50 years later, FDR's rural agency still lights up farmers' lives

The utility pole has stood in the front lawn of G. N. (Jack) Hodge since the late 1930s. ``When they went up and energized that pole, it just lit up the countryside,'' he recalls. He sweeps his arm across the rich, flat fields of east-central Illinois. ``It was the greatest thing that ever happened in this country.''

In nearby Paxton, Ill., Kenny Watkins turns into the driveway of his old homestead and stops the car.

``We were one of the last ones to get electricity,'' he recalls. His father agreed to dig 13 holes, so that the rural electric cooperative could put utility poles and extend the line to the farmhouse. It was spring 1946. ``Quite a thing when you flipped the lights on for the first time,'' says Mr. Watkins, who is now system engineer for that co-op, the Eastern Illinois Power Cooperative.

This year the old stories are being retold. It is a kind of anniversary. Exactly 50 years ago on May 11, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order that created the Rural Electrification Administration. The REA started a chain of events that would bring light and electricity to rural America.

By 1935 only 10 percent of rural America was electrified. Electric utility companies had already hooked up densely populated cities and towns, but they were reluctant to run lines out to scattered rural farms. The REA proposed lending the utilities money at subsidized rates to hook up farms, but farmers' co-ops took the lead in applying for the loans. Rural electric cooperatives -- owned by the people they serve -- began to dot the countryside.

Stories abound about the day the lights came:

``Dad turned on the one in the kitchen first, and he just stood there, holding onto the pull chain,'' recalls a Kentucky farmer. ``He said to me, `Carl, come here and hang onto this so I can turn on the light in the sitting room.' I knew he didn't have to do that and I told him. . . . He finally let go and then looked kind of foolish.''

A North Carolina farm wife remembers the first time she used an electric iron. She unplugged it when it got hot, ironed away, then plugged it in again when it needed to be reheated.

``Pa was up and out in the morning and came in the house after dark,'' another woman told an REA co-op manager. ``Now it takes some getting used to, but it's a wonderful thing to be able to see what Pa really looks like in good light.''

What did electricity bring?

Lights, first of all, says Mr. Hodge, a retired farmer and longtime board president of the Eastern Illinois co-op. Then came a refrigerator, an electricity-powered washing machine, an electric iron. Hodge remembers his father's warning to watch the meter carefully in order to avoid using more than the 40 kilowatt hours per month minimum (costing $3.50, almost as much per kilowatt-hour as co-op members pay today). But as more appliances were added, the warning was forgotten. These days Hodge and his wife use roughly 1,400 kilowatt-hours in an average month.

Today, 992 rural electric cooperatives serve some 25 million people with about 2 million miles of electric lines. Most, like the Eastern Illinois co-op, do not generate their own power. Instead, they buy power from other sources, such as nearby electric utility companies.

Despite the cooperatives' successes, the anniversary celebration for REA is clouded on two fronts.

``It's not all happy times,'' concedes Bob Bergland, former agriculture secretary under President Carter and head of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association in a telephone interview.

In Washington, subsidized loans made by REA to its cooperatives have been a continuing controversy. The Reagan administration had proposed phasing out the REA by 1990 and increasing loan rates. But a Senate budget compromise eliminated the phase-out and the rise in interest rates in return for reducing insured and guarateed loans by $550 million.

The other challenge is the deteriorating condition of the rural economy.

The boom times of the 1950s through the early '70s are over, say past and present officials of the Eastern Illinois co-op. Although the number of farmers were decreasing during those times, remaining farmers were boosting electric use. But the two energy crises of the 1970s sent the co-op's cost of electric power skyrocketing. As the rates went up, customers began to cut back electric use.

Once competitive with the electric utility company, the co-op's rates in recent years have had to be raised higher than the company's rates, says office manager Ken Maine. Co-ops generally have more electric line to maintain for every customer.

``Rates are high. People are unhappy,'' Watkins says. ``We used to get invited in for coffee, things like that. That just doesn't happen anymore.''

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