Electricity is so intertwined in modern lives that only in its absence do we truly appreciate its existence. The spread of electricity is credited by many born before World War II as the most significant event in their lives. Even today, many of these rural residents remember the moment and the place, the lights came on. But the story of rural electrification is about much more than lights blinking on across rural America. It's a story of dreams realized and an emergence of the cooperative as a business model that has stood the test of time. And it is not just a history but also a present and a future.
As America emerged from World War I and the Great Depression, Westinghouse's idea of alternating current central station power lit hundreds of towns and cities across the nation. But for America's six million rural farms, only 650,000 had alternating current electrical power. On May 11, 1935, at the urging of farmers groups across the country, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 7037, creating the Rural Electrification Administration. The next year, bills were introduced in Congress to make REA a permanent agency. On May 21, 1936, the President signed the Rural Electrification Administration Act. Low-interest money was now available to bring electric service to rural America .
In 1939, a group of rural farmers and homeowners from Baldwin, Jones, and Putnam counties began the process of bringing electricity to rural middle Georgia. Tri-County Electric Membership Corporation was officially chartered on December 28, 1939. The members of the cooperatives first board of directors were W.H. Roberts, W.B. Williams, Mrs. George Stallings, J.P. Blasengame, M.E. Webb, Frank L. Denham, W.J. Beall, W.C. Evans, and T.W. Scott.
Like other fledgling cooperatives across the country, a membership committee set out to sign up new members, collecting signatures, easements, and the five-dollar membership fee. Many rural residents, excited to join the new cooperative, mailed membership fees.
According to Myrtice Roberts, a Tri-County EMC employee for twenty-seven years, "People were so excited about getting electricity that they were eager to cut their own right-of-way and help pull the wires."
Signing up the new members was only the beginning. Getting the poles and wire to the new members' homes proved a challenge. While trucks were used to transport poles and other materials to the construction site, the actual process of digging holes, setting poles, and pulling up the wire was done by hand. Bucket trucks would not arrive on the scene for another twenty years.
Robert Williams, a forty-year veteran with Tri-County, remembers the grueling process of building lines. "We started from scratch, digging by hand with shovels."
In places where trucks would not go, ingenuity and hard work were the only vehicles left. Often, mules were used to pull poles through densely wooded or swamp areas.
On September 12, 1940, forty miles of line were energized and 273 Tri-County members experienced electric service for the first time. At the end of World War II, Tri-County's linemen had cleared right-of-way for and built 325 miles of line, all by hand, serving 751 rural homes and businesses. The average customer used 139 kilowatt-hours per month and the average bill was $4.76. The cooperative had nine full time and seven part time employees.
But for the members, the fascination was suddenly and finally having electric power. Many rural residents vividly remember this moment and consider it one of the most significant events during their lives.
Claude Comer, who served the cooperative for forty years, spoke of turning on the power for the first time. "You ought to have seen the expression on people's faces when their lights first came on."
One of the enduring symbols of rural electric cooperatives is mascot Willie Wiredhand. Andrew L. McLay was commissioned to create the character in 1949. Since then, Willie has adorned Tri-County uniforms, trucks, and even buildings. Willie Wiredhand is most commonly seen now riding atop bucket trucks in community parades or entertaining children at cooperative events such as school safety demonstrations.
In 1959, Tri-County EMC constructed a new headquarters office on Highway 129S in Gray. The cooperative also purchased property on Highway 44 in Eatonton to serve as a North District Office. Later, property was purchased in Eatonton on Recreation Road adjacent to the Putnam Law Enforcement Center. In 2000, a new customer service and payment center was constructed at this site. In 2001, Tri-County completed a new headquarters office in Gray on the site of the existing headquarters building and operations center.
The area served by Tri-County EMC continues to enjoy vibrant growth. From 1980 to 2000, the number of accounts served by the cooperative more than doubled. The development of Lake Sinclair and Lake Oconee attracted new residents and subsequently drew commercial and retail businesses to Putnam and Baldwin counties. The appeal of all of the communities within the Tri-County service area continues to keep growth rates well above three percent each year.
The cooperative continues to offer opportunity through electric energy to the member owners served by Tri-County EMC. A dedication to cooperative principles and a commitment to responsible corporate citizenship keeps Tri-County's directors and employees resolved to community involvement, leadership, and economic development. Work toward greater reliability and affordable rates continues to pay dividends for the cooperative's members. While the challenges faced by a modern utility are often different from those of Tri-County's first linemen in 1939, the simple principles of getting the lights on, keeping the lights on, and keeping power bills as low as possible drive the efforts of Tri-County EMC, now and in the future.