Cooperative History

Cooperative History

Codington-Clark Electric Co-op . . . The Vision Continues

Electricity.  The miracle of power and light is now an accepted and essential fact of rural life.

There was a time, however, when electricity was unavailable to a large segment of the rural population. Even though towns, like Watertown or Clark, had electricity as early as 1900, the power lines necessary to provide electricity to rural areas did not exist. The private power companies were not willing to construct lines to serve fewer than two consumers per mile.

Life in rural areas was pretty much the same as it had been since pioneer days. A farmer earned his living in a way that had changed but little from the Middle Ages. For most tasks, however strenuous, he could only draw on the strength of his own body or the strength of animals. His children studied by the dim light of a kerosene lamp. His wife was a slave to the cook stove and the wash board. There was no running water . . . no indoor toilets.

Jake and Katherine Krull, a farm family south of Watertown, and several of their friends and neighbors asked and asked and asked the private power companies who served nearby towns to extend electric lines into the country; but the answer was always the same . . . NO.

Then one day in 1935, the Federal government decided to lend a hand. With the stroke of his pen, President Franklin Roosevelt gave birth to the Rural Electrification Administration. The REA program made it possible for rural people to organize and build their own electric companies.

With the help of County Extension Agent John Noonan, a few Codington County farmers tried to do just that. So did a similar group in Clark County with the help of their agent Coleman Wagner. REA suggested the two groups combine to form one organization large enough to get the job done.

On October 26, 1940, seventeen leaders from the two counties met in Watertown to discuss the joint cooperation of Codington and Clark counties in a rural electrification project.

After considerable discussion, a vote was taken.  Codington-Clark Electric Association was on its way. Smith Robbins, of Florence, was elected chairman of the newly formed board of directors.

Ed Gribbin, a Watertown attorney, was retained to take care of the legal paperwork necessary for starting a new, non-profit business.

On December 19, 1940, the State of South Dakota issued a charter to Codington-Clark Electric Association Inc., which gave the fledgling organization the legal right to do business as a private corporation.

In the mean time, dedicated volunteers worked countless hours to solicit members for the new electric company. The sign-up fee was five dollars . . . a lot of money in 1940.

As memberships and money poured in, the work load grew. The company needed regular employees. Lorraine Clasen was hired in January 1941. As office clerk, she earned ten dollars per week.

The board of directors hired Buell & Winter, a Sioux City, Iowa, based engineering firm, to draw plans to build 489 miles of line to serve 682 signed-up members.

The board submitted the plans and a loan application for $400,000 to REA. REA approved an initial allotment of $200,000, half the requested amount. REA also designated which lines should be built first.

However, before any construction could begin, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

World War II put a stop to Codington-Clark Electric's project. On orders from the government, the association ceased all operations. The membership money was invested in government bonds. For all practical purposes, the company ceased to exist.

The end of the war meant a new beginning.

The re-united board of directors immediately made plans to pick up where they left off nearly three years earlier.

In February 1945, an office for the organization was established in the Midland National Life Insurance Building on the corner of Kemp and Broadway in Watertown. Within a year, the office would move to the west annex of the Kampeska Hotel.

Wilbur VanOrsdel was hired as manager.

To keep members informed on the progress of the project, the co-op published the first issue of the Codington-Clark Electric Association News in December 1946.

Rue Contracting of Fargo, North Dakota, was awarded the contract to build the first section of line. Because of the war, material was scarce. But slowly and steadily the poles were planted and the wires strung.

Finally, on May 17, 1947, the Karrol & Luena Hendrickson farm, four miles east of Clark, became the first electrified farm on this new rural electric system.

In July, Albert & B(ee) Schultz in Richland Township became the first Codington County farm to have "REA".

It's next to impossible for people who have grown up with electricity to imagine the deep emotion felt by farm families when REA came.

After lights, the radio was the most wanted appliance in farm homes. The radio ended the isolation of rural people.

Farm wives generally put electricity to work before their husbands did. They switched to electrical equipment as fast as family finances permitted. Few tears were shed for the abandoned cook stove or root cellar as electricity took over.

The average farm used 40 kilowatt-hours per month in 1947. The cost per kWh averaged 6 cents.

Power in those days was supplied by Northwestern Public Service Company through two substations.

The 1940s closed with yet another significant event for Codington-Clark Electric. Changes in state law allowed the company to re-organize as a cooperative. The "new" cooperative held its first annual membership meeting in the Watertown City Auditorium on March 12, 1948.

The cooperative entered the 1950s with a growing membership eager to use electricity . . . which caused a problem.

Northwestern Public Service Company had trouble producing enough electricity to meet the growing demand. Shortages and black outs threatened.

Rural electric leaders in eastern South Dakota tackled this problem with the same vigor seen a decade earlier. They decided the rural electrics could provide their own source of wholesale power. They assigned the task to East River Electric Power Cooperative in Madison, South Dakota.

While East River Electric did not actually generate any electricity, the organization did build a network of high voltage electric lines to link together all rural electric co-ops in eastern South Dakota. East River bought electricity from Northern States Power Company in Sioux Falls while waiting for the completion of the Missouri River dams and power plants.

On May 22, 1953, Harry Anderson, then president of Codington-Clark Electric Co-op's board of directors, threw the switch to energize East River's Clark substation.

November 2, 1954, marked still another milestone in the growth of Codington-Clark Electric Co-op. On that day, electricity from Ft. Randall Dam on the Missouri River started flowing through the co-op's lines. This event marked the end to a dependence on private power companies for a supply of electricity.

The Army Corps of Engineers built the Missouri River Dams under the Flood Control Act of 1944. That act established the "preference principle". Simply put, the preference principle says any electricity generated by federally-built dams goes first to non-profit municipal electric systems and rural electric cooperatives.

The 1950s also saw Codington-Clark move its business office to a new headquarters facility on south Broadway in Watertown. The co-op hosted an open house on June 22, 1951.

The 1955 annual membership meeting still holds the annual meeting attendance record. More than 2,500 attended. Nine hundred members registered for the business meeting.

By 1959, East River Electric needed three substations to serve Codington-Clark Electric Co-op. The average farm was using 397 kWh per month. The average cost per kWh had dropped to 3.5 cents.

As the decade of the ‘60s arrived, mounting evidence indicated the power plants at the Missouri River Dams could not keep pace with the continually growing demand for electricity.

Once again, electric cooperative leaders gathered to work out a solution. The result . . . Basin Electric Power Cooperative was born. Basin Electric set out to build power plants in North Dakota, utilizing the rich coal deposits available there.

Basin also built a high voltage transmission system to deliver the power to South Dakota and parts of seven other upper-Midwestern states. By 1966, the first power generated by Basin Electric surged through the power lines to help Codington-Clark and the other rural electric systems of the area meet their needs.

By the end of the 1960s, East River needed six substations to serve the needs of Codington-Clark’s members. Average farm usage grew to 910 kWh per month. The average price paid by members fell to an all-time low of 2.3 cents per kWh.

In the early 1970s, the Nixon administration decided REA had served its useful purpose as a banker and tried to shutdown further lending to rural electric systems.

A decade later, the Reagan administration would attempt a similar move. However, both times, rural electric leaders, like Maurice Bergh of Florence, rallied the support of rural people and battled the bureaucrats and politicians in Washington, D.C., to keep the REA program alive.

Member load growth continued during the 1970s. The drought conditions of the mid-70s caused a dramatic increase in the number of irrigation service sites. New commercial and industrial loads came on line. East River added a seventh substation. Statistics for 1979 reveal the average farm now used 1,824 kWh per month . . . twice as much as ten years earlier. Inflation had driven up the average cost per kWh to 3.4 cents.

The 1980s unveiled good times and bad. The co-op's largest consumer, a flax-straw processing plant, closed. Federal farm programs encouraged dairy farmers to quit and crop farmers to take land out of production. The farm economy skidded. Bankruptcies and farm sales were common.

For the first time in its history, Codington-Clark Electric Co-op faced declining numbers for both memberships and energy sales.

But the co-op fought back. Joining the other members of East River Electric, the co-op implemented an intensive Off-Peak Marketing Program.

By promoting off-peak electric water heating, dual fuel heating systems, electric thermal storage heaters, low temperature electric crop drying, and electric-powered irrigation, Codington-Clark not only reversed the trend, but kick-started a growth spurt that would last for years.

The '80s ended with the cooperative involved in yet another exciting venture . . . wireless cable television. Codington-Clark was instrumental in the formation of North East TV Co-op. For more than a decade, NETV provided rural people in northeastern South Dakota with television viewing opportunities formerly available only to cable TV subscribers in towns. Satellite technology and fiber-optic cable eventually provided much broader options for telecommunication services.

Weather-related problems are a fact of life for electric companies. The last decade of the 20thcentury saw unprecedented flooding and the re-birth of lakes that had long ago ceased to exist. Power lines once high and dry needed major rebuilding or rerouting because of water, water everywhere.

Perhaps the deadliest combination for an electric cooperative is freezing rain and high winds . . . like the November 2005 ice storm that interrupted service to all of Codington-Clark’s 3,000-plus service sites – some for hours – many for days. Exhausted repair crews struggled for 13½ days to restore power to the last service site reconnected. Total recovery efforts took more than a year.

All of Codington-Clark Electric Co-op's accomplishments throughout its history have depended entirely on one priceless resource . . . people.

The devotion of the original organizers . . . the support of more than 7,000 past and present members . . . the dedication of those leaders who have served on the cooperative's board of directors and fulfilled the duties of the various corporate officers . . . the labor of more than 100 full-time and countless part-time workers employed thru the years. All were driven by a belief in the cooperative business model.

Yesterday helped make us who we are today, a co-op manager once said. Today, we have the opportunity to influence where we will be tomorrow. Members, directors and employees will come and go. We’ll see many changes as the future unfolds. But the commitment of men and women working toward a common goal of serving people’s needs will not change.

Codington-Clark Electric Cooperative . . . The vision continues.