NC Electric Co-ops celebrate 88th anniversary of Rural Electrification Act

On May 20, 1936, the U.S. Congress passed the Rural Electrification Act (REA), a piece of legislation that would change the lives of farmers across the nation by helping bring electricity to rural America. This law allowed the federal government to make low-cost loans to farmers who had worked together to create non-profit cooperatives that would serve their communities. The money went toward the installation of electrical distribution systems that powered farms, houses and businesses in rural areas.

Cooperative lineworkers setting pole (Photo courtesy of National Rural Electric Cooperative Association)

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 1936, nearly 90 percent of farms lacked electric power because the costs to get electricity to rural areas were prohibitive. By 1950, close to 80 percent of U.S. farms had electric service, in large part because of the work rural electric cooperatives were doing in their communities.

“We are thankful for those local original members who took the leap of faith to establish the first cooperatives,” said Winston Howell, chief executive officer at Edgecombe-Martin County Electric Membership Corporation, North Carolina’s first electric cooperative. “That pioneering spirit continues today with the advent of technology in the electrical industry.”

The Co-op Way

Cooperatives were not a new concept to farmers, as they had become an important part of rural life, bringing together individuals who shared common goals related to crops, livestock and more. However, the idea of rural electrification through cooperatives was met with skepticism because the product wasn’t tangible, but rather flowed through lines towering over acres of farmland.

Despite this unfamiliarity, landowners bought into the promise of the co-ops and the funding provided by the REA. As support grew, poles were raised across the country, and lines began to connect the lives of individuals and families who had struggled to find access to electricity prior to 1936.

“The Night the Lights Came On”

Co-op lines power rural community in the mountains at night (Photo ourtesy of National Rural Electric Cooperative Association)

While the cooperatives went to work building the infrastructure to provide affordable and sustainable electricity to rural America, the process was long and tedious. One farmer in Kentucky recalled watching the workers put up poles near his family’s land for months. Each day they got closer to his farm, and he realized the promise to bring electricity to the countryside was coming true.

The lights began to flip on across rural America, bringing a glow of optimism and excitement. For many of the people who witnessed this historic time, they often refer to it as, “the night the lights came on.”

“I wanted to be at my parents’ house when electricity came. It was in 1940,” said Clyde T. Ellis, the first general manager of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA). “We’d go around flipping the switch, to make sure it hadn’t come on yet. We didn’t want to miss it. When they finally came on, the lights just barely glowed. I remember my mother smiling. When they came on full, tears started to run down her cheeks.”

North Carolina’s First Electric Co-op

Although many cities and towns in North Carolina enjoyed the benefits of electricity in the early 1900s, the majority of rural communities were left behind.

A historical marker in front of Edgecombe-Martin County EMC’s headquarters in Tarboro (Photo courtesy of Carolina Country)

“We didn’t have refrigeration [when I was a small child], and my mother would put butter in a bucket in the summertime and put it down in the well, not quite to the water,” remembered Edgecombe-Martin County EMC member W. Kitchin Benson, who grew up in Battleboro, in a 1984 interview. “When we got an Aladdin [oil] lamp, we thought we had something then.”

A group of Edgecombe County farmers set out to change that, and in 1936, after years of meetings with local and federal officials, what would later be called Edgecombe-Martin County Electric Membership Corporation was formed. One year later, on April 17, 1937, the cooperative threw its first switch to energize the homes of 82 members. The historic event made Edgecombe-Martin County EMC the first electric cooperative in North Carolina and one of the oldest in the nation.

Modern Day

Today, electric cooperatives provide power to more than 42 million people across the country, including 2.5 million North Carolinians. From the mountains to the coast, North Carolina’s 26 electric cooperatives have carried out the vision of the Rural Electrification Act of 1936—powering the lives of rural America.

“Edgecombe-Martin County EMC is inspired by the fact that in 1936, we became the first electric cooperative in North Carolina. We led the way in bringing electricity to rural farming operations and communities, paving the way for efficient operations and providing rural America with a better quality of life,” said Howell. “We strive to honor the legacy of those who built the first line by implementing programs and equipment that promote safety, reliability and affordability within our electrical system. We are proud to have been the first and are equally proud to serve our members and communities today.”

Editor’s Note: Information and stories used in this article come from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s, “The Next Greatest Thing.”