The opening decades of the 20th century ushered in an era of dynamic change as never before seen in human history. Cities with their lure of promise and opportunity boomed. American factories supplanted their European counterparts as the most productive in the world.
Automobiles rolled off assembly lines signaling the end of the horse and buggy days. Electricity, perhaps mankind's most important discovery, transformed America, too. Electric lights, appliances and machines were no longer novelties, but necessities.
The telephone, once a wondrous mystery, became a way of life. But while his urban brethren basked in electricity's glow, the American farmer lingered in the past, toiling by kerosene lamp and using the machines of his grandparents' age.
The farmer's desire for electricity was passionate but the means to get it elusive. The vast distances between farms made stringing lines and setting poles costly, generating little, if any, profit for the electric utilities in the cities. The rallying cry for rural electrification was heard as early as 1909, when the Country Life Commission Report suggested that electric cooperatives might be one way to bring electricity to farms.
But another three decades would pass before rural electrification would begin in earnest. By 1932, still only 10 percent of the nation's farms had electricity compared to 70 percent of urban dwellers.
The Rural Electrification Act of 1936 signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt signaled the first big push to bring electricity to America's rural areas. The Act made available millions of dollars worth of loans to private, public and cooperative utility ventures.
Rural cooperatives - that is, private partnerships owned and controlled by the people they serve - emerged as the principal borrowers of REA funds.
By the end of 1936, nearly 100 cooperatives in 26 states had signed loan agreements with REA. Loan guarantees made to rural cooperatives funded the building of electrical lines and generating and transmission facilities.
Today, 1,000 rural electric cooperatives serve 30 million Americans in 46 states - 10 percent of the U.S. population. Electric cooperatives own and maintain nearly half of all distribution lines in the country, which cover three-fourths of the nation's land area.
Rural electric cooperatives average 5.8 consumers and generate about $7,000 per mile of line. In contrast, investor-owned utilities, or public utility districts, average 35 consumers and collect $59,000 per mile of line.
~ Reprinted with permission from Benton Rural Electric Association