Most electric co-ops have preserved an anecdote or two about their early years. Farmers’ Electric Cooperative’s (FEC) best one took place on April Fool’s Day in 1940.
That was the day, a gray Monday, the Chillicothe, Missouri-based distribution system made its first connection to the U.M. Babbs residence east of town.
Mrs. Babbs couldn’t believe what the lineman who knocked on her door was telling her.
“I thought it was an April Fool’s joke,” she recalled years later. “I chased him off with a broom!”
This was 13 months after FEC obtained a loan of $505,000 from the Rural Electrification Administration (REA)—and after a lot of hard organizing work. A co-op history credits “the energetic cooperative employees who traveled the miles and miles of dirt and gravel roads signing up new members.”
It also recognizes the University of Missouri county extension agents who understood “that electricity in the rural areas would make work and life easier” and that the REA program, with its close guidance on engineering, legal matters, administration, power supply, and load building, not to mention low- interest financing, was an opportunity not to be missed.
The extension agents worked alongside the 12 farmers who incorporated FEC on Sept. 2, 1938. One of them, Ernest C. Wood, later became the co-op’s first general manager.
FEC’s first office was in Hamilton, in the next county west (Caldwell). The co-op paid $15 a month to rent two rooms on the second floor of a bank. In December 1938, Wood, a contract engineer and a stenographer, moved in.
They relocated to Chillicothe the next June because, in negotiating a wholesale power contract with the municipal utility, the city offered a lower rate if FEC took up residence downtown.
“The entire office, including equipment and paperwork, was moved to Chillicothe in the back of a single pickup truck,” FEC’s history notes.
Construction of the first distribution lines began that summer. By the following summer, the fledgling utility had built 478 miles of line and was selling electricity to 792 rural members.
Its first wholesale power bill was $34.43 for 2,700 kilowatts, but these payments climbed quickly as the load grew, to $124.95 and then $191.25.
FEC continued to build lines in rural areas where there were at least two farms per mile.
“There were a number of areas that didn’t qualify because there simply were not enough people living in those areas,” according to W.L. Altheide, who succeeded Wood in 1967 and managed the co-op for the next 15 years. “We had people using names off tombstones in some areas so they could get enough signatures to have electricity delivered to their farms.”
FEC grew steadily until the U.S. entered World War II in 1942 and copper conductor became scarce. At one point, FEC had 100 miles of poles in the ground but no wire to string them together.
The War Production Board did allow small purchases of copper conductor based on agricultural units per mile of line. According to FEC’s history, one milk cow or 10 beef cattle was one unit. Hogs and chickens also counted towards units, but row crops did not.
“If a farmer didn’t have enough units to qualify for electricity, he would borrow some livestock from his neighbors to meet whatever the requirements were at the time,” Altheide recalled. “They would drive herds all over to get the units they needed. That’s how much they wanted electricity!”
After the war, with copper and other line construction materials readily available, FEC “experienced an amazing growth period,” according to the former general manager. “We couldn’t keep up with the requests for electricity.
That growth kept up into the 1950s before leveling off around 1960. Then came several purchases of service territory, including a farmer-owned line on the western edge of Chillicothe and small utility in Linn County. Today, Farmers Electric Cooperative serves more than 13,000 meters in Linn and eight other North Missouri counties.