Editor’s note: The Flashbacks column will no longer appear in the print version of RE Magazine. Starting this month, it will appear as a website-only feature under the name Then & Now.
In southeastern Mississippi, Greene, George, and Jackson counties stack up along the Alabama border. They’re bedroom communities for the nearby cities of Mobile, Pascagoula, and Hattiesburg – “beautiful places to live,” according to Lorri Freeman, manager of public relations at
Singing River Electric Power Association.
But if you lived in these counties in the 1930s, you were harnessed to a mule, a water bucket and a coal-oil lamp. In other words, you plowed without a tractor, carried water from a well in a galvanized bucket, and kept the darkness of night outdoors with a smoky, flickering lamp.
If you were paying attention to what the local newspapers were saying about a new federal agency called the Rural Electrification Administration, you might be hopeful these dark days would soon come to an end. In fact, you might have attended an organizational meeting for Singing River Electric at the George County courthouse in Lucedale on August 31, 1938.
Seven men—three representatives from George and two each from Jackson and Greene—were elected to a board of incorporators that day, and just a few weeks later, they applied to REA for a $300,000 loan to build 300 miles of line.
One of these men was Ben DeShaso, a Greene County storeowner. He wouldn’t benefit from the new co-op; he was already getting electricity from Mississippi Power, an investor-owned utility. He went to the Lucedale meeting because he was a community-minded person who knew his patrons needed his help.
Right away, the new co-op started signing up members. A newspaper headline preserved in Singing River Electric’s 2002 annual report reads: “Rural Electrification Sponsors Urge Citizens to Apply for Membership: Singing River Electric Power Association is Pushing Plans to Bring Electricity to Rural Residents of Three Counties.”
The membership fee was $5, and REA stipulated a minimum of three members per mile of proposed line. Membership solicitors were paid $5 a day and 3 cents per mile for gas.
Members paid between $16 and $30 to have their homes wired, the annual report notes.
Sixteen months after the organizational meeting, Singing River Electric energized a 25-mile distribution line running from McLain, where DeShaso lived, to Neely, the next town north on the main road, and south to Merrill. The power came from a substation in McLain owned by Mississippi Power.
Project engineer L.C. Winterton and DeShaso, who had been elected president of the board, threw the switches that lit farmers’ kitchens and parlors with central station power for the first time. The two men were part of a celebratory motorcade that stopped in Neely for refreshments, then headed back to McLain for a luncheon at Coon’s Cafe before stopping for more refreshments at the substation.
Speeches likely were given at one or two of those stops, although the annual report makes no mention of them. The George County Times’ report of the events says officials from REA and Mississippi Power were in attendance.
Fifty homes got electricity that day, Tuesday, December 5, 1939 – an early Christmas present. The Times gave its readers a picture of what would come next: “Work continues on the lines, and as soon as possible, the remaining lines will be turned on, furnishing juice to 800 members over the three counties of Greene, George, and Jackson, over approximately 290 miles of lines.”
By December 1941, Singing River Electric served 1,135 meters and had 427 miles of line. By its 10th anniversary in 1948, there were 5,296 meters and 1,561 miles of line.
Today, it is Mississippi’s second largest co-op with more than 73,000 residential, school, and business meters and 7,000 miles of line.
And like the melodic Pascagoula River for which it is named, Singing River Electric keeps humming along, providing reliable electric service to its membership.
The G clef and musical staff motif on the sign on the co-op’s Lucedale headquarters is a constant reminder of that reliable hum.