Present at the Founding


Steve Freese, President and CEO

Those of you who have been reading this column for the past year and a half have probably come to realize I love history, particularly Wisconsin history.

Last year, we celebrated the 80th anniversary of the Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association (WECA) as the first statewide electric co-op organization in the United States. A few years after its 1936 founding, WECA was an important part of another historic moment in the development of electric co-ops and their service
to rural America: It helped found the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) in 1942.

This year, NRECA marks its 75th anniversary.

Recently, I ran across a reminder of how electric co-ops have changed rural life for the better during the past eight decades.

I was going through some of my grandpa’s farm records and came across the 1926-27 annual report from the director of the Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of Wisconsin. One section, titled “Electricity Helps Lift the Load from Bended Backs,” described farmers taking a keen interest in the growing utilization of electricity to reduce farm costs, lessen and lighten manual labor, and make household conveniences as usable as they had become in urban areas.

The trouble was, in 1927 only about 13,000 Wisconsin farms were receiving electric service. That was an increase of nearly 300 percent over 1924, but the large, city-based, investor-owned utilities still had little if any interest in extending service to rural Wisconsin where individual customers were too far apart to deliver urban-style profit margins.

Clearly, the report recognized this unmet need. It described “Electro-Test Farms” being established to secure data from a wide range of conditions across the state, determine baseline costs, show the importance of electrifying farms, and help clarify realistic cost expectations in terms of both equipment and purchased electricity. All very helpful information: The only deficiency was the lack of an entity willing to deliver the product.

The arrival of that entity would take another decade, but then it would change life on our family farm, which had operated without electricity for its first 53 years. As NRECA notes in commemorating its anniversary, nine out of 10 rural homes were without electric service, and dairy farmers milked their cows by hand in the light of kerosene lanterns while housewives had to use wood-burning stoves for cooking and washboards for laundry.

Electric co-op leaders met 75 years ago to form the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. From the region that included Wisconsin was Erle Stoneman, a Grant Electric Co-op (now Scenic Rivers Energy) director who was also on the boards of the Wisconsin statewide electric co-op association and the newly formed Dairyland Power Cooperative. Stoneman was NRECA’s first vice president and second president. The E.J. Stoneman plant in Cassville, shown at its 1951 dedication, was named after the cooperator.

Early WECA leaders helped illuminate this rural landscape, first close to home and then more broadly. One early WECA board member, Erle J. Stoneman, was the first Wisconsin electric cooperative leader to rise to national prominence. Stoneman headed Dairyland Power Cooperative after assisting with its creation in 1941 and participated the following year in the founding of the NRECA, an event that occurred, in large part, because of the peculiar utility politics of the time.

Investor-owned utilities were eager to discredit the rural cooperatives. NRECA notes that not long after America’s entry into the Second World War, false claims that electric cooperatives were hoarding copper wire brought co-op leaders from different states together to defend themselves. In 1942, NRECA was formed to provide a loud and unified voice for cooperatives and to represent their interests in the nation’s capital.

This month, NRECA begins a yearlong celebration of its 75 years representing not-for-profit electric cooperatives in the United States. The organization points out that it fulfills its role to ensure our ability to provide safe, affordable, and reliable electricity to co-op members by spearheading federal government relations, management and director training, public relations initiatives on behalf of its members, and overseeing cooperative employee benefits plans.

Present at the founding in 1942, WECA extends its heartiest congratulations to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association as it marks its historic milestone.