The blinding, choking, crop-killing dust of the “Dirty Thirties” still haunted northeastern Nebraska in the summer of 1938, when George Malin and two other Madison County farmers set out for Lincoln to attend a meeting on how to start a public power district (PPD).
They and their families were tired of living with the limitations of the kerosene lamp and the hand pump. Malin was especially motivated, having read that artificial light would make his hens lay more eggs on short winter days.
Returning from the meeting, the men stopped at a restaurant in Seward for dinner. J.H. Williams, the Madison County Ag agent, joined them. While waiting for his food, Williams drew up a list of leading farmers from every township in the county. They were soon invited to attend a meeting in Battle Creek, the county seat, on Aug. 23. About 35 attended.
C.A. Sorenson, a prominent Lincoln attorney, led the discussion. After outlining the steps the organizers needed to take, he was hit with a barrage of comments and questions, some disparaging: high line construction was very expensive, private utilities wouldn’t serve outlying farms, interest rates were high.
But Sorenson assured the group that these obstacles had been eliminated by the creation of the Rural Electrification Administration three years earlier. Congress had made $140 million available for building electric lines across the rural countryside, and the money was loaned to PPDs and co-ops at below-market rates.
Furthermore, REA would not approve a loan that couldn’t be paid back with billing revenues. Also, one of the federal agency’s field agents would oversee line construction and then show the PPD’s staff how to operate an electric utility.
Three men from Loup River Public Power District in Columbus went into detail on these things at a meeting a week later. That same night, the newly formed Madison County Rural Public Power District elected a board of directors and board officers (later, when Antelope County was added to the district, the utility was renamed Elkhorn Rural Public Power District).
The board met for the first time Sept. 10. After President Frank Malone urged his eight colleagues to “put your shoulders to the wheel and get this fine program started for our farmers,” the directors committed to recruiting volunteers to canvass their townships for prospective PPD members.
The board’s goal was 500 members, but by the time the REA approved the PPD’s loan application in early 1939, 660 families had signed up. The 25-year loan was for $280,000 at an interest rate of 2.73 percent, and it would pay for the building of 273.75 miles of line.
Elkhorn Construction Company agreed to employ “as far as possible and practicable, local farmers who are prospective patrons of the District and to use, as far as practicable, local trucks and local truck drivers,” according to a history of the PPD.
On April 29, 1940, 116 miles of line were energized, bringing central station power to 148 homes for the first time. A year later, another 250 homes and businesses joined the fun. Members paid $3.50 a month for 50 or fewer kilowatt-hours.
REA approved a second loan to build 352 more miles the next year, but then the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December, and Madison County PPD did not energize another section (172 miles) until August 1947. Sections of 236 miles, 441 miles, 253 miles, 420 miles, and 133 miles followed between between 1949 and 1952.
In 12 years—five, if you subtract the seven lost to World War II—George Malin and a small group of Madison County farmers had built an electric utility that still thrives today.
Arthur Dederman, the board’s first vice president, took a philosophical view of the hard work, innumerable meetings, and frustrations that went into creating what became Elkhorn Rural PPD: “We never realized what we were starting. We were blindfolded, so to speak, for we didn’t know all the ground rules for getting the district started. Lots of people were quite frank in telling us they didn’t think it was possible to serve our area. They said the farms were too far apart and that it would cost too much to bring electricity out to them. Well, we showed them they were wrong.”
This article is based on a history of Elkhorn Rural PPD on the utility’s website, erppd.com.