Cooperative spirit prevails on Washington Island
17th Century poet John Donne coined the phrase “no man is an island” as a way of pointing out that people need each other to thrive. His famous words allude to the fact that by working together, people can overcome challenges that might otherwise seem insurmountable.
One can’t help but wonder if Donne would find it a bit ironic to discover that his quote has long been practiced on an actual islandÑWashington Island, just off the tip of Door County. This 35-square-mile piece of land is a popular retreat for vacationers seeking a peaceful getaway from the hectic pace of everyday life. Labeled an “Idyllic Isle” in a 2018 Wisconsin Favorites article in this very publication, Washington Island has beaches, boat tours, hiking trails, lavender fields, museums, and more that draw tens of thousands of visitors each year, mostly during the summer and early fall.
However, there’s more to the island than what the tourists typically come to see. Washington Island is a year-round home to 710 people, according to the last census, many of whom have family links to the island extending back multiple generations. The island’s unique geography that attracts visitors by the thousands also necessitates resourcefulness and cooperation in its permanent residents, qualities that are no less idyllic than the beaches and fields.
To say that all of Washington Island is a cooperative place is not an exaggeration. If you live here, you belong to at least one co-op—Washington Island Electric Cooperative (WIEC). As the only power provider on the island, WIEC is an essential community team member, partnering with other entities not just to fulfill the seventh cooperative principle of Concern for Community, but because it’s simply the best way—and quite often the only way—to perform some essential tasks in a community where resources are limited. And as WIEC Manager Robert Cornell frequently points out, “What’s good for the island is good for the co-op.”
For example, WIEC is the only outfit on the island with a bucket truck. As such, the co-op often works with the town when it comes to tree trimming, sharing equipment and crews whether serving the co-op’s specific needs or the town’s. The co-op also lends a hand—and equipment—to take out nuisance trees, clear overgrowth around community facilities, hang seasonal lights at the community center, and perform other tasks for the good of the island. An otherwise slow day might find a co-op lineman at work in the garage, making one of the banner holders that appear throughout the island.
“Why have the town spend $300 on a banner holder when we can make them ourselves?” Cornell reasoned.
By working together in this way, the community is able to do more—sometimes much more—with less. Not many small communities can boast a lighted Little League ballfield, for example, but Washington Island has one.
Cornell explained that some years back, the local Lions Club decided to install lights at the Little League ballfield in memory of Irwing “Henry” Nelson, WIEC’s second manager (Cornell is the third). WIEC donated the poles and labor, the Rural Electric Supply Cooperative (RESCO) donated all the underground wire, and a couple of local electricians donated material. In addition, Cornell obtained light fixtures at cost, and the co-op shared that cost equally with the Lions Club.
To maximize use of the lights, the Lions Club sets up a skating rink at the ballfield during the winter months, resulting in a year-round youth recreation facility that enhances the quality of life on the island.
Small in Numbers Only
With just 1,100 meters, WIEC is the smallest of the state’s electric co-ops. Cornell is not only the manager, but also one of the co-op’s linemen. He’s one of only four WIEC employees, with office manager Mary Andersen and linemen Mike Jorgenson and Don Johnson rounding out the staff. By necessity, each performs a multitude of tasks.
“You name it, we do it,” Cornell said. “We do our own tree trimming, and we maintain our own vehicles. It’s just the four of us doing all of this on our own.”
When circumstances call for more help, Cornell can always count on one of his board members. Secretary-Treasurer Lee Engstrom has gone out in a number of bad storms to serve as Cornell’s groundman. Just recently, Engstrom worked a 14-hour shift with Cornell following a severe snowstorm on December 1. Board President Orion Mann and Director Hoyt Purinton have helped out during service calls as well. And if they’re not available, Cornell’s own wife, Patty, who has a Commercial Driver’s License, has been known to drive the truck.
“There’s not a lot of co-ops that can say, a) the board secretary goes out on outage calls, or b) the wife of the manager goes out,” Cornell chuckled.
He also pointed out that being the only power provider to an island of one government entity opens up some opportunities when it comes to providing extra services. When the State Legislature began requiring utilities to spend 1.2 percent of their gross operating revenues on energy efficiency and renewable energy programs in 2005, utilities had the option of contributing their share to Focus on Energy or operating their own Commitment to Community programs. WIEC opted to keep the money on the island and provide its own program, focusing on community projects that benefit the entire island.
Some of the projects WIEC has completed as part of its Commitment to Community program include installing energy-efficient lighting in the community center, the school, and the Art and Nature Center, and starting a solar project at the school.
Getting Things Done
A look back through the co-op’s history shows that WIEC has always found a way to get things done, despite the challenges that are inherent with living on an island. This includes the co-op’s very formation. In the 1930s and ’40s, it was hard enough to bring electricity across miles of countryside to a sparsely populated farming community, but it was even more challenging for a sparsely populated community surrounded by water and separated from the nearest city by a seven-mile strait treacherous enough to be known as Death’s Door. Indeed, WIEC was the last electric co-op in the state to be energized, at the end of 1945.
The journey to that point was long and challenging. Ray Krause, who served as WIEC’s first manager, is credited with bringing electricity to the island. He recounted the journey in an article for the Washington Island Forum in 1974.
In that article, he recalled that when he first came to the island in the 1920s, only four places had electricity, provided by gasoline-driven generators. In the 1930s Krause began to seriously explore how electricity could be brought to the island on a bigger scale.
Krause was dogged in his exploration, often traveling at his own expense to meet with various people who offered little hope at first. Krause wrote that in about 1935, he was encouraged to learn that nearby Beaver Island (Michigan), smaller than Washington Island, had succeeded in getting a loan from the newly established Rural Electrification Administration (REA) for a small diesel generating unit. Krause set to work trying to obtain a loan for Washington Island; however, REA initially said such a project wouldn’t work.
It wasn’t just REA officials he had to convince otherwise. Most island residents were skeptical, at best.
“Many citizens thought I was crazy to keep at this,” Krause wrote, “that the town would be bankrupt, that I was getting paid somehow for all this, etc., or that I wouldn’t do it. I was criticized severely and called every mean name you can think of and some you can’t think of.”
REA eventually granted the loan, and Krause was appointed coordinator of the project. He and attorney Herman Leasum went to work obtaining right-of-way easements and convincing more people to sign on as members, still not an easy task.
“I wish there was more time and space to list the various reasons why they didn’t want lines on or over their property,” Krause wrote. “Some of them were, ‘It will spoil my land,’ ‘It may kill my animals,’ ‘When this project fails, which I know it will, the government will take away my land,’ etc.”
The first meeting of the incorporators was held on August 24, 1940, but another setback occurred in 1941 with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The fledgling co-op had just begun staking lines when REA gave word that all operations were to be suspended as materials were needed for the war effort. Krause turned to teaching school, returning to the island’s rural electrification project when it resumed in 1945.
Records show WIEC was built on the sixth Cooperative Principle, Cooperation Among Cooperatives, with its first diesel generating unit purchased used from Waushara Electric Cooperative (now part of Adams-
Columbia Electric Cooperative) for $4,000. The first member to be hooked up to electricity was the high school, “because the children would soon be future citizens,” Krause wrote.
Diesel Engines on Display
The cooperative’s growth is carefully recorded in the back rooms of the co-op office, which house each of the generators that at one time powered the island. “We call this our museum,” Cornell said.
The island was powered by diesel generating units until the cost of diesel fuel skyrocketed, justifying the cost of running a cable underwater from the mainland to the island. That operation, captured on film by Cornell’s grandfather, occurred in 1981. Cornell himself was on hand for this momentous transition to cable.
“I’d like to tell you I remember [the diesel engines]running,” he said. “They ran 600 rpms, in the background, all the time. But the only time I really remember them is when they weren’t running because it was silent. The people who lived across the street couldn’t sleep at night when they stopped running because of the quiet.”
Cornell said the engines continued to be used as backup until 1996, when two state-of-the-art engines capable of carrying the island’s entire load, if necessary, were added. They were called upon to do just that a little over a year ago, when repeated ice shoves caused catastrophic damage to a piece of the underwater cable, cutting off the power source for 12 days (see sidebar) until the cable could be repaired and ultimately replaced. The generators did their job; through this harrowing time, members were only out of power for two and a half hours.
A more robust electrical system is not the only positive outcome of the monumental cable replacement project. WIEC used the opportunity to perform additional upgrades, all for the good of the island. Fiber-optic cable was laid along with the new three-cable system installed between Washington Island and the mainland, opening the door for future fiber projects. Just recently, WIEC finished laying fiber from Washington Island to nearby Plum Island. A fiber pilot project, in conjunction with telecommunications provider NSight, is currently underway on a loop of Washington Island.
Also, the new cable was rerouted through Plum Island, between Washington Island and the mainland, which created an opportunity for WIEC to install service feeds on the uninhabited island. Plum Island is part of the Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge, and it’s home to an historic Coast Guard life-saving station and boathouse. There’s limited public-access docking at the island, and a couple of annual events that include transportation to it. However, the lack of electricity and potable water on the island has limited the potential for tourist opportunities and renovations to the historic structures. The newly installed service feeds make such projects possible.
WIEC may not be immediately benefitting from this latest upgrade, but the groundwork is now in place for projects that will benefit all of Washington Island in the future. It’s fair to guess to that John Donne himself would approve.