Among Washington Electric Cooperative’s archives is a photo of then-Vermont Governor George Aiken in the bed of a pickup at a ceremony marking the setting of the co-op’s first pole on October 12, 1939.
“You folks don’t know what you’ve started,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you had 1,000 members someday.”
Also in the archive are the words of an unnamed WEC member who was at the McKnight farm in East Montpelier on that day and remembered 25 years later that the pole was “well-braced, standing black against a cold sky with bright leaves whirling in the wind.” The 100 or so members who joined him “looked at each other in disbelief. No one imagined there would be more than three thousand in 1964.”
There are also Barbara Nelson’s reminiscences of growing up in the village of Middlesex without electricity: listening every evening to “Amos and Andy” and “Fibber McGee and Molly” on a radio charged with a car battery, keeping milk from her family’s one cow in a neighbor’s springhouse so it wouldn’t spoil.
She recalls the determination of her father, Harmon Kelley, to bring those dark days to an end.
“Dad was a visionary,” she wrote. “He could see the rural areas around Montpelier having electric power.”
When investor-owned Green Mountain Power got wind of Kelley’s efforts to organize a co-op, an agent for the company paid him a visit. He offered to run a line to Kelley’s home if he would stop “this foolishness.”
When the agent refused do the same for his rural neighbors, Kelley’s response was emphatic: “No, thanks!”
That prompted a threat, according to Nelson: GMP would see to it that her father lost his job.
Ignoring the threat, Kelley and two other Washington County residents incorporated WEC on July 29, 1939. Less than two months later, The Burlington Free Press reported that the Rural Electrification Administration had sent a telegram from Washington, D.C., confirming approval of the fledgling utility’s application for a $68,000 loan.
The money would be used to build 55 miles of distribution line. Another $25,000 was approved in November for a 30-kilowatt diesel power plant (two 128-horsepower engines) WEC would install under the supervision of an REA engineer.
Another local newspaper reported that electricians “from East Montpelier to Peacham are all so busy wiring the 150 houses that want electricity … that for several months it has been almost impossible to hire any small jobs done in this vicinity.
“Not all of the whole number of buildings are in readiness at the present date to receive the juice at the first turn of the switch, but all are expected to be ready to be supplied with it at some time in December.”
Some of these buildings would be wired with funds from a third REA disbursement of $2,500, which the co-op re-lent to members at 6 percent interest for up to 5 years.
Gov. Aiken returned to East Montpelier on December 2 to dedicate the power plant and throw the switch that energized the lines running from East Montpelier to the outlying villages of Plainfield, Calais, Marshfield and Middlesex.
This was the not-for-profit utility Harmon Kelley worked towards, first as an organizer, then an incorporator and now as president of the board of directors. Doing the day-to-day work was the REA engineer, Clarke Millen, who stayed on until December 1941; a bookkeeper; and a man who was being trained to operate the diesel generators and function as “trouble man.”
Each member who attended the energization ceremony was given a handout with advice for new members:
“The success or failure of the Cooperative will depend upon the extent to which each member fulfills his responsibility of taking an active part in its affairs. Each member has one vote. It is as important to cast it as it is to go to town meeting.”
It is “the duty of all members to urge their neighbors living along the lines to join the cooperative and wire their farms. The more connected members, and the more electricity they use, the lower the rate schedule can be set.”
And, “Electricity on the farm can be a source of profit rather than an added expense, if you will only let it.”