By Jennifer Kotila
WRIGHT COUNTY, MN “When we plugged in the meter and the lights came on, he ran around from building to building, laughing like a kid at Christmas time. I wish we could have taken a [video] of it,” recalled George Zech about C.O. Anderson in an interview for Wright-Hennepin Cooperative Electric Association’s (WH) 50th anniversary in 1987.
C.O. “Laughing” Anderson was the first WH member to receive electricity at his farm nearly 75 years ago, in 1937. Today, the farm, located a few miles north of Cokato on Wright County Road 3, is owned by Duane and Tammi Dahlman.
Zech, who was from Howard Lake, was an engineer and WH’s first employee. He oversaw the wiring of all the farms in the Cokato and Howard Lake areas that had signed up to become members of the cooperative.
This year, WH is celebrating 75 years as an electrical cooperative serving rural customers.
It is a member-owned nonprofit utility that provides electric power to Wright County and the western part of Hennepin County.
Growing from that first meter 75 years ago, WH currently has 60,000 meters in Wright and Hennepin counties.
The utilities security division started in 1989, and it provides local home security solutions and monitors alarms for more than 50,000 customers in 32 states and three Canadian provinces.
Today, there are 760 miles of lines in the Cokato area, 789 miles in Howard Lake, 421 miles in Waverly, 197 in Montrose, and 518 in Delano.
Chris Lantto, of French Lake Township, has been the chairman of the board for WH since 1987, its 50th anniversary.
“I wouldn’t be there (on the board) if it wasn’t a progressive, challenging organization,” Lantto said.
He noted that the cooperative is unique in that it has only had three CEOs.
“We are fortunate to have the ones we have had they are visionaries,” Lantto said. “The board has been lucky to have that.”
WH is one of the few cooperatives that decided to diversify, and it has made WH the success it is today, Lantto added.
“As a board member, it has been a privilege and an honor to serve. It has been a positive experience,” Lantto said, noting membership has doubled in his years as a board member.
The board for WH, which is made up of farmers, businessmen, and professionals, as well as the management, are very progressive, Lantto added.
The success of WH has allowed it to contribute more than $1 million to worthy causes over the years, including providing scholarships to all the schools in the area it serves, Lantto said.
Special programs are planned for the annual meeting, which takes place March 29 from 4:30 to 6:45 p.m.
The formation of the cooperative
The following information was provided by Lindsay Scherer, Communications Specialist for WH.
Although city folk had enjoyed the convenience of electricity for a number of years, those living in rural areas were left without the luxury.
Rural areas were not deemed worthy of the expense of installing miles of line to serve so few customers by power companies.
It may be difficult for those living in today’s electricity- and technology-filled worlds to understand the difficulties of not having electricity.
When WH was formed, those living in rural areas relied on kerosene lamps for lighting. Not only were the lamps a dangerous fire hazard, but they only provided 25 watts of light.
Also, without electric pumps, water had to be hand pumped and hauled to various locations for washing clothes, bathing, and taking care of livestock.
Hope for rural residents came in the form of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), which was formed in Washington, DC in 1935.
The REA was created to administer loan programs for electrification and telephone service to rural areas, providing farms with inexpensive electric lighting and power.
Long-term loans were provided to state and local governments, farmers’ cooperatives, and nonprofit organizations to bring power lines to rural areas.
From fall of 1935 through fall of 1936, informational township meetings were being conducted by Farm Bureau agents in both Wright and Hennepin counties to gauge the interest of local farmers.
The Wright and Hennepin agents stressed the fact that their respective cooperatives would be member-owned, with each member having an equal share and an equal voice in the company.
By 1937, the Rural Hennepin Electric Cooperative Association and the Wright Cooperative Light and Power Association were set to move forward constructing the lines that would provide their rural members with electricity.
Wright County had been promised $84,000 to construct 90 miles of line, which would serve 300 farmers, according to the March 8, 1937 edition of The Cokato Enterprise.
Hennepin County had been promised $73,000 to construct 69 miles of line to serve nearly as many customers, according to the April 1, 1937 edition of The Cokato Enterprise.
However, the REA sent both cooperatives a letter asking them to consolidate for “maximum efficiency and feasibility.”
Although the cooperatives met to consider the REA’s request, it was decided it would not be in their best interest to merge, and informed the REA of their decision.
In its response, the REA basically told the cooperatives if they did not merge, funding for their respective projects would be delayed until membership had doubled in size.
But, if the two decided to merge, construction would begin that year, according to the REA’s response.
The cooperatives met again March 26, 1937, in Cokato, and decided to consolidate in order to expedite the electrification process.
Bringing electricity to the rural farmer in 1937
By the spring of 1937, farmers from Howard Lake, east to Rice Lake, up through parts of Stockholm, and north to French Lake and Lake Sylvia were signed up to replace kerosene lamps with electric lights, and use electric appliances to lighten household and farm chores, reported the March 4, 1937 edition of The Cokato Enterprise.
Although that month brought some unexpected changes, namely the consolidation of the Wright and Hennepin county cooperatives, The Cokato Enterprise reported April 1 that work would begin as soon as the ground thawed to construct the combined 159 miles of line in Hennepin and Wright counties.
It was also reported that an additional 200 rural residents from near Albion, Maple Lake, and Buffalo had become members, and funding would be available to construct lines in that area after July 1.
In order to assist farmers in utilizing the electricity, the cooperative would be providing low-interest loans for wiring farms and purchasing appliances which were to be paid back over five years.
The June 17, 1937 issue of The Cokato Enterprise encouraged farmers to wire their farms as soon as possible, because the first poles for power lines would be installed during July.
Current could not be turned on unless two farms per mile were prepared to begin receiving current.
By mid-July, work on the lines had been delayed due to a shortage of engineers available to survey the lines, but local officials were assured the surveying would start no later than the following week.
Staking of the lines would begin at the Albion Town Hall and proceed west to French Lake and Southside townships.
It was also reported that the Consumer’s Cooperative Oil company in Cokato was set to begin work on a building next to it to house WH’s offices, salesroom, and storage headquarters.
The oil company would handle the business of selling and wiring appliances, as well as wiring farms in connection with its oil business.
By July 22, the staking of the lines had begun, and was progressing at a pace of eight miles per week, but it would be another three weeks before the poles would arrive to hang the wire.
As soon as 20 miles of line was staked, crews would begin digging holes for the poles, The Cokato Enterprise reported.
In mid-August, more than 50 miles of line had been staked between west Albion, French Lake, and Lake Sylvia, and surveying towards Cokato was expected to begin within a week.
The Aug, 12, 1937 Cokato Enterprise also reported that two farm wiring crews, under the direction of George Zech of Howard Lake, were busy wiring farms.
The Anderson farm and several others were already completely wired.
The following week, it was reported that it would be two to three weeks before the first poles would arrive.
There were 65 miles of line surveyed and staked in Wright and Hennepin counties.
Staking was continuing south of the Gunnary school to French Lake, and would be complete soon.
Surveying was taking place in Cokato township, beginning just above Albright’s Mill and proceeding west to the JM Ferrel farm.
It would continue west to WE Onkka’s farm, and then to Oscar and Jacob Kotilla’s (sic) farm.
From there it would go north to Knapp, then south to Temperance Corner and other farms northeast of Cokato.
By Aug. 26, three crews were working on wiring farms. “Specifications are rigid, and four days is required to wire the average farm,” reported The Cokato Enterprise. “George Zech of Howard Lake is the master technician.”
Finally, The Cokato Enterprise reported Sept, 9, 1937, that the poles should be arriving within the week, and had been shipped from Louisiana two weeks prior.
The poles were 35- to 40-foot southern pine, and the wire crew was expected to begin shortly after the pole crew.
The following week, although 25 farms were wired for power, the poles still had not arrived.
While in town wiring all the farms, Zech met and fell in love with Lucille Larson. Their marriage at the Baptist parsonage was reported in the Sept. 30, 1937 Cokato Enterprise.
Finally, the Oct. 7 Cokato Enterprise reported that the poles had arrived, and the first of them had been erected near South Haven.
Each mile of line requires 17 poles, and 60 percent of the farms needed to be wired before the current could be turned on.
By Dec. 2, 1937, there were only 25 to 30 miles, out of the original 154 miles, of poles left to erect.