Viewpoint

Derring-Do by Daring Doers

by Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Exec. Editor

Richard Johnstone

Big ideas need bold action to take wing. Few dreams in the 1930s seemed more daunting than delivering electricity to far-flung farmhouses. That is, until common folks with uncommon grit joined together in communities across the land. 

The present moment may be all that we have, but the past is still always present. Who we are as individuals, as Virginians, as Americans and as humans is an amalgam of all the deeds and misdeeds, brilliance and bumbling, great undertakings and failed enterprises, fantastical ideas and feats and foibles of all those who came before.  

The history of the world is writ large with lots of adventures and inventions, accomplishments and advances. But no big idea has taken wing without bold action.

It takes derring-do by daring doers to turn dreams into reality. In the rural America of the 1930s, only one home in 10 had electric service. Traditional utilities were just not able to profitably serve such far-flung regions, with only two or three farmhouses along every mile of rural road.

So who but daring doers would be audacious enough to take on, in the midst of the Great Depression, such a titanic task, one that would ultimately become among the largest self-help projects in our nation’s history?

If necessity is indeed the mother of invention, then audacity must surely be its father.

And who but daring doers would then go door to door in nearly 1,000 communities across the country, asking their neighbors to contribute seed money and signatures to form a new kind of cooperative, one designed to deliver electricity to rural homes and businesses?

The Book of Proverbs tells us that “without a vision, the people perish.” Without persistent care, though, visions perish too.

So who but daring doers would persist in their vision to spread electric service across the land and, despite the scarcity of resources during World War II, have pretty much hooked up Rural America by the 1950s?

All of which is why the story of electric cooperatives is more about people than about poles, more about building communities than about building bottom lines. Each local electric cooperative bears testament to the power of neighbors joining together to attempt — and achieve — great things.

And achieve great things they did.

By the 1950s, as urban Americans were expressing wonder over television and air conditioning, rural Americans were expressing thanks over light itself, as millions of incandescent candles pierced the darkness from the edges of Washington State to the outskirts of Washington, D.C.

As rural residents pulled the cord on the humble bulb hanging overhead in thousands of farm kitchens, they brought to life a new era. The centuries-old regimen of hauling water from creeks and ponds, building wood fires, and calibrating farm and family life around the rising and setting of the sun gave way to electrical and electronic marvels that would allow our farms to feed the world, and our citizens to spread out across the land, to enjoy in every dusty crossroads community the same comforts formerly reserved for city dwellers in Richmond and Norfolk and Roanoke.

The federal government provided a helping hand, too, in the form of loans and technical support. The electrification of rural America was then, and remains today, one of the greatest public-private partnerships in our nation’s history.

The past still resonates today in your cooperative’s commitment to the communities it serves. You and your neighbors own the cooperative. So prompt service and community spirit aren’t part of a business plan; they’re part of being a good neighbor.

Another part of being a good neighbor is visiting across the fence on a regular basis. Through the pages of Cooperative Living magazine, Virginia’s 12 cooperatives have been keeping their members informed since 1946. This magazine is a living reminder of the commitment made, in a very different world, by common folks with uncommon grit, who saw an opportunity to improve their lives and their community, and worked together with their neighbors to make it happen.

So every time we flip a light switch, push a dryer button, adjust a thermostat, turn on the oven, log on to a computer, or sit down and watch TV, the past is present with us. Big ideas and bold action by daring doers three generations ago still reside with us today. 

 

 

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