Published April 20 2012
Cass County Electric celebrating 75 years of bringing power to the people
They even had an electric stove. What they didn’t have was the electricity, but that was on the way to the farm 10 miles north of Oriska, N.D., in Barnes County.
Paul remembers the day electricity arrived.
“When I came in for supper … she’d cooked it on the new electric range,” the 86-year-old recently recalled. “We’d been using the kerosene stove to cook with, and we’d only been married two-and-a-half months at that time. So she was a pretty happy bride to have this modern kitchen now.”
Paul and Marilyn’s story is just one of many about how the Cass County Electric Cooperative helped change the face of rural life in our part of North Dakota.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the co-op, which reaches 10 counties in North Dakota and serves tens of thousands of customers.
Chuck Albright, 73, remembers the part his father played in bringing electricity to rural homes. Arthur Albright worked for Junge Electric, wiring individual homes to get them ready for electrical service. He did most of his work in Cass County, digging holes and tamping in line poles, running the connection to the home, and installing indoor wiring.
Residents were pleased to have him there, said Chuck Albright, who lives in Lynchburg, N.D. His father’s presence at a home meant the arrival of modernization and convenience.
“It was a new era,” Albright said.
Arthur Albright stayed in customers’ homes, shared their food and attended many of the events they attended, including a wedding on one occasion.
“He became part of everyone’s family because they wanted him (there) so bad,” Albright said.
“They really treated him excellent,” said Albright, whose son, Marshal, now works for Cass County Electric.
The Rural Electrification Administration was created in 1935 as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Its goal was to bring electricity to rural America by offering low-interest loans and other support.
It didn’t take long for some Cass County residents to tap into the REA, spearheaded by Max Strehlow of Kindred. By 1937, Cass County Electric Cooperative was formed.
The co-op was originally envisioned as a way to serve Normanna township near Kindred, said co-op president and CEO Scott Handy, but residents from other areas became “really interested.”
Growth was rapid. The service went live in June 1938 with 89 members, and just seven months later a Forum article headline about the co-op read: “USERS INCREASE NUMBER 9-FOLD.”
“During the seven-month period just ended 454 farms, 167 non-farm residences, 95 stores, 50 public buildings and five power users have been added to the list of consumers,” the article stated. And 485 miles of wire had been strung.
Cass County Electric’s growth was based on demand. Co-op reps would go into communities and sign up members. Once they had enough support, they would build and expand into an area.
“Kind of the opposite of the field of dreams scenario,” Handy said.
Growth “pretty much came to a standstill” during World War II because manpower and materials were needed for the war effort, Handy said. It exploded after the war in the 1940s and 1950s.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the co-op expanded from about 10,000 members to 20,000, Handy said. The driving force was the growth in Fargo and West Fargo.
In both 2004 and 2005, the co-op added more than 2,000 accounts. By the end of 2011, Cass Electric had more than 36,000 customers and 4,700 miles of line.
What it meant
Most cities had lights and on-demand electricity by the turn of the century, said Andrew Nielsen, curator at Cass County Historical Society.
But electricity in the rural areas came at a slower pace.
Getting electric services “definitely helped modernize the rural areas, helped them really come into the 20th century finally,” Nielsen said.
Handy said it was “a huge economic development improvement right at the get-go” for rural Cass County residents. Farmers could produce more commodities with less labor, he said.
It also meant significant lifestyle improvements in the rural areas.
“Words can’t describe how excited and appreciative the farmers were,” Oriska’s Paul Gage said.
“Especially in the winter months when the days are so short, when you had so many dark hours, why, that was really wonderful to have that electricity,” Gage said. “And of course, then, we could use an electric iron for ironing all the laundry. … Otherwise, you had to heat your irons on the stove … and keep changing them.”
Electricity meant the Gages and other rural residents could have an electric deep freeze at home instead of “having to run into town to a locker plant where you stored your meat,” Gage said.
“So all of those things brought wonderful changes to living on the farm,” Gage said. “It was virtually like living in the city. You could have everything they had there.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734