To find out how
Verendrye Electric Cooperative came to serve 134 townships in seven central North Dakota counties, the first thing to do is visit the ghost town of the same name and talk to a wheat farmer named David Ashley.
That's what Member Services Manager Tom Rafferty did before writing the co-op's colorful 75th anniversary book, "Building a Dream Together," in 2014.
Ashley and his wife, Jo, the only residents in this once-bustling railroad town, showed Rafferty a mostly grassed-over patch of rubble near a steel farm building where the co-op operated out of a shuttered bank from 1939 to 1941.
The Verendrye town site is near where state highways 52 and 2 cross east of Minot, in the open prairie along the Souris River. The co-op's headquarters is now in Velva, a town of 1,200 a dozen miles southwest.
There's a sepia photo of the nondescript bank in the book, as well as a wide shot of the town, which, according to Rafferty's research, once had a hotel, a school, two churches, two grain elevators, a lumber yard, a brickyard, a service station, a few stores, and perhaps two dozen homes. The only structure still standing is the brick-and-stone façade of the school, which rises out of the Ashleys' wheat field.
The town began to decline after the Great Northern Railway switched to diesel engines and no longer needed to stop there for water. The last resident, David Ashley's grandmother, moved away in 1970. Sometime after that, Verendrye dropped off the official highway map of the state.
Ironically, the co-op had to extend a distribution line to the old town site after David and Jo moved back to the family farm in 1990. The original line had been removed after standing idle for many years, and David and his older brother Stephen, who farms with him but lives in Minot, helped Verendrye Electric linemen do the work.
Co-op electricity "started here, and we helped put it back in," David says.
David remembers his grandfather talking about charging a 32-volt battery for lights when he was a young man and the difficulty of bringing central station electricity to the area. Stephen remembers learning that some people in Verendrye resisted it. "Some people would say, 'You can bring it, but we don't want it.'"
H.H. Blackstead and his wife, Dorothy, who owned the grain elevators, are credited with getting the co-op off the ground. Their son David, a retired school administrator living in Bismarck, showed Rafferty a college thesis he wrote that talks about his father's role:
On a wintry Sunday afternoon in 1938, H.H. Blackstead invited Leo Zaback and Joe A. Keller of Verendrye, and Quentin Johnson, in charge of the Otter Tail Power Company office in Velva, to his home to discuss the possibility of arousing interest in a Rural Electrification Administration (REA) project for the community.
He goes on to say that his father had been corresponding with REA officials in Washington about obtaining a loan and that after the meeting, an application was completed and mailed.
Verendrye Electric received a loan for $90,000 from REA on Sept. 25, 1939. Less than three months later, it signed a contract with a St. Paul, Minnesota, company to build 67 miles of lines and one substation. The following June, it energized a section of line serving 35 farmsteads in the Souris River Valley.
But that makes it seem easier than it really was. After incorporating on Jan. 26, 1939, the Blacksteads and the other founders had trouble creating a viable utility. Farmers were reluctant to part with $5—two-days' pay—to join the co-op. Others doubted the project would ever get off the ground. Serious talk of electrifying such a thinly settled area was seen "as a lot of foolishness."
"We were just coming out of the Depression, and there was no money in the country," James Morley, the co-op's first general manager, told the same historian in 1979. "Many people did not believe it could be done. … People around selling wind chargers told farmers you couldn't milk and cook at the same time because the REA lines didn't have enough juice."
REA officials twice told H.H. that Verendrye Electric's consumer density was too low for the co-op to qualify for financing. But he persisted, and after a few lignite coal mines near Velva—much bigger loads than farms—signed up, REA approved the first loan.
Rafferty interviewed a number of original members and co-op employees for his book. Member Arnold Erber's boyhood recollection captures it well:
"Every night as it got dark, you could see how far the Verendrye boys had gotten that day in putting in power lines," he said. "You just looked across the fields, and there was another farm lit up."