The Cowboy Co-op
The history of electric co-ops
By Tom Tate
October is National Co-op Month, so it seems fitting for co-op members to look back to our beginnings and reflect on the reasons for the creation of electric cooperatives. This is a remarkable story that demonstrates the exceptional nature of the Americans who populated rural America, then and now.
Nineteen hundred and thirty five. It’s hard to imagine what life was in rural areas in those days, especially through the lens of our 21st century existence – news taking days to reach you, dirt roads, manual labor and no electricity. Life for a large portion of the American population was, for all intents and purposes, a frontier life.
Rugged people making a living by strength, persistence and hard, often crushing, work. Relying on their neighbors when things got tough. A way of life alien to most of us today, although a few are still around who remember when the lights first came on. While 95 percent of urban dwellers had electricity, only one in 10 rural Americans was so blessed.
It was in this same year on May 11 when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed executive order 7037 creating the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). Immediately, “cowboy” cooperatives took the bit in their teeth and started putting together electric cooperatives all across America.
Some might think that so-called “cowboy co-ops” would be restricted to the West, but the case can be made that every cooperative was formed by the cowboys of their area. Tough, self-reliant, hardworking, honest, resilient men and women willing to take bold action to create a better life for their families. They were working together for their neighbors and for their communities.
The term “cowboy” conjures up Hollywood images of hard fighting, hard drinking, rugged individuals fighting injustice against great odds. Today, it can also be a judgmental term describing someone who is unpredictable and unsophisticated in their actions.
While the actual character of the cowboy cooperative didn’t reflect the Hollywood image, the cooperative model matched the cowboy ethic perfectly. A book written by a retired Wall Street executive, James Owen, captured this ethic and boiled it down to the following 10 points:
1) Live each day with courage.
2) Take pride in your work.
3) Always finish what you start.
4) Do what has to be done.
5) Be tough, but fair.
6) When you make a promise, keep it.
7) Ride for the brand.
8) Talk less and say more.
9) Remember that some things aren’t for sale.
10) Know where to draw the line.
Seems just another way of laying out the cooperative principles that we run our businesses by to this very day. It appears that cowboys and cooperatives were a natural fit.
So these cowboys got busy organizing electric cooperatives and began the work of bringing light to rural America. They dug holes by hand. They walked the poles up into place to carry the electric lines. All this had to be done with picks, shovels, ladders and whatever else was handy. Most of us have seen these poignant photographs, sepia images of remote places with men scrambling to light the rural landscape. Wires had to be man handled into place on the poles and cross arms. Creating the proper tension and securing the conductors to the insulators was all done by main strength and by sight. And when the lines were damaged either by man or nature, it all had to be redone the same way.
Safety equipment was non-existent. The hard hat was gradually being introduced, and the first job site to mandate their use was the Hoover Dam where falling debris was responsible for many deaths. Fire retardant clothing wasn’t even a glimmer in anyone’s eye and climbing poles often involved ladders rather than spikes and safety belts. Many of these cowboys gave their lives to bring the benefits of electricity to their homes and communities.
Once power was flowing, members reported how much they used and the cooperative sent them a hand-prepared bill by regular RFD mail. No automatic meter reading systems or computerized billing options. Ledgers formed the permanent record of transactions.
Today these tasks are completed using digger and bucket trucks assisted by mechanized tensioners. Distribution systems are controlled by smart devices, and cooperatives can provide more consistent levels of service and quality at a much lower cost. The work remains dangerous and arduous, but modern safety tools, clothing and practices reduce the risk substantially. And technology continues to improve our ability to control system operation and costs while continuously improving quality and member service. Automated systems abound that improve the accuracy of bills and simplify data management.
Given all that has happened, some might think the cowboy cooperative is a thing of the past. But they would be wrong to think that. The cowboy cooperative is needed just as much in 2014 as it was in 1935. Changes are sweeping through the electric utility industry, and if the cooperatives are to retain the benefits that electrification has brought to rural America, bold, decisive action by a new breed of cooperative cowboy will be required.
A new generation of members is coming onto cooperative lines. Members who saw electric co-ops as “saviors” by bringing in the simple benefits of light, refrigeration and other appliances are fading into memory. We must now wrestle with the perception of just being another utility to some.
Community involvement is a staple of every co-op. It’s in their DNA. It means improving where we live and work beyond the simple provision of power. As these efforts continue, we recognize that community for many of our new members resides on the Internet – a collection of electronic representations of individuals rather than meeting in person. New members expect immediate response and limitless information. It is a challenge worthy of a cowboy response.
Engaging our membership in the future will be challenging, but so was bringing electricity to rural America. While the tools differ, the cowboy cooperative mindset and ethic have not changed. Think about the points James Owen identified. They reflect values still consistent with the seven cooperative principles and underscore the relevance of the cowboy co-op in facing today’s challenges.
The frontier life of today is different indeed. In the 21st century, this still means employees and members alike will be pitching in and doing whatever they can individually and collectively to be sure that the interests of our community are well served and that electricity remains affordable and reliable.
Tom Tate writes on cooperative issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the Arlington, Va.-based service arm of the nation’s 900-plus consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperatives.