On April 10, 1956, a sunny Tuesday in Washington, D.C., a slight, proper-looking woman wearing a plain dress and sensible shoes presented Rural Electrification Administration (REA) Administrator Ancher Nelson with a check for $175,000: $121,689.70 to pay off Bowie-Cass Electric Cooperative’s first two loans six years ahead of schedule and $53,310.30 to pay ahead on other loans a year in advance. Previously, the co-op had been nearly $82,000 ahead on its payments.
How did this East Texas distribution system achieve this? Back then, the answer people usually gave was, “Ask Mabel Morriss.”
Morriss was, from all accounts, the soul of Bowie-Cass Electric, the person in the boardroom with the vision and persistence to see the co-op through its infancy and adolescence and into maturity as a business.
According to a co-op history, her involvement started on a warm May night in 1935 when she read in her local newspaper about the REA, the new federal agency President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had created only days before by executive order. That began nearly two years of correspondence with REA officials, who, early on, put up roadblocks that would have caused most people to give up. Not Morriss.
“That’s how much they know about the area they’re turning down,” she sputtered when REA said the co-op’s proposed project would never pay out and suggested it join forces with a neighboring co-op. What really galled her was the letter writer’s confusion about the counties involved.
Morriss and her colleagues on the board of directors applied for a construction loan anyway, only to see REA Administrator Morris L. Cooke turn them down in February 1936. His successor, John Carmody, turned them down again the following year—and then again. The project was “financially unfeasible,” he said, because, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), people in the Douglassville area didn’t have reliable year-round income—they wouldn’t be able to keep up with their monthly electric bills.
It was around this time that Morriss discovered that the Cass County agent was bad-mouthing Bowie-Cass Electric’s proposal. “If you listen to her, she’ll have you thinking you can plow with electricity!” he reportedly told farmers. She wondered if that was the source of USDA’s misinformation about local income. (Later, when the project was finally approved, the man resigned and left the area.)
Bowie-Cass Electric got its first break when an REA field man, described in the co-op’s history as “a fiery little Scotsman,” leveled with Morriss about what was lacking in the co-op’s application. “If you don’t get some information in within a week, your project is dead!” he warned her.
She got a statement from every bank in Bowie, Cass, and Morris counties about the year-round income farmers derived from milk and other farm products to go with their seasonal cotton and corn income. She and her husband took care of another deficiency in the application, consumer density, by stopping at every farm in the three counties to sign up co-op members.
But would these farmers use enough electricity to keep Bowie-Cass Electric in business? Morriss answered that too. One farmer she signed up, W.T. Hammock, was the early-adopter type REA and co-ops needed to be successful. He pledged to wire his home for six lights, an iron, and a radio.
When Carmody finally approved the loan in August 1937, people in Douglasville said he did it just to get Morriss off his back.
The first monthly billing included 241 co-op members. Together they used 5,717 kWh, for which they paid $553.01.
Mabel Morriss watched those totals grow many times over in her years on the Bowie-Cass Electric Cooperative board. By the time she made the trip to Washington in 1956, the system had 10,640 members who used about 1.3 million kWh monthly, costing $48,500.