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Kalona News, Thursday, April 1, 1993 by Mary Zielinski

When it comes to being first with the light, the Frytown-based Farmers Rural Electric Cooperative is a true live wire. Not only is the 76-year-old company the oldest rural electric cooperative in Iowa, it may well be the oldest in the nation.

Formed as a stock company in the fall of 1916, it predates the formation of the national Rural Electrification Administration by 20 years. As far as the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association can find, the local Farmers Co-op "is probably the oldest. We don't have any records indicating any prior to July 2, 1935," said their media representative.

Neither did the Edison Institute, although it acknowledged that local cooperatives were being formed during the 1920's.

But the Frytown one was still way ahead since its roots date to 1909 when farmers in the Kalona area met to consider how to get electricity. It is more than likely their meetings followed President Theodore Roosevelt's appointment of a national commission to examine disparities between rural and city life. Roosevelt specifically wanted a way to bring electricity to rural America.

By 1916, the cooperative was in place as the Farmers Light and Power Company and in the fall of 1917, received the first franchise for rural lines in Johnson County, permitting it to install lines in Sharon and Washington Townships. It then became the first to bring electric service to rural areas in Johnson, Washington, and Iowa counties.

With IE

The same year the Co-op received the franchise, the Fosdick Electric Company was formed in Kalona, buying electricity from Iowa Electric and reselling it to the town of Kalona, and to the Farmers Electric Cooperative.

Evidently, the organizing group was a determined one, since shortly after they formally organized in 1916, they built six miles of line without knowing where they would obtain the electricity.

It's more than optimism, though, that has made the company unique. Since it began nearly 77 years ago, it has operated entirely without government loans. Even after the REA was formed.

"Independence was important to them from the beginning," explained Wallace (Wally) Fisher, who was the company's manager for "40 years, more or less."

"The original share price was $175," he said, "and back in 1917, they (the shareholders) did all the labor themselves. They were not any experts, but as farmers they were used to having to do things themselves. In fact, it usually was easier to do it themselves.

Of course, back then the only way to get electricity was to finance and build it yourself. Even so, they were quite forward thinking since they built a system that had 7,200 volts at a period when Kalona had a 2,400 volt system.

It is also the only REC in the state that buys electricity directly from Iowa Electric, a relationship that goes back to the 1920's when IE acquired Fosdick Company and later, the Kalona Light and Power Company (that began in 1914 as Kalona Illuminating Company).

Back in the early days of the company, things were done with horses and wagons and hand tools, and if problems arose members were responsible for them. Fisher recounts that sometime in 1919 a housemover named McGinnis was killed when he climbed up on the house and lifted the electric wires. The lines belonged to the Farmers Electric that, at that time, had no insurance. So each member was assessed $20 to cover the costs of the accident.

Fisher knows firsthand what it means to do everything. Although he served the company for a number of years as its manager, he was also its lineman, salesman, foreman, promoter, "and anything else that came along."

The lineman designation came about very simply -- something had to be done, so he climbed a pole and learned.

"It was strictly on the job training."

Until 1972, he also provided the company with the only office it had -- operating from his home. His late wife served as the bookkeeper-secretary.

The company obtained land in 1970, building the office and warehouse that now houses all its operation at the southeast edge of Frytown, just behind the huge Yoder, Inc. complex.

It's grown some since the first six miles of line to 102 miles with 628 meters and 506 members.

The amount of customers will increase later this year when it gains approximately 60 more through an agreement with IE.

In many ways, its size may have guaranteed its success: it never got too big to handle with a small dedicated staff. Today, that staff is Warren McKenna, manager, Jim Miller and Matt Zimmerman, lineman, and Lois Schneider, office manager. And yes, the horses and wagons have long been replaced with trucks (including a boom truck, first of which was bought in 1950 and a power digger in 1952).

The company has used two-way radios since 1955, a year after it provided everything for the area's first all-electric home.

It also provides all the services for the area's all-electric Washington Township School, built in 1963.

It installed a load management system in 1987, and has kept pace with its customers since 1916. In fact, it often anticipates them.

However, since it is located in the middle of an Amish community, it has some service request quite different from the average electric company -- rural or otherwise.

"We do get requests to take the electricity out of a house," explained McKenna. "It happens when an Old Order Amish family acquires a property that previously was non-Amish." "Then, the reverse happens," he added, noting, "surprisingly, it pretty much averages out." Do you ever have to go back and re-connect a house? "Oh yes, that's not unusual." Even if they are not its customers, the Cooperative provides the Amish with other services -- assisting them with raising windmill towers, tree trimming and other. "There is a fee charged," he said, and other Amish have also made requests for such service.

Therein lies much of the small company's reason for survival: it is a personal type of service, one that knows its customers quite well, understands their needs. As a result, it has always aimed at providing the necessary service at a good, fair price. As far as IE is concerned, its relationship with the Co-op is "strong and friendly", noted IE representative Darrel Stolzer. The two utility companies have an annual meeting where they discuss business and a shared history. At various times they have shared responsibilities and even an employee -- Wally Fisher. "He was an employee for IE as well as for the Co-op," explained Stolzer, something that both companies saw as "mutually beneficial." As for the rest of the partnership, both companies see no reason for it not to continue for a long time.