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The Introduction of Electrical Power

Today, most people take electricity for granted. Asked where it comes from, most would respond, "out of the wall." Yet before the 1880s, no one had access to electrical power, and until the 1930s very few Wisconsin farms had electricity. Constructing power lines and generating the energy that flowed over them were costly investments that few farmers could afford. Power companies were reluctant to subsidize rural electrification because it was more profitable to provide service to cities. The Depression only emphasized the large disparity between urban and rural life in Wisconsin. Electric power not only helped with farm work, but also made the difference between indoor and outdoor plumbing and lighting, commodities available in every urban area but rare on farms as late as World War II. It also gave farmers the option of acquiring the new appliances that were widening the gap between rural and urban lifestyles. The New Deal's Rural Electrification Administration helped to close the divide by helping farmers meet their growing need for electricity.

The nation's first commercial electric plant began operation in Appleton in 1882. Banker and paper company executive Henry J. Rogers, who moved to Wisconsin in 1873, wanted to introduce electric power to his factory and home. With hardware supplied by the Edison Company, his plant began transmitting power to local paper mills, the water company, and some of the city's wealthiest families in the summer of 1882. Other generating plants soon followed, finding an eager market in communities seeking to replace manufactured coal gas as a source of light.

The availability of electric power for urban transportation, elevators, and factory machines transformed cities across the United States. Electric railroads made suburban living possible for people of all classes, and the central city often became the center of business while employees rode streetcars from residential neighborhoods. Investors began promoting interurban trolleys as a way to connect adjacent cities, characterizing automobiles as toys for the wealthy. A former manager of Milwaukee's street railways, John I. Beggs, had become Wisconsin's utility tycoon by 1901, managing light, traction, and gas companies in the Milwaukee and Fox Valley area. Beggs envisioned an interurban system running from Chicago to Green Bay, with branches stretching to Madison and Janesville. Unfortunately for investors like Beggs, automobiles soon won out over light rail.

When engineers harnessed the power of Niagara Falls in 1896, Wisconsin investors and utilities began to look seriously at the state's many rivers as possible sites for hydroelectric power stations. The high costs associated with hydroelectric power though dampened the enthusiasm of many early entrepreneurs. Despite having over 400 dams by 1935, steam continued to supply the vast majority of power in Wisconsin. Despite the ever-increasing demand, the high cost of creating electric power inevitably discouraged small companies and led to its control by three giant corporations. The regulation of utilities by the Wisconsin Railroad Commission brought relatively economical electrical power to urban markets, but rural areas were largely ignored. As late as 1930, only one in six farms had electrical service.

As the financial squeeze of the Depression affected the entire nation, a growing urban and suburban population demanded more efficient food production from the nation's farmers - an efficiency that many believed could be gained through rural electrification. Many members of Congress and farm leaders believed that farmers needed electrical service under conditions and prices that would allow for its full and productive use--waiting for commercial electric companies to provide services was a too expensive and inefficient solution. So, in 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt established the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) to help farmers meet the growing need for power. Although, like many New Deal programs, the REA began as a program of unemployment relief, it soon became primarily a lending and investment agency. The government began to encourage and to grant preference to non-profit, cooperative organizations of farmers to develop their electrical transmission infrastructure.

The task of organizing rural electric cooperatives was generally left to local leaders; they organized meetings, collected fees, enrolled consumers, and worked with the REA on program details. The REA provided farmers with low-interest loans to help them build their own lines and provide their own electricity. On May 7, 1937, Wisconsin's first cooperative, Richland Electric Cooperative, went into service. Within fifteen years, 90% of American farms had electricity.

While rural electrification efforts began primarily to assist farmers, electric power also contributed to the growth of the tourist industry in northern Wisconsin. Resort owners realized that electricity would make the area more attractive to tourists, so the Bayfield cooperative established a special summer rate for these resorts. With affordable electricity, the tourist industry boomed in both the summer and winter.

Today, more than 34 million people are served by rural electric systems in the United States, including more than 520,000 in Wisconsin alone. Wisconsin co-op leaders created the nation's first statewide association for rural electric cooperatives, printed the first publication for members, and founded an insurance company that provides coverage to most rural electrical cooperatives in the country. Electric cooperatives remain vital parts of the communities they serve.

[Sources: The History of Wisconsin vols. 3 and 4 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004); "Electrification History" National Academy of Engineering (online at http://www.greatachievements.org/?id=2988)]


Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

Link to article: The story of Wisconsin's first electric light.  The story of Wisconsin's first electric light.
Link to article: Electricity is sold for the first time anywhere (Appleton, 1882)  Electricity is sold for the first time anywhere (Appleton, 1882)
Link to artifacts: An electric mixer from the 1920s  An electric mixer from the 1920s
Link to book: Electric stoves and heaters made by a Milwaukee firm, 1929.  Electric stoves and heaters made by a Milwaukee firm, 1929.
Link to book: The virtues of electric appliances described in verse and pictures, 1916  The virtues of electric appliances described in verse and pictures, 1916
Link to book: Catalogs of electrical equipment, 1920-1925  Catalogs of electrical equipment, 1920-1925
Link to book: Rural electrification is given a boost in 1937.  Rural electrification is given a boost in 1937.
Link to book: Wisconsin waterways spell the future of electric power, 1918  Wisconsin waterways spell the future of electric power, 1918
Link to images: Images of Wisconsin's first electrical generating plant and its successors  Images of Wisconsin's first electrical generating plant and its successors
Link to images: Early fixtures in the first Wisconsin home to use electricity.  Early fixtures in the first Wisconsin home to use electricity.
Link to places: Madison Gas and Electric Company Powerhouse  Madison Gas and Electric Company Powerhouse
Link to places: The nation's first unified electric power utility in Milwaukee  The nation's first unified electric power utility in Milwaukee

Primary Sources Available Elsewhere

Link to article: A scientist brings his traveling electricity show to schoolchildren  A scientist brings his traveling electricity show to schoolchildren
Link to article: An 1890 plan for an electric rail system in Milwaukee  An 1890 plan for an electric rail system in Milwaukee
Link to article: The progress and problems of rural electrification in 1937  The progress and problems of rural electrification in 1937
Link to book: Wisconsin Blue Books  Wisconsin Blue Books
Link to images: An electrification cooperative in Westby, 1942  An electrification cooperative in Westby, 1942

Related Links

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Audio, film, and articles about Thomas Edison at the Library of Congress
Visit the home of the man who first brought Wis. electrcity

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