Our Own Greatest Generation

Few dreams in the 1930s seemed more daunting than delivering electricity to far-flung farmhouses. But thanks to common folks with uncommon grit, light would soon spread across the landscape of Virginia and the rest of our vast nation.

July 2019

Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Executive Editor

The present moment may be all that we have. But the past is still always present.

It’s present in the sacrifices and wisdom of the Founders, who 243 years ago this month signed a Declaration of Independence, and put us on a path to constitutional government, with three equal branches, and the rule of law.

The past is present in the sacrifices and bravery over the centuries of countless men and women from all backgrounds, who have helped us continually work to fulfill the aspiration in our Constitution’s preamble, “to form a more perfect union.”

And the past is present in the sacrifices and courage of The Greatest Generation, many of whose members 75 years ago last month turned the tide against tyranny, on the coast of France, and thereby gave us the freedom and prosperity we’ve enjoyed ever since.

The Book of Proverbs famously says, “without a vision, the people perish.” But just having a vision, a goal, a dream, is not enough. Turning dreams into reality requires both the dreamer and the doer.

A perfect example is the electric cooperative movement of the 1930s. In the rural America of the Great Depression, only one home in 10 had electric service. Big power companies were simply not able to make a profit serving stretches with only one or two farmhouses per mile. And across this vast land, there were thousands upon thousands of such miles, where the darkness at night was broken only by the yellow light of a kerosene lamp … if at all.

Rural men and women, though, were able to do what the big power companies weren’t.

In thousands of small communities across the country, in the depths of the Great Depression, rural neighbors formed cooperatives, to provide themselves with electric service.

Necessity was the mother of this invention. And audacity seemed to be its father. Beginning in 1935, thousands of rural men and women saw a need, and tackled it with audacious grit.

Many went door to door, asking their neighbors to contribute seed money and signatures to form a new kind of cooperative, one that would deliver electricity to rural homes and businesses.

The many logistical challenges of serving rural areas were daunting enough. In addition, though, they had to deal with the financial challenges of the Depression, and the scarcity during World War II of resources like wooden poles and copper wire. But these rural men and women persisted. And by the mid-1950s, they had hooked up the 90 percent of rural Americans who 20 years earlier had no power. Amazing.

The story of electric cooperatives is much more than a history of poles, transformers and wires. At its heart, it’s a story of people joining together in common cause, to improve their community. Each of today’s almost 900 electric cooperatives bears witness to the power of neighbor joining neighbor to attempt — and achieve — great things.

The federal government played an important role, too. Through the Rural Electrification Administration, or REA, cooperatives were able to access low-cost loans and technical assistance, neither of which was easily available to them otherwise. In fact, the electrification of rural America would become, and remains, one of the largest and most successful public/private partnerships in our nation’s history.

For centuries, the rhythms of farm life followed the rising and setting sun. But with electricity, American farmers could live more comfortably, farm more efficiently, and ultimately feed the world.

With electricity, rural Virginians in every dusty crossroads community from the Cumberland Gap to the Eastern Shore were able to enjoy the same comforts formerly reserved for city dwellers in Richmond, Norfolk and Roanoke.

At electric cooperative annual meetings each summer, we still see and enjoy visiting with co-op members who were there “when the lights came on.” Bringing light to their home was a transformational moment for many of them. Oftentimes that moment happened when a hesitant pull on a cord hanging from the kitchen ceiling brought a happy gasp, as a lonely incandescent bulb came alive.

The ranks of these co-op members, of course, grow smaller each year. Their lives of hardship and sacrifice make them the Greatest Generation within the electric cooperative movement.

And their legacy will live on … every time we flip a light switch, push a dryer button, adjust a thermostat, turn on an oven, log on to our computer, or stream a TV show.

Their past made possible our present. 