The counties surrounding Abilene were alternately known as west- central Texas or Texas Midwest until the Abilene Reporter-News held a “Name the Area Contest” in 1966. The winning moniker, “Big Country,” came from The Big Country, a western starring Gregory Peck that was set in the area and drew crowds to movie theaters across the U.S. in 1958. And it was a natural choice years later when
Midwest Electric Cooperative and Stamford Electric Cooperative consolidated and needed a new name.
Both distribution systems had their beginnings in the late 1930s, even though ranchers and other rural people in that part of Texas were wary of rural electrification. They saw central-station power as a luxury they couldn’t afford.
But Fisher County rancher Sterling Willingham had a different view of the new government program. Willingham and an agriculture teacher, Cleveland Littlepage, hosted two public meetings in the summer of 1938 on how to start a co-op and apply for a loan through the federal Rural Electrification Administration (REA). Littlepage passed the hat at each meeting and collected a total of $13.11.
They pressed on, and in late September, Littlepage and Joe Fender, a young Fisher County lawyer, were granted a charter for Midwest Electric Cooperative.
A seven-person board of directors was soon named, and they spent the next few months signing up co-op members and working on an REA loan application.
The loan was approved late that year, and in January 1939, $137,000 was deposited at a local bank. Nine months later, the fledgling co-op energized 43 miles of line serving 132 members.
Stamford Electric’s story was similar. It was granted a charter in March 1939, got approval from REA on a $158,000 loan, and in November 1939, energized 136 miles of line extending north from Stamford to a dozen small rural communities and connecting 369 meters. The young utility operated out of rent-free space offered by the Stamford Production Credit Association.
World War II brought most line work to a halt. Because copper was unavailable, linemen sometimes resorted to using barbed wire for service drops. But after the shooting stopped in Europe and Asia in 1945, “construction resumed at a relentless pace” at Midwest Electric, according to a co-op history.
The 1950s saw the two co-ops come into their own as electric utilities, but it also was a time of radical change in their load profiles as the Permian Basin oil fields boomed. Oil saved Midwest Electric after a severe drought drove dozens of farmer-members away. By 1955, the Roby-based co-op had grown to 3,243 members.
Stamford Electric had about 30 oil wells on its lines in 1950. By the end of the decade, it had more than 1,000, and they represented 60 percent of the co-op’s annual revenue. Membership had reached 3,860.
Except for a devastating ice storm in December 1969, the 1960s passed smoothly for these neighboring systems. But the 1970s, ’80s, and early ’90s were an entirely different story because of steadily rising wholesale power costs, inflation, and declining oil revenues.
Month after month, Midwest Electric recorded no use on 20 percent of its meters—abandoned oil wells, presumably. Stamford Electric “was making very little on each kWh sold, and covering operating expense became difficult,” the history states.
In 1992, Midwest Electric began four years of merger talks with another struggling neighbor, Dickens Electric Cooperative (now part of South Plains Electric Cooperative in Lubbock). When no agreement could be reached, Midwest Electric turned to Stamford Electric, and by late 1998, a logo for hats, shirt patches, vehicle decals, and letterhead was being designed for a new NRECA member: Big Country Electric Cooperative.
Big Country Electric serves some 12,500 meters in 12 rural counties mostly north and west of Abilene.