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It started with 13 eighth-graders brainstorming in a rural Montana school and culminated with a co-op throwing a switch that changed their lives forever.
The teacher had told the boys and girls about a statewide good-citizenship contest with the theme of community betterment. The prize was $100, a lot of money in 1938.
Forty-seven years later, on a sunny spring morning in 1985, one of those eighth-graders, now a 60-year-old rancher, recalled what happened next: “Rural electrification was hot then,” Miles Swan said. “We met with Carl Gunderson—he was the superintendent of schools in Highwood—to see what might be a project we could work on. A water system was out; the town wasn’t incorporated. A sewer system was voted down; it wouldn’t affect the whole community. We talked about telephones, but everything seemed to center around electricity.”
Lucille Walker, a cook at the Highwood Cafe, remembered the gas lamps in school and in Charlie Berkner’s butcher shop. She also remembered the noisy gasoline generator behind Ben Gossack’s general store and the one in Community Hall.
The students decided to write to the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) in faraway Washington, D.C., and ask about electricity for Highwood.
The REA responded and said, yes, Highwood was the kind of place the agency helped, but only if the community got behind the effort.
The nearest REA borrower, Sun River Electric Cooperative, was 70 miles west in Fairfield. Halfway between was Great Falls, “the Electric City,” which got lights and power in 1912 when the first of four hydroelectric dams on the Missouri River was completed. At night, the ranchers and dry-land farmers in the Highwood area could see the glow of those city lights, but they knew it was a pipe dream to think they would get central-station electricity anytime soon. Montana Power, the investor-owned utility, certainly wasn’t going to do it for them.
But those 13 teens ignored that sensible adult outlook and spent the winter of 1938–’39 doing what they later told their contact in Washington was their biggest hurdle: “getting their parents and the people in town interested in electricity.”
Swan’s dad, “Torchy,” was the exception. After a community meeting in February that drew people from miles around, he went to work for the kids.
“Our ranch was seven miles out of town on the South Bench,” Miles Swan told Marty Erickson, editor of Rural Montana, over coffee at the Highwood Cafe. “We knew what electricity could do since we had a 32-volt light plant.
“I went out night after night with my dad when he signed up people in the North Bench and Shonkin areas. Dad had to explain everything to prospective co-op members. Each pitch took an hour or more, but dad said he could sign up three people a night from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Of all the people he talked to, only two didn’t sign up.”
At first, Swan recalled, REA required three consumers per mile, but his father and his classmates wrote to Washington and got that cut by two-thirds. “To tell you the truth, it stretched it to get one person per mile.”
The kids, Torchy, and some other prominent adults, including Gossack, who was chairman of the school board, met with the general manager and board president of Sun River Electric. Later, they agreed to apply to REA for a $69,000 loan to build a line to Highwood from the co-op’s nearest substation.
Walker’s father, Fred, pitched in once construction began. He took time away from the family’s farm to haul line poles with a tractor.
What began in an eighth-grade current events class brought modern lights and power to a 500-square-mile area in 1940, an accomplishment that made the $100 contest prize seem like kids’ stuff, even to the boys and girls themselves.
“We started out to win a prize, but we don’t care about that now,” the class said in one of their many letters to REA. “All we want is electricity for our town and community and to make it just as good a place to live as any other in the United States.”