This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of RE Magazine.
This year, NRECA marks its 75th year of serving and representing America’s electric cooperatives. Throughout the year, we will commemorate the anniversary with additional articles in RE Magazine and special features at NRECA-sponsored events.
What follows are stories about electric cooperatives in each of NRECA’s 10 designated regions. They were chosen because of the unique way each illustrates the qualities that make electric cooperatives different and special.
In them, you will read about how a Pennsylvania co-op responded when Flight 93 went down in its territory on 9/11; a co-op’s battle in Mississippi to repel an aggressive and mysterious takeover attempt; the history and challenge of serving a Texas ranch that’s larger than Rhode Island; a new industrial account that will reverse the fortunes of a struggling South Carolina region; and more.
These examples are by no means exhaustive. They are but a sampling of the millions of stories of struggle, celebration, renewal, and change that make up the rich history of every co-op in the United States and worldwide.
Region 1: Somerset REC and Flight 93
Around 10:15 on a lovely fall morning, Somerset Rural Electric Cooperative got a phone call reporting a power outage near Indian Lake, a small Pennsylvania borough about 15 miles west of the co-op’s headquarters. A crew already in the field was directed to check on the situation.
And then, a breathtaking second call.
“For the first time ever, 911 interrupted our transmission and told us an airliner was down and may be related to our outage,” says Rich S. Bauer, who had been general manager of the co-op for about a year at the time.
The date was September 11, 2001, a day of national horror that, in retrospect, also became a day of national pride for the way Somerset REC and the community it serves were able to help brighten America’s darkest hour.
Like most of the country, co-op employees had been following the unfolding disaster in New York City, where a pair of hijacked airliners had left the World Trade Center smoldering about an hour before.
Suddenly, Somerset REC’s territory was in the headlines for the same terrible reasons.
At 10:03 a.m., United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a field near Indian Lake, just north of Shanksville, following a struggle between passengers and hijackers who apparently intended to pilot the Boeing 757 into the White House or the U.S. Capitol.
All 44 people aboard were killed, including the four hijackers. Co-op employees were among the first responders, even before some police and fire personnel.
Little was immediately visible on the surface of a reclaimed strip mine, where the doomed aircraft had burrowed into a soft hole as it destroyed a 24,900-volt three-phase line.
“The plane went into the ground like a hand going into a bowl of sand,” Bauer says. “Once you walked up to it, you saw paper and pieces of fiberglass, but there wasn’t enough debris on the ground to convince me a large plane had crashed.”
The first task was to do what co-ops do best—get electricity up and running, not just for members in the area, but also for investigators who would comb the area for weeks.
The co-op set poles and hooked up services for trailers that were temporary headquarters for federal and state personnel and recovery and support units.
About a dozen homes and businesses were soon back on-line, but federal investigators said the co-op would have to wait to conduct additional repairs so they could mark the crime scene.
Undeterred, Somerset REC contacted GPU Energy, which owned a de-energized line on the other side of the crash site. After GPU powered the line, Somerset REC tapped it to feed its own line so members would not be in the dark overnight.
“The one thing everybody needed was power,” Bauer says. “We had to work around the constraints of a huge crime scene and even had to access and modify an investor-owned utility’s abandoned line to get the necessary power to the site.”
In the numbing immediacy of the crash, there was little time for reflection.
“Working 14 or 16 hours a day during that time, I never really had time to think about what those people did and what they went through,” says Bauer, now president and CEO at Valley Rural Electric Cooperative in Huntingdon, Pa.
“The crash put Shanksville and rural Pennsylvania onto the world map,” Bauer says. “It showed the determination and hard work of the people of this area. Everyone took pride that we were able to help out on a day when there was so little that most people could do.”
Region 2: A Big Win for Edisto Electric
Jack Morris, 86, is one of Edisto Electric Cooperative’s longest-served members. He remembers that, on the day the lights came on at his family farmhouse near Barnwell, S.C., in 1941, he felt “like a little child who had never had a Christmas before.”
Looks like that feeling is coming again for Edisto Electric members.
Over its 75-year history, the Bamberg, S.C., cooperative has grown to 20,000 meters on nearly 3,800 miles of line in eight counties. But David Felkel, Edisto Electric’s president and CEO since 1997, says growth recently “has been very slow.”
With a density rate of 5.6 consumers per mile of distribution line, they remain well below the national cooperative average of 7.5, serving mainly rural homes and farms with few commercial and industrial accounts.
“We missed a lot of opportunity due to lack of water and sewer in our area,” Felkel says.
But that will all change this year when Edisto Electric becomes the power provider for Volvo Car Corporation’s brand new 3.5 million-square-foot, state-of-the-art manufacturing plant in northwestern Berkeley County.
“We are setting up a complete manufacturing plant, the first one in the United States and a very important one for us,” says Ake Larsson, Volvo’s regional director. “Edisto is getting ready to provide our permanent supply of power there.”
The first Volvo S60 sedans made entirely in the United States will begin rolling off the line in 2018, but Edisto employees are already working to get the massive luxury car factory up and running. They’ve built one substation dedicated to Volvo and are building another to meet additional demand growth. The co-op is also likely to string more power lines.
For the sparsely populated communities Edisto Electric serves, Volvo “will make a world of difference with high-paying, quality jobs and benefits,” says Felkel, who began his career at the co-op 35 years ago as a lineman. “Not only the number of jobs at the plant but jobs created to support the plant’s 2,000 or more jobs over the next 10 years.”
That includes the co-op, which will likely expand its 70-employee staff, he adds.
“In my time, we’ve seen a lot change with technology from where we began to where we are today,” Felkel says. “But we’re still operating in the true meaning of what co-ops were founded for: rural residents and agriculture. But we’re starting to see things on the horizon that could be beneficial.”
Larsson described working with Edisto Electric as “very positive” and “very helpful.” He noted the value of having energy professionals and co-op decision-makers right there in the community.
Edisto Electric is also helping Volvo with its goal of being carbon neutral and powered by renewable energy. One option is a large solar photovoltaic project at the 1,600-acre site.
Construction of Volvo’s $500 million facility is on target for completion in 2017.
Region 3: Not for Profit, Not for Sale
Singing River Electric Power Association celebrated its 50th anniversary as an electric cooperative in 1988. It had to fight like the dickens to get to 51.
And in the process of thwarting a $62 million takeover attempt by private investors, the co-op ended up playing a key role in rewriting Mississippi law.
“Singing River was a well-run system, a good system with solid equity. So I guess we were just a little puzzled,” former general manager Jack Ware says of one of the defining experiences in the co-op’s history.
In fact, the episode had a whiff of mystery from the day 28 years ago when a Mississippi businessman phoned the co-op board president and hinted at a scheme to buy Lucedale-based Singing River Electric.
Ware, whom the board designated as its contact, found it difficult to get solid information about the buyers, their motives, and the depth of their pockets.
“At first, we didn’t know who was doing it,” Ware recalls. “They wanted to talk, but it was always kind of vague. They certainly wouldn’t tell us everything to start with. We didn’t even learn who this investor was until later.”
After a series of back-and-forths, Singing River Electric determined that one of the principals was George Wynne of Florence, who’d been involved in an earlier attempt to take over Southern Pine Electric Power Association in Taylorsville, Miss. Another was William J. Van Devender of Jackson, who had interests in energy and real estate.
They wanted Singing River Electric members to vote up or down on a $62 million buyout. That would include an assumption of about $35 million in debt and payment of $750 to each of 35,000 members for their capital credits.
After studying the proposal, Singing River Electric officials found it shortchanged the value of the system, which a co-op-sponsored study put at more than $200 million. The board analyzed the offer and ultimately declined to submit it to members, saying it was inadequate, failed to disclose the investors or their financial standing, and was not in the co-op’s or members’ best interests.
Then things got heated.
Using the names of Singing River Energy Inc. and Singing River Right to Vote Committee, the takeover group mailed letters to the co-op’s members, urging them to support the buyout and insist that they be allowed to vote on it.
That struck the co-op as misleading. In early August, it filed two lawsuits against the investors. One sought more financial information under the state’s business tender law. The second asked a circuit court to block the “misleading and deceptive” use of Singing River Electric’s name.
“A lot of people were involved, and there were a lot of tentacles in the thing. Our lawyers told us finally, ‘We don’t know who they are; we’ve got to get them into court where we can take depositions,’” Ware says.
Meanwhile, employees rallied behind Singing River Electric under the theme, “Not for Profit; Not for Sale.” In the pre-Twitter world, the co-op issued press releases, handed out bumper stickers, and wrote its members, inviting them to come to headquarters to ask questions about the transaction.
“You’ve got to hit it from all angles when you get into this,” Ware says. “We really got a lot of support.”
The full-court press worked. In late September, a circuit court judge ordered investors to quit using the name “Singing River” in their proposal. Within a few weeks, representatives of the group offered to meet with Ware. In December, Van Devender announced he was withdrawing his bid, saying he wanted to spend his “time, energy, and money on other ventures.”
It was a victory for the co-op and its members, but it was just a first step. Ware and other co-op leaders in the state immediately turned to both the state legislature and their own bylaws to address such offers to purchase a cooperative.
“Basically, the bylaws said that if 50 percent plus one of the membership voted to sell, that was it,” he says. “We realized that we needed some state legislation dealing with takeovers. You wanted conditions where everything was above board and investors would have to set forth the full information about an offer.”
In winning legislative support, co-ops also developed bylaws for themselves addressing annual meetings, proxies, and governance issues.
“I think it was basically a wake-up call for all of us in Mississippi,” Ware says. “If the right people came along, a takeover could happen easily. That’s not the case anymore.”
Region 4: A Co-op Voice in the Wholesale Markets
It was 2004, and Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative (SMECO) had lost its long-term power supplier when the state opened its doors to wholesale electricity deregulation. For the first time in its 79-year history, the co-op had to shop for generation on the open market.
“We are not and have never been affiliated with a G&T, so we have always managed our own wholesale power supply arrangements. For many years we enjoyed an all-requirements contract with our neighboring IOU [investor-owned utility], Pepco,” says Austin “Joe” Slater Jr., president and CEO of the Hughesville-based co-op.
In the end, after studying its options, SMECO settled on ACES (the Alliance for Cooperative Energy Services), the Carmel, Ind.-based national energy risk management company create by electric cooperatives. Today, “in seamless integration” with co-op staff, Slater says, ACES negotiates with more than 30 counterparties: power trading or generating firms providing transactions involving electric energy, natural gas, congestion, and capacity hedges.
As the industry becomes more complex, “ACES provides us excellent market intelligence and analysis focusing on what we need to be aware of and engage in,” Slater says.
Alone, the Maryland co-op’s portfolio is small in the larger energy marketplace. But with the combined load and generation—about 50,000 megawatts—that ACES manages on behalf of 21 member-owners and other customers, the result is a formidable industry presence.
In 2015, ACES executed more than $4 billion in commodity transactions as an agent. “We are one of the top energy transaction companies in the industry,” says Michael Steffes, ACES president and CEO. “We know we need to be the eyes and ears for our members and customers in the market.”
It’s an expertise that electric co-ops lacked in the late 1990s, says Ed Martin, now-retired CEO of Wabash Valley Power Association, an ACES founding member. Co-ops didn’t have the know-how or capability to compete in a deregulated electricity market, much less conduct hourly and next-day trading.
“We never had to deal with risks,” says Martin, who led the effort to create ACES and became its first CEO. “When you’re not in a competitive market, you have more risk. And the risks were too high.”
With funding from NRECA, Wabash Valley Power and fellow G&Ts Buckeye Power in Ohio, Southern Illinois Power Cooperative, and East Kentucky Power Cooperative researched their options, eventually deciding to “turn over their people and capability to one entity to collectively manage their individual generation portfolios in the markets they serve,” says Martin Lowery, NRECA executive vice president for member and association relations. “We’ve done that our entire history—co-ops coming together to meet a common need.”
The fledgling company grew quickly, from a room in Wabash Valley Power’s headquarters and 19 employees to a 40,000-square-foot headquarters building, three regional trading centers, and 250 employees.
While energy trades remain a primary business, ACES now provides more than 50 individualized services.
“Despite the increasing sophistication of its services and systems,” Steffes says, “ACES also remains, at its heart, about its people.”
He points to a long waiting list of interns and graduates eager to work at the alliance. “Our goals are aligned with our owners’. People want to work for a business that is doing the right thing.”
-Victoria A. Rocha
Region 5: Wisconsin Leads the Way on Statewide Magazines
Seventy-five years ago, the idea of forming a cooperative of rural residents to bring electricity—with its electric milking machines, water heaters, and radios—to family farms dotted across Wisconsin was almost revolutionary.
To grow membership and combat big industry opposition required a unifying force. Early co-op leaders found it in a statewide news publication.
Wisconsin REA News is credited as the first statewide publication developed by electric co-ops for their members. The first issue in July 1940 came amid volleys by large investor-owned utilities (IOUs) aimed at discrediting co-ops.
“They were not happy with the idea that they had competition,” says Gerald Koeller, 89, who farmed for more than six decades in Potosi, Wis. “The magazine helped unite co-op members.”
Koeller would know. He served on the board of Scenic Rivers Energy Cooperative in Lancaster for more than 30 years and is a former chairman and director at Dairyland Power Cooperative (G&T) in La Crosse. He retired in 2010.
In the beginning, building a co-op “was quite a big job,” says Koeller, recalling the many door knocks to obtain the $5 membership fees. “Times were pretty hard. (But) with membership, you got the magazine.”
Steve Lucas, CEO of Scenic Rivers, notes that the magazine began as “a platform to communicate with our members. It was, and is, very targeted.”
The magazine, which first came out in broadsheet format, remains the tool “to get our message out, to communicate in our communities information in ways not otherwise available,” he says.
“People worked on the farm from sun up to sun down. They talked to neighbors but might go to town only once a week,” says Lucas. “We didn’t have all the mass communication we do today.”
The Wisconsin statewide association, one of the first formed by member co-ops themselves, took root in 1936, a time when investor-owned utilities were not interested in serving vast tracts of rural America.
Yet IOUs became concerned when electric co-ops began forming with financial aid from the new Rural Electrification Administration, says Perry Baird, who edited the magazine, now known as Wisconsin Energy Cooperative News, from 1987 until he retired in 2014.
“IOUs were threatened by the co-op movement. They used everything to scare people off,” says Baird. That included labelling co-op leaders as “commies” and pre-empting co-ops by stringing power lines around communities they never intended to electrify.
Newsletters from individual co-ops were not enough to combat “the propaganda war waged by IOUs to stifle co-ops,” Baird adds.
The local newspaper in Grant County helped birth Wisconsin REA News by offering statewide co-op leaders not only the use of its presses and but also of its editor, Harvey Schermerhorn, a co-op advocate who soon took the helm of the co-op magazine.
The success of the Wisconsin publication helped spawn similar efforts across the country. There are now 32 statewide consumer magazine in circulation with a readership of some 12 million people nationwide, according to the National Electric Cooperative Statewide Editors Association.
Surveys done by National Country Market, the advertising sales division for most co-op statewide magazines, indicate that despite the explosion of digital media, members consistently prefer to receive the printed magazine in their homes.
“We have access to more media. We have access to more information. But the magazine is a touchstone,” says Lucas. “I cannot think of a better tool for electric co-ops to communicate with our diverse members.”
Region 6: Building a South Dakota Co-op Family-Style
It’s hard to imagine a family that’s spent more time in service to a single electric cooperative than have Quinton Wolff and his kin.
Wolff’s uncle was one of the original incorporators and shareholders of South Dakota’s FEM Electric Association; his aunt made state co-op service history; and Wolff himself spent nearly three decades on the board.
FEM Electric was officially launched as a business enterprise in December 1945, and Theodore T. Martel was at the first official meeting held the following month.
“My uncle was a charter member,” Wolff, 82, says from his home in Long Lake, S.D.
“He was really into it. He was very involved,” adds Wolff’s wife, Arlene, who grew up on the farm the two of them now call home.
Martel and his wife Frieda—Wolff’s aunt—also lived in Long Lake, in the north-central part of the state, near the North Dakota line. When the Martels installed electric heat in their house in December 1950, it was the first home in the region to be so equipped.
Theodore died in 1960, and Frieda was appointed to fill the vacancy. She was only the third woman in the state to serve on a co-op board, and for 33 years she held the title of South Dakota’s longest-serving female director.
When Frieda retired from the FEM Electric board in 1981, Wolff was elected. He served 29 years, and retired from board service in 2010. From 1999 until then, he did double duty, serving as a member of the South Dakota Rural Electric Association.
Wolff recalls the early days of organizing fellow farmers to help get the co-op off the ground.
“The directors had to drive around and collect $5 for membership from each member. That was a lot of money for some people,” he says. “My dad volunteered to collect money for the co-op,” as did his aunt and uncle.
Before it was electrified in 1949, Wolff’s family farm in Petersburg used a 32-volt battery motor that provided very limited power. “In the wintertime, it was darkness until late in the morning,” he says, and daylight hours were short.
When electricity arrived, “it was a tremendous change. We were really excited about it,” Wolff says. “It was something to have the lights to switch on to go up to the hayloft and bring hay down. You could see your way around. It was way different.”
Arlene’s family also had a battery motor that provided some electricity, but when co-op wires arrived, “it did mean a lot.”
“The first thing my mother got was a deep freezer and an electric stove,” she says. Before that, their kitchen included a kerosene stove. “I learned to cook on that thing, and I was warned not to turn it too high because you’ll have a fire.”
Scott Moore, FEM Electric general manager/CEO, says it’s getting harder to find members like the Wolffs, who “remember what it was like to electrify their farm and witness the changes over the past 70 plus years.”
“Being a good cooperative director meant sacrifices for the director and his family,” says Moore. “Today rural America owes a great deal to the men and women before us with a great vision.”
-Michael W. Kahn
Region 7: The ‘Four Horsemen of the Lines’
One of the most—if not the most—iconic images in electric cooperative history shows the “Four Horsemen of the Lines.”
Taken in Horton, Kan., on March 31, 1938, it depicts a quartet of local farmers on the back of a truck, unfurling wire that—the very next day—would make Brown-Atchison Electric Cooperative Association the state’s first co-op to be energized.
“It was hard work, and I think the picture shows that. Everything was done in such a hard way back then—a lot of manual labor,” says Jim Currie, general manager of Brown-Atchison Electric.
Those four farmers were Junior Adams, Elmer Krebs, and brothers Glynn and Carl Jacobson. They had it a lot tougher than Currie did when he began at the co-op as a lineman in 1978.
“When I started out, I heard the older linemen telling about setting the poles by hand. It’s hard work, and I just couldn’t imagine how hard it was back then,” he says.
Currie grew up on Brown-Atchison Electric lines outside of Powhattan, Kan., about 12 miles from the co-op’s headquarters in Horton. The history of the Four Horsemen photo is in many ways his family’s history.
“I remember my mom telling the story of her and her brothers walking home from school. They were always excited watching them build the lines, but she said she’ll never forget the time she was coming home and they could see a light on in the house,” Currie says. “She said they just took off running for the house because they were so excited to know they had power.”
Currie still has the receipt from November 16, 1937, when his grandfather, Samuel Wenger, paid the original $5 Brown-Atchison Electric membership fee.
“My grandpa, along with many others, went out trying to get people to sign up to get power brought in. So it has an importance to me,” Currie says.
He remembers attending a Brown-Atchison Electric annual meeting as a small child, where they served something he’d never seen before: bottled chocolate milk.
“We milked cows growing up, and we’d buy the bottle of chocolate to put in the milk. But to have chocolate milk already made, that was new to me,” he laughs.
Years ago, Kansas Electric Cooperatives, the statewide association, and the Kansas State Historical Society erected a marker at the site where Brown-Atchison Electric’s first power pole was dedicated on November 10, 1937.
“Rural electrification became known as the best ‘hired hand’ the farmer/rancher could have,” it reads in part. “Few other occurrences have impacted so positively on rural areas as has the rural electrification program.”
You’ll get no argument from Currie.
“When I started out, I never dreamed that I would ever be in this position. I think it’s a wonderful place to work,” he says. “I feel blessed to be able to have this job.”
-Michael W. Kahn
Region 8: Moore: A Force in Missouri Rural Power
He helped build his co-op big and fast, like the cars he loved to drive.
Ansel Moore was a stogie-smoking pioneer of rural power, small in stature, with large ideas and a legendary dedication to improving the lives of farmers and homesteaders by wiring the Ozarks for electricity.
“He helped organize his co-op and found solutions benefiting co-ops across the region,” says Jim McCarty, editor of Rural Missouri magazine, published by the statewide Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives.
Moore’s co-op was Ozark Border Electric Cooperative. He was involved before it even had a name. The Ellsinore, Mo., man was elected secretary in 1936 and pitched in to canvas southeast Missouri farmers and sign them up for service.
By July 1938, 807 property owners had paid $5 for membership. The Rural Electrification Administration (REA) approved a $269,000 construction loan for 237 miles of line, and Moore became the co-op’s manager, replacing a project manager who served for just a few weeks.
“You must cherish, uphold, and defend your cooperative,” Moore wrote in a 1939 letter to a new member. “You will enjoy the fruits and profit from your support.”
Within months of opening an office in downtown Ellsinore, Moore was setting poles and stringing line, and the first 600 members received service on January 8, 1940.
Most co-op line expansion was suspended during World War II, but Moore sought War Production Board clearance to add short lines. Eleven such projects were built and dozens of others approved by May 1943.
At war’s end, more than 860 miles of new line to serve nearly 2,600 members was needed, but poles and hardware were scarce.
As president of the Missouri State Rural Electrification Association, Moore helped the Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association negotiate conversion of a Reynolds Aluminum plant in Arkansas to conductor production.
“Ozark Border EC received the first 94,000 pounds of wire in three train cars unloaded at a siding in Poplar Bluff near the co-op’s headquarters,” McCarty says.
In the early years, Moore championed member loans to help wire homes and used a St. Louis road trip to help test mobile radios for co-op use. He later promoted co-op-backed financing for electric appliances to boost residential load, lowering wholesale power costs.
Headed to Tulsa, Okla., in 1955 to secure low-cost hydropower for electric co-ops in the region, Moore survived a plane crash that killed 12 people. He was hospitalized for months with serious injuries.
When the REA ordered the co-op’s first rate increase in 15 years, angering some members, Moore returned. With a nurse nearby, he was carried to the podium, and stood on one leg making a plea for support.
“The Rural Electrification Administration asked us to increase rates,” said Moore, adding that he’d asked for a management study and rate analysis. “This study showed that the rate increase was necessary.”
Rates were increased and members replaced nearly every board member. And while Moore was still recovering from the plane crash at a Springfield hospital, the new board voted to remove him as of December 31, 1955.
Moore later sold line goods for the Wisconsin statewide and became manager of Palmyra-based Missouri Rural Electric Cooperative in December 1961. He died in February 1962 at age 54.
Region 9: Going Low to Serve an Island
Electric cooperatives provide power to many of the nation’s most rugged and remote areas. One of those locations is Fox Island, located off Gig Harbor Peninsula in Washington state. Electricity gets there via a three-quarter-mile underwater cable below Puget Sound.
When that aging cable was on its last legs in 2011 after having failed once, Peninsula Light Company, based in Gig Harbor, was in a race against the clock to replace it before another malfunction.
“The feeling was, ‘It will take a year to replace it, and we don’t have a year,’” says retired co-op employee and island resident Richard Czyzewski.
Three times since 1931, PenLight, as locals call it, had overhauled the submarine cable to keep up with the island’s growing demand for power. But now, the co-op had to contend with environmental complexities, a tighter time frame, and a more fragile cable.
“When one of the four conductors lying on the sea bed became compromised, it wasn’t safe to carry a full load. We were approaching winter, and we didn’t want to stress the remaining cables,” says Mike Simpson, PenLight’s engineering manager.
Fox Island Bridge, which connects the island to the mainland, was scheduled for replacement eventually and lacked room for another circuit, Simpson says. “We had to make decisions fast.”
PenLight chose the surest method, which involved horizontally boring 30 to 70 feet below Puget Sound and placing the cable inside a conduit for protection from seawater. The $2.5 million project was the most expensive in the co-op’s history.
“The bore method we chose to do took longer to execute, but we were able to get a permit for it much faster,” Simpson says. “The overall timeline for the bore method was much shorter.”
In case of rolling blackouts, the co-op created an emergency-response plan that involved local residents and businesses. Generators, cooperation with local officials, and volunteers to curtail power were part of the plan.
“I signed up to be part of the solution and share the load” through a demand response program for electric water heaters, Czyzewski recalls, but the massive construction project ending up causing minimal disruption.
Decades from now, when it’s time to replace the electrical cable, installation costs will be far lower: Engineers can pull out the old cable and thread a new one through the conduit.
“We have only 1,700 consumers on the island,” says Jonathan White, the co-op’s director of member services and marketing. “I think that it says a lot about how co-ops are involved in the community. We felt that $2.5 million was a great investment.”
Czyzewski appreciates the co-op’s time and effort. “Before, any little breeze or problem on the mainland would knock out power or cause blinks. Things are wonderful now. It’s a night-and-day difference.”
-Victoria A. Rocha
Region 10: Powering a Ranch the Size of Rhode Island
“The first thing I remember about the ranch getting electricity from power lines is just how quiet things got at night,” says Chris Lacy, who manages the Kokernot o6 Ranch. “Before that, we had generators. It was pretty noisy until the last light was turned off, and the generators would stop.”
Lacy spent his boyhood summers at the family’s ranch in the Davis Mountains of West Texas, 440 miles from his Waco home. The massive cattle spread spanning three Texas counties is larger than Rhode Island.
“When Rural Electric Administration lines were put in, everybody thought that was a wonderful thing,” says Lacy, 68, recalling when power lines near the ranch were first energized in 1956. “My grandfather worked with Rio Grande Electric Cooperative to get lines extended to the Alpine-Fort Davis area, and we’ve been members ever since.”
Lacy’s grandfather, Herbert Kokernot Jr., was the grandson of David Levi Kokernot, an immigrant from Holland who arrived in Texas in 1831, when it was still part of Mexico.
After fighting under Sam Houston in the Texas Revolution, the elder Kokernot registered the iconic Kokernot o6 livestock brand in Southeast Texas in 1873. The o6 stands for his grade rank as a captain in the Texas Navy early in the Republic era that began with independence in 1836. The family developed a series of ranches before settling near Alpine in 1882.
“Where Rio Grande EC has extended lines, it’s given us opportunities to hook up wells and pump water for our stock,” Lacy says. “Being able to plug equipment in and have power makes it easier to run lights to cattle chutes, scales, and many other jobs.”
Refrigeration, air compressors, and other tools and commercial-grade appliances are used routinely at homes, barns, and support buildings, but much of the 550,000 acres remain undeveloped. Many jobs have not changed in 100 years.
The Kokernot family also played a major role in expanding the commercial and industrial use of electricity of Alpine. Formerly a coaling and water station during the rail industry’s steam era, Alpine was on the route to Major League Baseball spring training spots.
“My grandfather built a ballpark there in 1949 and added lights in 1958,” Lacy says. “It was cooler at night, so it allowed teams to play and leave the next day.”
Norm Cash of the Chicago White Sox, Gaylord Perry of the Cleveland Indians, and the legendary Satchel Paige, were among the stars who played under the lights at Alpine’s Kokernot Field.
Lacy was an elected director of Rio Grande Electric Cooperative from 1997 to 2006, and he served as secretary and board president at various times. The Brackettville-based electric cooperative serves more than 13,500 meters in its 35,000-square-mile territory— geographically, the largest of any co-ops in the contiguous United States.
“We alternated our meetings between Fort Stockton and Brackettville every other month because the co-op’s territory was so large,” Lacy says. “I live about five hours by car from Brackettville and 90 minutes from Fort Stockton, but when you need to take care of members, you just go.”