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Rural Electrification, Crawford County Historical Marker
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Name:
Rural Electrification, Crawford County

Region:
Lake Erie Region

County:
Crawford

Marker Location:
PA 198, Woodcock Creek Lake, E of PA 86

Dedication Date:
August 20, 1986

Behind the Marker

"As Pennsylvania and the nation deal with electric power so shall we and our descendents be free men, masters of our own destinies and our souls, or we shall be the most helpless servants of the most widespread, far-reaching, and penetrating monopoly ever known. Either we must control electric power or its marker masters and owners will control us."

                                                                  -Governor Gifford Pinchot, 1925.


Black and white formal photograph of Morris Cooke
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Engineer Morris Llewellyn Cooke, circa 1940.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, electricity transformed urban Americans' workplaces and homes, increasing worker productivity, reducing the drudgery of housework, and lighting the night. Most of the nation's farmers, however, labored on with kerosene lamps, wood or coal-fired stoves, and back-breaking labor. Private utilities were reluctant to serve rural customers because of the high cost of building and maintaining electrical lines in rugged, sparsely populated regions of the country. When farmers did receive electrical service, utilities typically required them to pay part of the construction costs of the lines as well as higher rates.

To address the plight of American farms during the darkest hours of the Great Depression and to help boost agricultural production, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1935 created the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) by executive order, and Congress then funded $100 million in emergency relief funds to bring electricity to rural areas.

The first director of the REA was Philadelphia engineer Morris Llewellyn Cooke. A firm believer that electricity "would add immeasurably to the comfort, convenience, marker and profit of farming," Cooke had designed the first rural electrification system for the state of Pennsylvania in the early 1920s. Indeed, the idea for rural electrification had gotten its start in Pennsylvania, when markerGifford Pinchot made the provision of affordable electricity to the state's farms one of his top priorities after he became governor in 1923.

At that time, only 12,000 of Pennsylvania's 200,000 farms had electricity. Pinchot hired Cooke, who produced the Giant Power Survey, a visionary report released in 1927 that called for a "Giant Power" system of huge generating plants constructed near the state coal fields that would distribute power along trunk lines from which regional distributors could draw power.

Seven times Pinchot introduced bills to the state legislature to enact the plan. Seven times the state legislators, backed by power company lobbyists, voted them down. In 1936, 75 percent of Pennsylvania's farms still had no electrical service.

In May 1936, Cooke approved the first REA loan in his home state to the Steamburg Electric Cooperative Association, a co-op organized by thirteen groups in Crawford and Erie counties earlier that year. (They later became the Northwestern Rural Electric Cooperative Association.) On August 5, he joined the more than 3,000 people who came to a wooded pasture on the Stainbrook farm in Meadville to celebrate the setting of the first REA pole in the state of Pennsylvania.

REA director John Carmody  demonstrating the advantages of electrical appliances during a farm equipment tour, circa 1938.
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REA director John Carmody demonstrating the advantages of electrical appliances...
Farmers and other volunteers then pitched in to construct the first 124 miles of lines in Crawford County. Building the lines, however, was only half the battle. The REA plan was for the cooperatives to buy electricity from private companies. The untilites, however, were refusing to provide electricity or insisting the cooperatives pay prohibitively expensive charges for their power, so as to kill the coops before they could get off the ground.

The impasse broke in December 1936, when REA Deputy Administrator John M. Carmody, a former industrial relations expert born in Towanda, Pennsylvania, traveled to Meadville to find out what was holding things up. Outraged that the first cooperative in his home state could not get power at a reasonable cost, Carmody told the press that the Rural Electrification Administration was going to build a generating plant for the cooperative right there.

The threat worked. On January 12, 1937 the cooperatives signed a contract with the Pennsylvania Electric Company for wholesale power. On May 17 the Saegerstown substation sent the electricity through fourteen miles of line and 92 farm families received the "miracle" of electricity for the first time.

They switched on their first electric lights, tried out new clothing irons, and turned on radios that brought the sounds of the city into their living rooms. Soon, farmers were employing a growing array of "wired hands": milking machines, feed grinders, milk coolers, mowers, silage cutters, brooders, and other labor-saving devices that reduced the physical demands of farm work and tremendously increased their productivity.

Despite unremitting opposition from private industry, Pennsylvania by the end of 1941 had fourteen rural electric cooperatives that served 25,000 rural families over 9,000 miles of line. In 2003, the Northwestern Rural Electric Cooperative provided electric service to more than 20,000 members living in an area of 2,400 square miles located in five counties. Statewide, the fourteen electric distribution cooperatives of the Pennsylvania Rural Electric Association provided service to more than 200,000 rural households, businesses, and industries in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and operated and maintained electric distribution lines that covered nearly one-third of the Commonwealth.
 
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