Written by Brad Dolinski from the teachings of Mr. Wes Waller and “The Night They Turned on the Lights,” by Harold Severson
Early visitors to the area pointed out the struggles NIECI would face, “absence of heavy industry and large farming operations undoubtedly reduced the cooperative’s total income.” Yet here we are more than 80 years later! This shows the grit and perseverance of the communities that built NIECI and still support the cooperative today. The community members hand dug and raised the poles on our lines today, they saw the benefit electricity would provide to our communities.
Electricity in the early 1940’s was like the internet access of today. Interested buyers often ask, “how’s the internet,” as one of their first questions while buying a property in the area. Yet very few questions are asked about the electricity. We expect electricity today, we need it vs. want it. Electricity runs our homes, it can heat/cool our spaces, cool our food, entertain us, help us work from home, and runs the internet we are becoming reliant on.
This wasn’t always the case. Our communities didn’t have the benefits of electricity. They were very dependent on one another to get work done. Neighbors shared food often from necessity, there wasn’t a way to keep the meat from spoiling before electric freezers. When an animal was harvested, neighbors would come together to process the harvest and share in the benefits. Clothes were often washed once a week, and this was a tough job. Water was pumped from the well by hand, hauled in buckets to be warmed on the wood stove. You had to scrub your clothes on a washboard, rinse, and repeat. Everything was dried with solar and wind power, of course this meant hanging your clothes on the line outside.
Lack of rural electricity was a big enough concern that President Franklin D Roosevelt made the issue part of the New Deal. The Emergency Relief Appropriation Act was signed into law in 1935. From this Act, loans were offered to private companies, power districts, municipalities, and cooperatives. The program didn’t take off like expected. Private companies, power districts, and municipalities didn’t see the business case to build into the rural country. Costs were high, and the payback was limited with very few members per mile of line. In 1936 the REA as it is fondly remembered, changed course, and offered these same loans long term. This gave communities a chance to form a cooperative and change the history of our country.
Itasca County was intended to only have one cooperative. When the REA fieldman came to discuss plans with the communities it was determined to split the county into three. The southern part of Itasca was said to have a better chance of succeeding with a denser population. They formed Dairyland Power (Lake Country Power today), their lines were energized in 1941. What was the north to do? They held a meeting in Effie, MN in Aug 1940. This is where the two remaining groups of northern Itasca County decided to come together to form North Itasca Electric Cooperative. The group felt they had the best chance of survival and procuring a loan from REA together. After electing a nine-member board, the work began.
NIECI had to have members sign up, they had to want the service. The REA normally required three members per mile of line and $3.50 per member to qualify for a loan. Because of the sparse population of northern Itasca County, the REA reduced that requirement to two members per mile. Volunteers visited each residence in the territory to sign them up for the cooperative, collecting $5.00 from each member for a share in the cooperative. Some members didn’t have the $5.00, they instead gave a partial payment and traded logs or labor in lieu of the payment.
Many claimed the area was just “too poor” and not populated enough to support the cooperative. Our volunteers believed in the cooperative and communities so much that they may have been a little creative when counting potential members. It was suggested they even counted haystacks as homes to hit the required members per mile of line. Their determination paid off, in April of 1941 North Itasca Electric Cooperative was recognized and given a loan to begin construction.
Poles started to stand across our service territory in the fall of 1941. Members that couldn’t pay the initial $5.00 share price provided the labor to hand dig and set the poles. We were just starting to gain ground when World War II began. This stopped construction entirely. The lines used were made from copper, this metal was needed for the war efforts. Four years later, construction resumed and in October 1945 the first electricity surged down the lines. Because of the lack of copper line North Itasca was forced to use a steel conductor rather than the superior copper line. By the end of 1945 we had 304 miles of lines energized, serving 272 farms and rural residence. It took nine years to get to the edges of the territory. Once this happened, we found ourselves with 1728 proud members of the cooperative that so many people doubted could ever succeed.
As I’m conducting research for this story, I find myself reliving history. Many challenges faced by our forefathers that created this cooperative, we find ourselves facing today. When the cooperative halted construction in 1941, the price of materials jumped greatly by the time they started to build again. These increases in prices affected the availability of construction dollars and materials. We had to stretch every dollar we had. This forced the leaders to tighten up their belts. “So, we knew how to take disappointments and setbacks in stride,” this was a statement from Mr. Beckman the board chair back in 1961. This is the core of our great cooperative; we persevere against all odds. We still do not have heavy industrial accounts. We don’t have large farming communities with prosperous towns scattered through the territory. We still have a heavy timber industry with slumping prices. Against these “odds” we are here celebrating over 80 years of service to our great communities.
I have often wondered why there is so much tax forfeited land in Itasca County. Reading the article about North Itasca from “The night they turned on the lights”, by Harold Severson, Mr. Beckman summed it up for me. “Unfortunately, this land was not as fertile and the growing season as favorable as it is in the southern part of Minnesota. A combination of factors including the depression following the first World War, reduced land values. Due to high taxes, delinquency continued to increase in spite of opportunities for easy settlement of delinquent taxes. By 1935, tax delinquency had become so serious, particularly in the Northeastern cut-over section where Itasca County is located, that the Legislature passed a law providing that if taxes had not been paid for seven years, land would be forfeited to the State.” These tax forfeiture properties across our service territory make growth of the cooperative difficult.
I stand in awe at the history of North Itasca Electric Cooperative and what our communities built together. I have learned and reflected about the lessons from history and answered some of the questions I have had since joining NIECI in 2017. I look forward to us working together to form the next chapter in such a great story!
Thank you for being by my side!