Seventy-five years ago on April 30, 1936, delegates from 16 rural electric cooperatives held the first meeting of the Wisconsin Rural Electric Cooperative Association (WRECA). It was the first state cooperative in the United States incorporated by and for rural electric cooperatives. “Statewide” as it was known from birth, was created to provide professional services to its member cooperatives and, through them, to the entire rural electric cooperative community in Wisconsin. The history of Statewide is the story of those many and varied services and the people who provided them.
In 1936, the immediate demand was for engineering. Wisconsin farmers were no strangers to cooperative organization, but designing and building an electrical distribution grid was not in their job descriptions, nor should it have been. Within months after its organization, WRECA had “resident engineers” in the field supervising the construction of 2,000 miles of local distribution line and over 200 miles of transmission line that later became the nucleus of the Dairyland Power system.
Poles, cable, and transformers alone do not a power system make. Politics mattered in the 1930s, as they have ever since. The new cooperatives presented the corporate utilities with a competitive challenge and they fought back. Seeking a referee for the battles breaking out at the grassroots, Statewide assembled a committee of directors to find friends in the Legislature and hired its first legal team—veteran Norris Maloney and a fresh-faced Floyd Wheeler—to present the cooperatives’ case to legislators and regulators. Their efforts resulted in life-giving legislation that gave the fledgling cooperatives a six-month respite from power company competition, exempted them from Public Service Commission regulation, and allowed them to be taxed on their gross profits instead of on a ruinous general property assessment.
WRECA held its own in the field and the Capitol, but it was felled by its presumed friends. Rural Electrification Administrator John Carmody did not favor strong state-level organizations that might stand between his Washington agency and the locals. He withdrew funding for WRECA engineering and endorsed its transfer to a new state agency, the Wisconsin Development Authority. Although it had engineered 7,000 miles of cooperative power lines, Wisconsin’s first Statewide was all but dead by the end of 1939.
In the spring of 1940, Statewide was reborn. William V. Thomas, a remarkable 25-year-old who already had as much experience in rural electrification as anyone in the state, took over as “Chief Clerk.” The title masked the fact that Thomas was Statewide’s one and only full-time employee. He was hired and supported by an equally remarkable board of directors led by Helmer O. Melby, Erle J. Stoneman, John E. Olson, William Owen, and William Rabe. They told Thomas they would hire and pay him, but he had to figure out how “to get the money into the organization” to make that payroll. For the next 32 years, Thomas never stopped figuring, and a full list of Statewide’s accomplishments during his tenure requires an arsenal of bullet points. Here are some:
• Reincorporating as the Wisconsin Electric Cooperative (WEC).
• Originating cooperative line material and equipment sales in Wisconsin and expanding to hundreds of millions of dollars in sales in 14 states.
• Publishing the first state rural electric cooperative newspaper in the United States.
• Providing graphic design, printing, and mailing services for members.
• Undertaking wholesale distribution (and retail sales, briefly) of electrical appliances.
• Resuming engineering services after the demise of the Wisconsin Development Authority.
• Conducting standards-setting training and safety programs for line workers and professional training for office staff.
• Taking on national distribution of aluminum conductor to break the 1940s supply “bottleneck.”
• Founding the Federated Rural Electric Insurance Cooperative.
• Starting Wisconsin’s Youth Leadership Congress and other programs for young people.
• Initiating Wisconsin’s international outreach through the Alliance for Progress.
• Launching the Wisconsin Rural Housing Cooperative.
Division of Duties
Thomas’s final act was what he hoped would be a “division without amputation,” in the early 1970s. Times had changed and WEC’s dual roles as single-state service organization and multi-state distributor of line material were no longer compatible. In 1972, the directors voted to divide WEC with amputation into a Wisconsin-only service cooperative to be known as the Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association (WECA) and an independent nationwide distributor of line materials known as the Rural Electric Supply Cooperative (RESCO). Each has since gone its own separate way.
As the new Statewide, WECA faced a new rural electric landscape.
The population served was no longer predominantly farmers familiar with cooperatives. It was younger and more suburban. The traditional push to increase electrical consumption—“load building”—had to be tempered by the realities of an energy crisis, inflation, and environmental concerns. WECA focused on advocacy for cooperative consumers at all levels of government, on education through youth programs and publications, and on building alliances with other organizations, like the Wisconsin Federation of Cooperatives (WFC).
In the 1980s, WECA worked with WFC to bring about changes in the statute governing cooperatives that enabled members to set up scholarship programs that have helped over 7,000 students pursue their educational goals. In the 1990s, WECA unified with WFC and helped form the alliance of consumer, labor, public utilities, and citizens that prevented the introduction of Enron-style retail wheeling in Wisconsin.
The services provided have changed since 1936. The mission has not.
As one of Statewide’s founders declared, “We are going out to make Wisconsin the finest place in which to live".
The work continues today.—Michael Goc, historian, Adams–Columbia Electric Co-op member, and author of the upcoming book, Statewide: Wisconsin’s Electric Cooperative 1936–2011