A black-and-white photograph of Samson, Alabama, taken in 1962, shows two electric distribution lines running along Main Street.
Covington Electric Cooperative and neighboring
Wiregrass Electric Cooperative had alternately operated the one on the right since 1944. Alabama Power Company had recently spent upwards of $500,000 building the "spite" line on the left in a bold attempt to pirate customers from the co-op.
Aping what investor-owned utilities (IOUs) were doing all across the country, this subsidiary of a huge holding company based in New York sweet-talked 200 of the co-op's 800 in-town consumers into switching with promises that proved too good to be true.
The Committee for a Better Samson and Trade Area, made up of prominent local businessmen and farmers, dug into Alabama Power's claims. They found that the co-op's residential rates were slightly lower when patronage capital was factored in and that rates for schools, churches, and street lighting were substantially lower.
But more than rates, committee members decided it was time to stand up to a corporate bully that had tried to weaken co-ops in at least a dozen other Alabama towns and was trying to stop Covington Electric's G&T, Alabama Electric Cooperative (now PowerSouth Energy Cooperative), from building a 660-MW coal plant. It was "one of the most vicious campaigns ever witnessed in this state or any other state," said Maury McWilliams, president of the Alabama statewide.
The committee made its case in a public letter: "Years ago, the Alabama Power Company turned its back on Samson and the farm people in this area. Now, however, after they have seen this area grow and develop because of electric service provided by the electric cooperatives, they want to take over service to certain consumers. Not all of them—just the more profitable ones in areas like Samson."
The letter went on to attack the IOU for its greed and brazenness, concluding with: "Won't you please help us to prevent might from crushing right?"
Soon, a number of former co-op members returned to the not-for-profit utility, acknowledging that they had been hoodwinked.
Covington Electric Co-op had acquired the distribution system in Samson in 1944 but had deeded it to Wiregrass Electric two and a half years later in a realignment of the state's co-op service territories designed to speed rural electrification. Wiregrass Electric operated the system until July 1961. Alabama Electric Cooperative was the power supplier.
Around that time, Alabama Power convinced the Samson town council to grant it a non-exclusive franchise. Soon after, according to an RE Magazine article at the time, the IOU "started duplicating the co-op system line for line and pole for pole in Samson … while dispatching teams of men and women on a high-pressure door-to-door solicitation campaign."
Wiregrass Electric countered by trying to sell the distribution system to the town with a territorial protection provision. When the town council rejected this offer, it was decided at the statewide and G&T that Covington Electric should resume operation of the Samson system.
A challenge to Alabama Power's franchise in Samson went all the way to the state supreme court. Covington Electric lost that appeal but won out in the end. The spite lines are gone, and the co-op and PowerSouth still serves Samson today.