. And by March, a line was being built near Doswell in Hanover County, one of two other neighboring counties that had been brought into the project.
That line, part of a 3,750-mile network Brown and the board developed with REA’s guidance, was energized on August 8, according to a company history published on the website of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative, FRU’s successor. It was the first REA-financed power line in Virginia and on the East Coast.
FRU was renamed Virginia Electric Cooperative soon after the Virginia General Assembly passed enabling legislation for co-ops in June 1938. At about the same time, the co-op started construction on a headquarters building just north of Bowling Green, using Works Progress Administration (WPA) funds.
“It finally had sufficient facilities to bring electric service to the surrounding areas and counties,” the history explains.
Meanwhile, another REA-financed co-op had started up in the region. And in late September 1938, the Virginia Star reported that Northern Piedmont Electric Cooperative had received a $160,000 loan from REA. Line construction was soon proceeding at a pace of four miles a day.
Seven months later, on April 22, the fledgling utility energized a line serving 130 homes in Culpeper and Madison counties.
Both northern Virginia co-ops prospered until the 1970s energy crisis drove up wholesale power costs and forced them together.
“A comprehensive study pointed the way to economic benefits for the memberships of both cooperatives,” the history explains. “By combining operations, the two cooperatives would apply costs to a greater number of members and eliminate the need for duplicate facilities for serving power in the same general area. As a result, the cost of doing business would be reduced, ensuring the economic viability of the cooperatives and reliable delivery of electricity to the region.”
The membership of Northern Piedmont Electric approved the consolidation on August 16, 1979, and the membership of Virginia Electric did the same nine days later.
Rappahannock Electric Cooperative began serving the 16 counties the two original co-ops brought to the union on January 1, 1980.
Today, Rappahannock Electric serves 170,000 meters in 22 counties, making it one of the largest co-op distribution centers in the country.