Historical Markers
Rural Electrification, Adams County Historical Marker
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Rural Electrification, Adams County

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
PA 34, 1.7 miles N of Gettysburg

Dedication Date:
August 21, 1990

Behind the Marker

Rural electrification did not take place without a fight. Even before the markerRural Electrification Administration (REA) granted its first loan to the Steamburg Electric Cooperative Association in May 1936, Pennsylvania power companies had begun an aggressive campaign against the rural electrical cooperatives. They attacked the co-ops in the courts and in the marketplace, attempting to drive them out of business by building "spite lines" to provide cut-rate electric service to farmers in areas they had previously refused to serve, and by providing serve only to customers on major roads, a practice called "cream skimming."

Dark image of shadowy figures sawing down a telephone pole
"Battle of the Postholes", January 30, 1941
In 1937, Pennsylvania's electric utilities mobilized to defeat legislation drafted by the REA, designed to revise state regulatory law in favor of consumers, and that included a "preemption clause" that gave cooperatives exclusive right for six months to build lines in any area where a majority voted for service by the cooperative.

Arguing that the legislation was merely the first step in a communistic plan for government ownership of all businesses, conservative legislators, backed by the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association, introduced an amendment that would have prohibited cooperatives from installing electric lines in areas served by private utilities.

The law passed, but went untested until 1940 when more than 2,000 residents in an area that included rural residents of Adams, York, Franklin, and Cumberland counties signed up for service from the newly incorporated Adams Electric Cooperative. To prevent competition from the new cooperative, Pennsylvania Power and Light (PP&L) decided to provide electric service to farmers it had previously ignored, by offering cut-rate monthly charges and other incentives.

To put its plan into operation, PP and L got a court-ordered right of way to build electric lines across two farmers' properties in Big Springs, Cumberland County, then company president John S. Wise personally gave the order for 100 men to start work on the right of ways.

Black and white image of workers installing poles for electrical lines. Pole is slanted in mid installation.
Workers installing poles for electrical lines, circa 1940.
On a cold morning in January 1941, 100 PP& L workers began to dig holes through farmer James McCulloch's fields. Hour after backbreaking hour - until 2 in the morning - they dug hole after hole; hour after hour forty farmers filled in the holes as fast as the electric company workers could dig them. When the crews came back the next morning, sixty farmers met them, shovels in hand, and the crews went home.

Eight days of public hearings followed the stand-off, during which Pennsylvania Public Utility Commissioner Richard J. Beamish charged PP&L with violation of public utilities law. After mutual threats of law suits, PP&L finally agreed not to build lines without cooperative permission. The "Battle of the Pole Holes," as the confrontation became known, proved to be a crucial turning point in the private utilities' unsuccessful war against the rural cooperatives.

On May 3, 1941, 800 people turned out to watch REA director Harry Slattery push the button that energized the first 35 miles of Adams Electric lines. "Because you live on farms," Slattery told them, "raising the crops which our cities need for their existence, you were denied the essential constituent of modern living standards. Through no fault or wish of your own, you could not have electricity in your homes to pump the water, spray your orchards, sort and refrigerate your fruit, brood your chicks, and save your children from eye strain. When you banded together to get this great essential, your efforts were opposed by powerful interests."

By the end of 1941, Pennsylvanian's fourteen rural electric cooperatives served 25,000 rural families over 9,000 miles of line. In 1947, the United States Supreme Court gave constitutional sanction to the pluralistic system of electrical production and service that continues to this day.

In 2003 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. Pennsylvania's thirteen cooperatives owned and maintained more than 12 percent of the state's electric distribution lines, which covered nearly one-third of the Commonwealth.
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