When it first opened in 1926, U.S. Route 1 served as a
major overland artery, with cars and trucks surging up and down the East
Coast, their passengers and parcels embodying the lifeblood of a nation
still in the prosperous flush of the Roaring ’20s. The Great War in Europe
was almost a decade in the rearview mirror, the Great Depression still three
years off over the horizon.
Ten years later, in 1936, even as economic misery
persisted, so did the traffic on Route 1, which over its nearly 2,400 miles
stitched together many of the East Coast’s major cities, from Key West,
Florida, to Fort Kent, Maine. But the topographic tapestry threaded by this
early super-highway featured more than big city bustle; it also traversed
mile after mile of rural stretches, with cars per mile outnumbering houses,
cows per mile outnumbering cars.
And as cityscape bled into countryside, an observant
traveler might well have noticed something else: There were no power lines.
Commonplace in America’s cities, only about one in 10 rural residents had
electric service in the mid-1930s. Big power companies simply couldn’t make
a profit serving thinly populated rural areas.
A perfect case in point was the Tate place, a dairy farm
in Caroline County, a stone’s throw up the hill from Route 1. Thanks to the
highway, it was close to market. But despite the highway, it wasn’t close to
receiving the electric service that could make virtually every aspect of its
operation easier and more efficient. Not close, that is, until late 1935,
when local citizens gathered and organized Farmers Rural Utilities.
Just eight months later, on Aug. 8, 1936, this
not-for-profit band of farmers energized its first power line, serving the
Tate farm, the Quarles place nearby, and a handful of other farms and homes
in the small community of Carmel Church. On that hot summer day, with state
officials present to note the significance, rural electrification was born
in Virginia; from this cooperative effort, 73 citizens received electric
service and all the benefits and comforts it brings.
Herbert Tate grew up on his
family’s farm long after it received electric service, but he’s always been
well aware of the importance of that day. “It was an operating dairy farm
then. My grandmother ran the dairy,” recalls Herbert, who still lives on the
property, on which beef cattle now graze. “Electricity just made things so
much easier, like keeping the milk cold.”
Farmers Rural Utilities would later become Virginia
Electric Cooperative, and in 1980 would merge with another cooperative,
Northern Piedmont, to form today’s Rappahannock Electric Cooperative. From
that early start serving 73 rural folks, Virginia’s 13 electric cooperatives
today serve more than half a million homes and businesses, and some 1.25
From the beginning, the electric cooperative story has
been about much more than lines and poles and power. It’s been about one of
the largest self-help efforts in American history. About people joining
together to achieve what none of them could achieve alone.
And so it was only appropriate that on March 30 and 31,
more than 50 of Virginia’s electric cooperative linemen “came home” to the
Tate place in Carmel Church, just over 75 years after their utility
forebears set those first poles and strung those first lines. These co-op
workers, joined by a similar number of linemen from four other states, took
part in the 10th annual Gaff-n-Go Lineman’s Rodeo (www.gaff-n-go.com).
Unlike 1936, though, the point of this gathering was not to energize
electric lines; it was to test safety procedures and line skills in
simulated situations, from rescuing an injured colleague at the top of a
pole, to changing a failed capacitor.
The rodeo took place on a 40-acre section of the Tate farm
that now serves as the Caroline County Agricultural Fairgrounds. In a field
planted with row after row of freshly set poles, every line worker’s
attention was riveted to the exercise at hand. Such is the necessity of this
Had any of them, though, been able to gaze downhill to the
east — beyond the fence line and the early-spring green of the pasture —
they would have seen a tidy farmhouse and a power line running by it. And
from the unseen distance beyond the Tate place, they would likely have heard
a dull drone, as a steady stream of cars and trucks buzzed up and down Route