by Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Exec. Editor

Richard Johnstone

It may not have had the drama, or human spectacle, or media coverage, of the annual countdown that sees Times Square revelers calling out the final seconds before an old year dies and a new one begins, full of promise and possibilities. But it was still pretty darn exciting for Rappahannock Electric Cooperative and Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative, as May 31 at 11:59:59 p.m. rolled into 12 midnight on June 1, 2010, and Virginia’s electric cooperative family added about 102,000 new members to the fold. And a large fold it is, too, with Virginia’s 13 locally owned electric cooperatives now serving more than 490,000 homes and businesses, or over 1.2 million Virginians.

This growth came about when the two cooperatives acquired the Virginia service territory of Potomac Edison, which includes portions of 14 counties in the northern Shenandoah Valley, the largest concentration being in Frederick County and the city of Winchester.

As a unit, Virginia’s 13 cooperatives now constitute the second-largest electricity provider in the state. This is a far cry from the birth of electric cooperatives in the mid-1930s. Back then, most American cities had been enjoying the benefits of electric service since early in the 20th century. By contrast, only 10 percent of farm families had electricity, due to the high cost of serving less-populated areas.

Then, with a bold pen stroke in May 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made electricity available and affordable for the first time to rural Americans. He did so by creating a federal agency, the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), to provide low-cost loans and technical assistance to hundreds of rural citizen groups across the country, enabling them to form cooperatives and provide themselves with electricity.

Almost 1,000 cooperatives were formed in almost every state over the next few years. And America’s rural areas were literally fast-forwarded from a land of manual labor using 19th-century tools and techniques into a land of labor-saving appliances and approaches using 20th-century electrical know-how.

This electric cooperative movement took hold early-on in Virginia. In June of 1936, Shenandoah Valley received its charter as Virginia’s first rural electric cooperative. Two months later, in August, Farmers Rural Utilities of Bowling Green, a predecessor to Rappahannock Electric Cooperative, energized the first REA-financed power line in Virginia, and provided electric service to 73 farm families who had previously been forced to rely on kerosene lamps for light, iceboxes for refrigeration, wood stoves for cooking, and washboards for cleaning clothes. 

A lot has changed in the 75 years since electric cooperatives began. Electricity is no longer viewed as an exciting blessing in rural areas; it’s an assumed, and essential, part of daily life. Virginia’s rural areas have changed dramatically, too, with many-fold new residents, the expansion of towns and cities, shifts from agriculture to service-based industries, the emergence of computer-based home businesses, and ribbons of hard-surface road that have turned day-long trips into daily commutes.

And yet, much about electric cooperatives remains the same. Cooperatives are owned and controlled by the members. These member-owners are represented by a board of directors elected from and by the membership. Every member has an equal vote in business matters. Service is provided at cost, since cooperatives are not-for-profit. And, if any funds are left over at the end of a business year, they are allocated back to the member-owners based on patronage.

So, from 1936 till 2010, across three generations and through incalculable societal and technological changes, the cooperative mission has held firm: to provide each member-owner with the best possible service at the lowest possible cost.

To these 102,000 new cooperative members, we say: Welcome, to a utility you own, serving the community where you live, and run by people who, like you, proudly call this community their home. 


Home ] Up ] Caught in the Web ] Cover Story ] Down Home ] [ Editorial ] Happenings ] Perspective ] Reader Recipes ] Rural Living ] Say Cheese ]