By Jennifer Kotila
HOWARD LAKE, WRIGHT COUNTY, MN “Times were tough. The country was still going through the Depression,” recalled George Zech in an interview for Wright-Hennepin Cooperative Electric Association’s (WH) 50th anniversary in 1987. “I would go from farm to farm, estimating the wiring jobs to farmers, concluding with a contract price. Once the contract price was set, they usually paid it in cold cash. They didn’t use checks much, because the banks had failed them before that.”
Zech, a native of Howard Lake, attended Dunwoody Institute, graduating from the electrical department in 1934.
The second employee of WH, Zech was the first engineer hired, and was in charge of three crews that went from farm to farm in Wright County in 1937, to wire them for the electricity that would now be available in rural areas.
Eventually, Zech would be in charge of powerline construction with the title of “system engineer.” He retired from WH in 1977, and passed away in December 2003.
“I don’t think they (rural residents) realize what it took to bring electricity to them the work involved in those early days to get the program started,” Zech commented.
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.
C.O. “Laughing” Anderson was the first WH member to receive electricity at his farm, north of Cokato, in 1937. Today, the farm is owned by Duane and Tammi Dahlman.
“When we plugged in the meter and the lights came on, [Anderson] ran around from building to building, laughing like a kid at Christmastime. I wish we could have taken a [video] of it,” recalled Zech about C.O. Anderson in the interview for WH’s 50th anniversary in 1987.
Growing from that first meter 75 years ago, WH currently has 60,000 meters in Wright and Hennepin counties.
“We never anticipated how fast the organization would grow,” Zech said. “Each year, we had to hire more people to extend more service. People wanted electricity.”
In 1989, WH also started a utilities security division, which provides local home security solutions and monitors alarms for more than 50,000 customers in 32 states and three Canadian provinces.
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 four 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, is 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 Thursday, 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.
The Howard Lake Herald reported Feb. 4, 1937, that meetings were taking place to explain the set-up for electrification, and the cost of securing electricity for rural residents.
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.
At the end of February 1937, the Herald was touting the benefits of electrification, saying the farmers were feeling the need for electricity.
“The REA is practical, and has the appeal of furnishing light and power to rural areas at a cost which is reasonable and within the income of the average farmer,” the Herald reported.
It was noted that odd light and power jobs, such as running a radio battery, or gas engines for pumping water and running the washing machine, could be done for only a few cents with electricity.
A telegram received by Ed Slibeska, secretary of the Wright County Light and Power Association, Feb. 25, 1937 promised $84,000 to construct 86 miles of line, which would serve 255 farmers, according to the March 4, 1937 edition of the Howard Lake Herald.
The grant would cover the constructing, building, and operating of the power lines in Franklin, Woodland, Victor, Middleville, Stockholm, Cokato, French Lake, Southside, and the northwest corner of Albion townships.
“This is a culmination of over a year’s work in organizing and directing the activities of this local cooperative by the board,” reported the Herald.
Members of the board for the Wright County Light And Power Association were Wm. C. Leinonen and A.E. Rimpy of Annandale; Wm. Onkka of Cokato; A.W. Munson, Albert Wildung, and H.C. Glessing of Howard Lake; G. Elsen of Delano; Leo Soshnik of Montrose; and Wm. Strecker of South Haven.
Signup for a second area to become electrified when money was available had also begun in the Buffalo and Maple Lake areas, reported the Herald.
However, before the money for construction of the power lines was released, the REA sent a letter to the Wright and Hennepin county cooperatives 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 Herald reported April 8 that work would begin as soon as the ground thawed to construct the combined 159 miles of line in Hennepin and Wright counties.
Bids to construct the lines would be called for soon, and WH members had elected officers, and named a manager.
The Howard Lake Herald also reported that rates for electricity could not be determined until the source for the current was contracted.
The Delano Municipalities Power Plant and Northern States Power had both submitted bids to provide the current.
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.
In a stockholders’ meeting, which took place May 5, 1937 at Howard Lake City Hall, the contract with the REA was approved. Rural electrification work would begin soon, reported the Howard Lake Herald.
Although a contract to provide current was not approved, negotiations were underway with Northern States Power.
Bids for construction of the power lines were opened June 28, 1937, and Donovan Construction of St. Paul was awarded the contract with a low bid of $790 per mile, reported the July 1 Howard Lake Herald.
Surveying for the lines would begin soon, and Donovan Construction agreed to have the transmission lines complete by Oct. 1.
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.
The Consumer’s Cooperative Oil Company in Cokato was set to begin work on a building to house WH’s offices, sales room, and storage headquarters, reported the July 15, 1937 edition of the Cokato Enterprise.
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 are 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.
In September of 1937, the Howard Lake Herald reported that George Zech of Howard Lake was the master electrician for wiring farms, and was in charge of three wiring crews.
The farms of Albert Wildung, Albert Stoll, and the Comers farms near Howard Lake were already wired.
“Specification are rigid, and four days is required to wire most farms,” the Herald reported.
By Sept. 16, more than 30 farms northwest of Howard Lake were wired, and line staking crews were hard at work.
There were three crews wiring farms in Middleville and Cokato townships, and near Lake Sylvia. Additional farms wired northwest of Howard Lake were owned by Wm. Diers, J. Klingholz, Gepperts, and F. Prohl.
It was also reported 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.
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. 14 Howard Lake Herald reported that the poles had arrived, and the first of them had been erected by a crew of 10 men near South Haven.
A load of poles was expected to arrive in Cokato to start work in the southwestern part of the county, and additional men would be erecting those poles.
By the end of October, Maple Lake was offering a site for the construction of a WH sub-station, as well as a lot in its business district for an office, reported the Oct. 28 Herald.
WH had signed a one-year contract with Northern States Power to provide current to its customers.
It was also reported that at the present rate of construction, the lines should be ready for power by Dec. 1.
In early Novemeber, four carloads of poles had arrived; one in Howard Lake, one in Maple Lake, and two in Long Lake.
Six crews were erecting poles in Wright County. One crew dug holes, one crew hauled the poles, and another crew set the poles.
The other three crews placed the hardware, the wires, and trimmed trees, reported the Howard Lake Herald.
By Dec. 2, 1937, there were only 25 to 30 miles, out of the original 154 miles, of poles left to erect, reported the Cokato Enterprise.
Zech would eventually make his home in Maple Lake, and then Buffalo. He is buried in the Howard Lake city cemetery.