Building the REA Lines
Bringing electricity to rural residents on the Great Plains was an engineering, geographic, and management challenge. Electric cooperatives were formed and used low interest loans from the government to build the electric lines. Hollis Miller says workers prepared for electricity in the late 1930s. The REA dropped off poles at a farm, and farmers could earn a little money by digging holes.
The REA wired the first York County farmhouse in 1941 at a cost of $224.50. Walter Schmitt says the town of Gresham had electricity since 1908, but it wasn’t until 1939 that the REA started to connect electricity for houses in rural Gresham. “When they first started putting some of these lines out, they would drop the poles along the section lines,” he says. “Farmers, if they wanted to, could make 25 cents a hole by digging the hole.” But there were no machine-driven augers to dig holes, and workers had to dig deep holes with a spade in the drought-hardened ground.
The Perennial Public Power District (formerly York County Rural Public Power District) was formed on December 31, 1938. In January 1939, the board of directors passed a resolution to borrow $271,000 from the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) in Washington, D.C. to construct electrical lines in York County. Soon after the district was formed, engineers and a construction company were hired to build the lines. In September 1939, the district purchased electric power from the Seward County Rural Public Power District. By early February 1940, the Perennial Public Power District announced that 130 miles of lines had been completed, and 118 customers were now receiving electricity. By 1945, the district had completed nearly 250 miles of electric line and connected more than 500 rural customers.
The process of organizing power districts like Perennial was often a difficult political job. Millie Opitz remembers how her husband Chris worked to convince their neighbors to organize a power district. Then he helped dig the holes for the poles.
LeRoy Hankel remembers how he had to be convinced to spend the money for electricity, even though it doesn’t seem like much now.
Written by Claudia Reinhardt and Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.