Lighting the town
At the height of the Great Depression, for-profit electrical companies had little interest in bringing power to rural areas. So the people of North Dakota decided to start their own electrical cooperatives.
Tom Rafferty, community relations manager for Verendrye Electric, has spent the past two years gathering stories and photos for a commemorative book in honor of Verendrye’s 75th anniversary.
“This is a marvelous story of folks building a better life for themselves when there wasn’t anyone to do it for them,” said Verendrye manager Bruce Carlson in a press release. “Imagine the farmers and ranchers of the Souris River Valley near the little town of Verendrye, digging power poles in by hand in the early 1940s, just to someday have the privilege of electric power in their homes and barns.”
The cooperative became official on Jan. 26, 1939, when the State of North Dakota granted it articles of incorporation. It held its first meeting of directors on Feb. 15, 1939, and electrified the first 35 homes on June 27, 1940. The cooperative’s first office was in an old bank in the tiny town of Verendrye, which is now home to only two residents. The headquarters was moved to Velva in 1941.
According to Rafferty, electric cooperatives are non-profit organizations that are owned by the members that purchase power from them. They were started by farmers in the 1930s and ’40s because investor-owned utilities would not bring electricity to rural areas because it was not profitable. Cooperatives are locally controlled by a board of directors who are elected by the members at the annual meeting each year. Members also have ownership in their cooperative with capital credits.
Rafferty said that H.H. Blackstead, a grain elevator manager in Verendrye, was the lead organizer of Verendrye Electric. Blackstead and other founders went door to door asking people to become members for $5. Once power lines were built, members had to agree to pay $3.50 a month for 40 kilowatt-hours of power. Today many households use 40 kwh or more in a single day and the cooperative serves about 11,000 members in parts of Minot and surrounding communities. Minot Air Force Base is a major client and has been served by Verendrye since the 1950s. Rafferty said Verendrye Electric also provides power to newer locations, including the newly opened Cashwise Foods and apartment buildings in its vicinity as well as to several new hotels in Minot.
President Franklin Roosevelt is well known for his support of the cooperative movement. He established the Rural Electrification Administration by executive order in 1935 and signed the Rural Electrification Act in 1936. The REA, now known as the Rural Utilities Service, was a federal agency that provided technical assistance and loans that helped cooperatives get established
The technology has advanced a great deal in 75 years. Verendrye utilizes Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition to control and monitor substations and power lines to improve efficiency and reliability. It also uses smart meters that remotely read members’ meters and can help pinpoint the location of outages before crews are sent to make repairs. Verendrye members can also log onto their accounts online, or via their cell phones with the Smart Hub app to pay their bill and see their usage by the month, day and hour, according to Rafferty.
“There are people who remember the lights coming on that are going to use this app,” said Rafferty, marveling at the changes.
To celebrate the cooperative’s 75th anniversary, Verendrye will hold an annual meeting on June 12 with a guaranteed cash prize of $3,000 to a member in attendance and a second place prize of $750. The annual meeting will also include historic displays, a history video and a performance by area musical group Tigerlily. Rafferty has found interesting artifacts from the company’s past, such as a belt buckle that commemorates a 1983 ice storm and an account of a 1925 train journey filled with important officials to visit the monument at Verendrye to explorer David Thompson. There are also often comical ads, reflecting the era. One declares that a woman with her own washing machine was the height of fashion.
Rafferty said he hopes the book he has been working on will be ready for distribution during the annual meeting. It will have many old photos and stories about the history of the cooperative. Many of the articles are available on Verendrye’s website at (www.verendrye.com/about/HistoryofVerendrye/75thHistoryProject/).
“We think our history is important,” said Rafferty, and well worth celebrating. The non-profit company still focuses on keeping costs low and providing the best service to its member owners, who share in some of the company’s profits in good years.