Smartphones. High-definition televisions. Electric cars. None of those existed when Ellis Judson “Judge” McLean stepped into the new world of rural electrification in 1936.
Later to become a businessman and decorated war veteran, McLean was present at the creation of the electric cooperative movement. He started with McLean Engineering Co. in the 1930s, drafting maps and working on staking crews for the company founded by his brother, which launched co-ops in the rural South.
Before his death in 2013, he shared his memories of the early days of member-owned power, a fitting bequeath on the 80th anniversary of the Rural Electrification Administration.
Q: How did McLean Engineering first get started?
McLean: My brother E. Price McLean Sr. started McLean Engineering in 1936, the same year the Rural Electrification Administration was founded. In fact, Price helped start quite a few co-ops in Georgia and Florida and that helped him build his business. He would find out when a county commission meeting was going to be held and he would ask to be put on their agenda.
He would explain the REA program to them and then offer to go out in the rural areas and sign people up for electric service. In return, he asked that when they got a co-op started that they allow him to be their consulting engineer. We still do consulting work for a number of the co-ops Price helped start.
McLean must have been one of the youngest men working in the field at the time. He was only about 14 when he started to learn about rural electrification. He graduated from Durham, N.C. High School in 1940, where he set a state record in the pole vault and was also a welterweight boxing champion.
Q: How did you first become involved with rural electric cooperatives?
McLean: Price was so successful in starting co-ops that he soon had more business than he could handle. My brother was 15 years older than me, so I was still in high school when he asked me to come help him during the summers. I learned to run a transit, stake lines according to REA specifications, and do just about everything else associated with power engineering. The next thing I knew I was running a staking crew.
McLean took time out to serve his country in World War II. After graduating from the University of Florida, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps Cadet Program. During World War II, he served as a P-47 pilot in the European Theater and flew during the Battle of the Bulge, where he earned the Belgique Croix de Guerre before returning home.
Q: What were some of the challenges that you faced in the early years of the program?
McLean: You know, there just weren’t many challenges or obstacles that got in the way of what we were trying to do as far as building power lines. Everyone seemed ready and willing to help. Everyone was so eager to get power that they would give you easements across their land, help clear the right-of-way and even offer to feed you sometimes. I guess the only hardship was being away from my wife and family so much. We traveled a lot.
McLean worked as a consulting engineer with McLean Engineering Co. from 1946, then became co-owner and vice president from 1966 to 1987, according to the company website, working with co-ops in Georgia, Florida and South Carolina.
Q: What were some of your most rewarding experiences in bringing power to people?
McLean: Oh, it’s almost indescribable. Today everyone takes electric service for granted, in fact, they get mad now when the lights just blink. But, back when we first started energizing lines and hooking up services, you can’t imagine how happy people were to get power. They realized there would be no more kerosene lamps, no more drawing water by hand from a well, no wood to cut for the cook stove.
I know everybody has heard stories about grown people crying when we turned the power on; well, I can vouch for those stories because I saw it happen. People were so happy to have electricity they cried for joy and that was very emotional for us, too. It made you proud of what you were doing.
Following the co-op principle of commitment to community, McLean served on the board of directors of Moultrie National Bank and was a member of the board that took the bank public as Southwest Georgia Bank. He was a charter member of Trinity Baptist Church, a member of First Baptist Church and a long-time active member of the Moultrie YMCA.
Q: What made the REA program, now the Rural Utilities Service, special and different from electric power run by the large utilities?
McLean: Well, the biggest difference was that REA was willing to run lines into rural areas where the large utilities wouldn’t go. I have read that when the REA program started 95 percent of the land area in this country was without power and practically no farms had electric power.
Now, I’ll bet 95 percent of everyone in America who wants power has it. Another major difference is that the co-ops are still member-owned. The co-ops strive to give their member-owners the best possible service at the lowest possible cost.
McLean Engineering continues today, still maintaining its 80-year association with cooperatives three years after Judge McLean died at 90. Earlier in 2016, Rochelle-based Middle Georgia Electric Membership Corp. selected McLean Engineering to provide an inventory of their joint-use pole attachments and to provide GIS mapping, a tool unavailable at the dawn of the co-op era.
Q: What do you think is the future of the rural electric cooperative program and can it change with the times?
McLean: As for changing with the times, if you are talking about the basic structure of the program, I don’t believe something that has worked so well for so long needs much changing. Now, if you are talking about keeping up with technology, that’s a completely different story. The co-ops have demonstrated, many times over, their ability to stay abreast of technological advances.
The lines still look pretty much like they did when we started, the poles are a little taller and stronger and the conductors are often much bigger; but, the protective relaying and metering and SCADA and electronic maps, the laptop computers in trucks are all things we never even dreamed of in 1936.
Steven Johnson is a staff writer at NRECA.