The following contains excerpts from an article written by Pam Blair for the Ruralite magazine in October 2001.
Prior to 1935, life in rural America generally started at sunrise and ended at sunset. That’s because nine out of 10 rural homes had no electric service.
While it was technically possible to deliver electricity to rural areas, it was not deemed necessary or economically feasible by the power companies.
Rural residents close to a power company’s line were required to pay the full cost of connecting their homes to the system. In many cases, that fee was nearly twice the annual farm income.
Once that initial investment was made, rural consumers discovered they would have to pay 10 to 12 cents a kilowatt-hour (kWh)—double the rate for urban customers. In some cases, the charge was as high as 40 cents per kWh.
That essentially ensured rural America remained in the dark. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s rural electrification program changed that, transforming the country through federal low-interest loans designed to electrify all of America.
Most of the loan recipients were newly formed rural electric cooperatives. Today, nearly a thousand locally owned co-ops provide power to 35 million people—11 percent of the nation—in 46 states.
But electrifying the country wasn’t easy. For years, power companies ignored rural areas—except those heavily populated, easy to reach and well off economically. That assured them of maximizing their profits.
Even with federal money available, most for-profit investor-owned utilities (IOUs) weren’t interested in extending service to rural areas. If rural America were to have access to electricity, rural residents would have to make it happen. Working together for the common good was not a new concept for farmers, who had organized agriculture- oriented co-ops.
Now hungry for electricity, rural Americans journeyed up and down country roads seeking support for development of electric cooperatives. By and large, they were successful. Today, electricity is available to more than 99 percent of the nation’s rural residents—mostly through electric co-ops.
To perform their mission, electric cooperatives own and maintain 2.3 million miles—44 percent— of the nation’s electric distribution lines, covering three quarters of the nation’s land mass. Their assets top $70 billion. And they provide electrical service in a way far different than IOUs.
Plumas-Sierra Rural Electric Cooperative was founded in 1937 to bring power to Plumas, Lassen, and Sierra counties. We are committed to improving the quality of life of our member-owners and our local communities. Below you’ll enjoy hearing our own members tell the story of our rich history in their own words.
The Days Before Electricity
I remember trying to start the gasoline powered washing machine. I had to jump up and down on the start pedal like it was a motorcycle. It took forever to start. But, I really disliked the irons, we had the irons that were heated on the stove. We purchased a gas one that was easier to use but a little dangerous. The gas iron caught fire one day; I had to toss it into the driveway.
Mrs. D. W. Roberts of Sierraville
First we carried water from the well in our front yard to the house. Then we installed a pitcher pump on the drain board in the kitchen. We had a reservoir on our Home Comfort range; we carried water from the sink to fill the reservoir; heated water for dishes, etc.
On wash days we filled a wash boiler and heated it on the wood stove; carried the water from there to the washing machine, a wringer type with a gasoline motor, which we had on the porch in summer and in the kitchen in the winter and put the exhaust out the window. I ironed clothes with irons that you heat on the stove. I had three irons that had a wood handle that connected to them.
For lights we had kerosene lamps and lanterns and Coleman gasoline lamps. The Coleman lamps gave out a good light but nothing like electricity. I did my mending at night by lamplight that wasn’t the best light to sew by. Also, had to heat water on the stove for baths in the washtub. We always managed to keep clean. With a family of six it takes a lot of water to keep things going.
Mrs. France of Beckwourth
May 11, 1935 — President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Rural Electrification Act (REA)
When the REA came into being, there was a provision that allowed Investor Owned Utilities to borrow 2% money and extend lines to rural areas. My father and several men from our area interested in power went to Sierra Pacific Power and Pacific Gas and Electric to try and interest them in taking advantage of these loans. At one of the offices they were told `NO!’, with no reasons given. In the other president’s office, the president of the utility refused to even acknowledge their presence in the room. He wouldn’t even look at them. The utility boss was incredibly rude.
The Sierra Valley Grange helped organize Plumas-Sierra. My father was secretary of the Grange, and he spent many days going door-to-door trying to get people to sign up.
Ted Ramelli of Vinton remembers his father, Rudolph Ramelli, who was instrumental in the formation of Plumas-Sierra REC
I first read about REA in a magazine. It seemed like a great opportunity to get power as we couldn’t get Sierra Pacific to come to Sierraville. I felt that the availability of power would have a great affect on our area, our lives and the economy of the region. I told my neighbors about the REA and tried to get people interested.
In the early meetings it took a lot of convincing for some of the people to believe that electricity was going to be safe.
Alden Johnson, original incorporator from Sierraville
Word started spreading about electricity coming to Sierra Valley. I get nosy when new stuff comes along so I was convinced early that we should have it.
Mr. Ramelli was going door-to-door trying to enlist support and sign people up. I decided to help out. We got many a door slammed in our face. It was tough. I always felt like we were intruding. Some people just didn’t trust the government. Other people would think about it for a while and come around.
When the power came on, a cream separator was one of the most important additions. The separator saved hours and hours of hand cranking.
Josie Roberti of Sierra Valley
Blairsden Power and Light Company formed to survey and sign people up for the Cooperative
The coop was short of members in Sierra Valley and Blairsden to form a viable cooperative. My father talked with Mr. Laughlin and some of the others who wanted to know if the Lassen County ranchers would be interested. Of course they were.
We held a meeting at the Lake school. Mr. Laughlin wanted to go to Washington to talk to the REA people. They wanted us to sign up and pay $25 to raise the funds.
In the meeting, one guy got up and walked out, saying it will never work. He was the first one ready with power. Another guy, miles off of the proposed lines, volunteered two memberships. He said, “I’ll do it if it will help the rest of you out.”
Claude Harwood of Susanville remembers his father, Roy Harwood, one of the original incorporators
Early Milestones in PSREC History
- August 8, 1937 — Plumas-Sierra Rural Electric Cooperative incorporated
- August 12, 1937 — First meeting of incorporators, held at Sierra Valley Grange Hall at Vinton
- August 24, 1937 — Authorized original loan from REA
- September 1, 1937 — Original loan approved by REA for $283,000 to build 229 miles of line and serve 643 members
- October 4, 1937 — Wholesale power contract executed with PG&E
- March 25, 1938 — Construction contract executed with Fritz Zeibarth Co. of Long Beach, CA
- July 11, 1938 — Rate schedule adopted
- September 4, 1938 — System first energized
The day the lines were to be energized, someone came up with the idea to have a kid throw the switch. So my father came and got me, and Mr. Laughlin brought his daughter down to Quincy. We were going to throw the switch together. But the switch was near the top of the pole, so one of the linemen had to start the system up.
The lines got to Lassen County last. We had gone that day to the cinema in Susanville. My father, mother, my wife and I were driving back when we saw what looked like a fire at our house. It was our home, lit up from the new lights, on for the first time.
Nov. 22. This end of the REA power line energized today. We were the only ones ready, had working electric lights for first time. A big event in our lives.
From the diary of Mrs. Roy Harwood
I did the wiring myself. Mr. Shelly came by to inspect the wiring, and said, “This is the best wiring in Sierraville.” They stuck up the power lines down our street and then came back a week later to install a meter and give us power for the first time.
December 1938: Office moved from Blairsden to Portola.
1939 to late 1940’s: People continue to join as lines reach them or as they can afford to have houses wired and pay the membership fee.
We were renting at the time and our landlord wouldn’t pay to have the house wired. My relatives near Omaha, Nebraska, had REA power since early 1938 and it was frustrating to have to wait so long. We finally received power in the summer of 1940. Mr. Kreps, who had been a director of Plumas-Sierra, did our wiring. We already had a refrigerator and an electric iron so we were ready to go.
Mrs. Inez Nelson of Beckwourth
In the early years, it seemed like most everybody had an opinion on how it should be run. And lots of people wanted to run it, some by being on the board and some by being the manager. I remember when Louie D’Armond was manager. He was in a substation, being very careful to stay away from the big wires. He overlooked one of the small wires—got stung pretty good. His ring melted off of his finger.
Phil Hall of Susanville
My father was on the board starting in 1939 but I still didn’t have power until 1940 because I couldn’t afford the $40 it would cost for my wife and I to join. We had a 32-volt colared electric generator plant that worked fairly well so we could wait. I finally sold the generator plant for $40, and used that money to get REA to come in.
“Brothers and Sisters, I want to tell you this. The greatest thing on earth is to have the love of God in your heart, and the next greatest thing is to have electricity in your house.” —Farmer giving witness in a rural Tennessee church in the early 1940’s.
Gene Rowland of Johnstonville
The men from Plumas-Sierra have worked day and night in the worst weather to get the power back on. Even when all the poles went down a few years ago, the power was only off a week. You couldn’t ask for better service than we have had with Plumas-Sierra Rural Electric.
Mrs. D. W. Roberts of Sierraville
It was the biggest labor saver that came into our lives of any of the changes in the last 50 years. Roads were big, yes, but electricity was the biggest change.
Mrs. Inez Nelson
After we got electricity we gradually got all the comforts that go along with it. Made it much easier on all of us. I have thanked God many times for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and our Rural Electrification Program.
There has been an electric line across Sierra Valley for quite a few years and on some of the ranchers’ property. But it was just something to look at. It didn’t do them a bit of good. The rural people never had a chance before REA.
I can’t even begin to explain what REA and electricity mean to me. If people had carried buckets and pumped the well, then they would really appreciate it.
One of the greatest things was that the women had freezers and refrigerators for the preservation of food. Rural Electrification was the turning point in many people’s lives. We went from backwoods to modern living.
Why We’re Different
PSREC is consumer-owned and not-for-profit. That means any revenue beyond our expenses is eventually returned to the member in the form of capital credit payments. We are committed to providing the best possible service at the lowest possible cost.
We take pride in our cooperative — a grassroots system of service started by pioneers like those who settled this area. Keeping the cost of electricity affordable helps keep local businesses competitive, while preserving our rural heritage and standard of living.
Plumas-Sierra is controlled by a seven-person board of directors elected on a rotating basis for 3 year terms. We follow the Rochdale Principles. Our goal is to provide utility services with a high level of reliability for fair and reasonable costs. We are also dedicated to improving the quality of life of our member-owners and our local communities.
Plumas-Sierra REC also owns Plumas-Sierra Telecommunications (PST), which offers high-speed internet services to the region. PST is run by a seven-person board, appointed by the electric cooperative board.
Our subsidiary has a dual role: it reduces the costs of electricity while providing vital services.
Our internet program was founded to bring high-speed, high-quality internet access to all of our members. Our goal is to ensure that no region is left behind.