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In the early 1950s, the high desert east of Los Angeles was a magnet for people seeking open space, clean air, and cheap land. A five-acre homesteading program, the Small Tract Act passed by Congress in 1938, made this rugged greasewood and sagebrush country outside the small towns of Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree, and Twentynine Palms all the more attractive to pioneering types.
But after they had put down stakes and took a look around, they didn’t see any power lines. So they started their own electric utility with the help of the federal Rural Electrification Administration (REA).
By 1956, Desert Electric Cooperative had 672 members. Three years later there were 1,800, and more were signing up every month. Further evidence of the co-op spirit was the fact that some of these same consumers had joined a mutual water company started by Desert Electric President William Graham.
But a few years later, the desert dream, so hopeful at first, turned into a nightmare.
A lot of the homesteaders were really just weekenders, and while they were delighted to have electricity, they didn’t really know who was providing it. Some of them, according to an article in the March 1968 RE Magazine, thought Desert Electric was part of the government.
The Desert Trail, the local weekly newspaper, shared their sentiments, as did property owners who were attracted to the political views of anti-communist activist Austin T. Flett. Speaking at a rally in Twentynine Palms in 1961, he equated cooperatives with Soviet collectives. NRECA, along with other co-op organizations like the International Cooperative Alliance and the U.S. Cooperative League, were part of a communist conspiracy, he claimed.
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After the rally, the High Desert Committee was formed to keep tabs on the co-op, and in 1962, the committee sponsored a slate of board candidates. The anti-cooperative people tightened the noose a year later with the formation of the Desert Electric Information Committee.
The two committees launched a propaganda campaign that included mailings with inflammatory news clips from The Desert Trail and anti-REA pamphlets that had been circulating nationally. In addition, a tape recording of Flett’s 1961 talk was made available to any co-op member who wanted to listen to it.
Albert Bellerue, a member of the High Desert Committee who had used the word “communistic” to describe Desert Electric, was elected to the board in March 1963 and became its president a year later.
He took office on March 14, 1964, and less than a week later, court records showed, he received a letter from Southern California Edison offering to buy Desert Electric for $2.4 million.
The Desert Electric Information Committee immediately turned its propaganda campaign into a sell-out campaign, and before the year was out, 70 percent of the co-op membership voted to get out of the utility business.
RE Magazine described the sell-out campaign as “a drum beat of vague, fearful propaganda.” There were mailings, community meetings, and a sophisticated telephone-canvassing operation.
A group of co-op loyalists filed a lawsuit in Superior Court in San Bernardino, claiming the Desert Electric Information Committee had distorted the facts about the co-op’s assets and financial condition. But after six weeks of testimony, not much changed except the selling price, which the judge set at $2,697,000, which was closer to REA’s appraisal of $2,835,000 than the original price.
The RE Magazine story was written three years after the sell-out vote. Writer Miles Clark, editor of the Los Angeles Daily Journal, interviewed a number of former co-op members. Some were indifferent. Others were bitter.
Cecil Davis, who signed up some of the first Desert Electric Cooperative members, remembered a time when the desert dream balanced the common good with individual ambitions.
“In the old days, we could debate the issues, but at our last meeting you couldn’t,” he said. “They even had a sheriff there.”