In September 1936, Morris Llewellyn Cooke wrote a much-cited article extolling the accomplishments of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), then only 19 months old. He boasted that more than 100 projects representing 13,200 miles of rural electric distribution lines and 53,000 consumers in 32 states had already been approved, and then he predicted that a million more consumers would be reached by 1945.
Cooke, REA’s first administrator, wrote that Kentucky’s Henderson County Rural Electrification Association—now called Kenergy—was a typical project. He said it grew out of a letter REA received from a county agent who asked for information on the agency’s loan program on behalf of a few local farmers.
“A field man sent by the REA development section made a rapid survey of Henderson County conditions. To a meeting that followed, there came not the few farmers expected, but nearly a hundred, with their leaders and the president of the State Farm Bureau Federation.”
Ruth West, who grew up in the unincorporated Henderson County community of Dixie, described the aforementioned conditions to the Evansville Courier & Press in 2012.
She remembered that her family had 20 cows that had to be milked by hand twice a day and that dirty clothes were scrubbed on a washboard. Milk and butter were stored in the icebox in the kitchen, but other perishable foods were put in a pail and lowered down to the cool air inside the well shaft out in the yard.
Henderson County REA was the first electric co-op in Kentucky to serve consumer-members. It energized its first line in October 1937, though no line reached West’s house until a year or so before she graduated from high school in 1945.
The co-op was a pet project of Governor A.B. “Happy” Chandler, who grew up in the county and almost certainly had Cooke’s ear.
The REA field man explained to the farmers attending the first informational meeting “that tenants as well as landlords could secure power and that, as security for the government loan, a lien is placed on the government-financed power line and its revenues, not on the farmer’s property,” Cooke wrote in his 1936 article, Electricity Goes to the Country. “They learned that money allocated for the building of a line covers the entire cost, including a service line to each farmhouse served.”
“Local interest grew rapidly,” Cooke continued. “Prospective customers signed for service. A marked map of the territory was submitted to the REA engineers. After much correspondence between the Henderson County Rural Electrification Association and REA to clarify all details of the scheme, an allocation of $190,000 was made. The amount covers the building of 153 miles of highline (at a cost of $1,150 a mile) and three small substations.”
Henderson County REA, like the other co-op projects approved in REA’s first 19 months, was demonstrating the virtue of the area coverage concept, Cooke said. Line extension policies by existing investor-owned and municipal utilities would never close the gap between the prosperous farms on the main roads and the less prosperous ones on the back roads.
Rural electrification, he argued, would check migration from the city because it “would add immeasurably to the comfort, convenience, and profit of farming.”