Elkhorn Rural Public Power District was created in 1938 under the direction of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). Lines were built in rural Madison County and the first 116 miles of line were energized on April 29, 1940. Initially, 148 consumers were hooked up.
The year was 1938. If somebody in that little group of farmers (a) had dared suggest the possibility that some day rural homes would be heated by electricity; or (b) had mentioned a dream that farm families seated in their living rooms could watch the inauguration of a President through the miracle of television; or (c) had ventured an opinion that in the not too distant future electric ranges and refrigerators would be as commonplace as coal-burning stoves and kerosene lamps and lanterns — it’s likely he would have been considered a candidate for a mental institution.
Today, of course, electrically-heated homes, television programs and internet access, and electric ranges and refrigerators (not to mention washers, dryers, dishwashers, etc.) are taken for granted. That is because (a) most people have very short memories or (b) because they grew up in the modern day and age when electricity is part and parcel of every life.
However, it was not too long ago that electricity was a novelty – as far as a majority of rural citizens was concerned. In the late 1930s, rural electrification was still a dream and a hope for many rural residents.
This history is a tribute to those who held on to the dream of an electrified Nebraska.
Setting the Stage
In the 1930s, only a very small percentage of rural homes – in essence, farm homes – were lighted by electricity. Very few of them had access to central-station electricity., which was a benefit that was available to only a few small communities. A tiny percentage of farmers had purchased small generating plants. Out in western Nebraska, the Wincharger was quite popular.
The rest of the homes in rural Nebraska, as well as in rural America, depended almost entirely on kerosene lamps in the home and kerosene lanterns in the barn for lighting. Kerosene was relatively cheap, and the lamps didn’t require special wiring as was the case with Delco lighting plants. All that was needed to have light was to fill the bowl with the kerosene fuel, insert the wick, light it, and replace the glass chimney.
Of course, this system wasn’t too efficient, but it served the purpose. It was a big improvement over candlelight or the light from a fireplace. It’s true the chimney on a kerosene lamp would get badly smoked and had to be washed each morning along with the breakfast dishes, but it was just a small chore that didn’t take too long or require much effort.
Then along came the Aladdin lamp of fond memory. It burned gasoline, a somewhat riskier fuel, and required the use of a mantle on the burner; but it furnished intensely bright light. Its main drawback was the mantle, which was so fragile that the slightest jar would break it into pieces.
Other families had carbide generator plants. According to a local user, whose family had just such a unit, it was one of the best lighting systems of the times – back around 1900, or thereabouts. Not many farm families had it so good. This carbide lighting system had a tank system in the yard. Charging the generator, in order to get gas, required the input of 100 pounds of carbide. It was so arranged that when the water and carbide came into contact, a gas was produced. This gas was piped throughout a farm house. It was a big improvement over the old kerosene lamp.”
Some farmers were able to buy small electric home generating plants. These were very successful and also proved to be an improvement over the kerosene lamps, too. The primary problem was its expense. Only a few wealthier farmers could afford their own generating plants, however.
Then, in 1935, the situation as far as rural electrification began to change – for the better. On May 11 of that year, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed a bill creating the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). Its mission was to bring electricity to rural people. The new agency faced a tremendous task.
Its chief objective was to organize farmers into rural public power districts or cooperative associations. Once organized, these districts could build power lines with money borrowed from the REA. However, states, territories, and even “persons and corporations” could borrow money for that purpose.
Actually, the men who framed the Rural Electrification Act had hoped private power companies would borrow government money to extend lines into the countryside and thus serve rural residents. However, it didn’t work out that way.
With very few exceptions, the utilities shunned the invitation to borrow from the REA funds. Their surveys had convinced them that farmers would use only small amounts of electricity. These surveys indicated that it would be more profitable to concentrate on serving city and village customers.
Nay-sayers were due for a tremendous surprise.
Actually, farmers were anxious to get electricity. They were tired of the “dark ages” represented by kerosene lamps and lanterns. They disliked the drudgery of milking their cows by the light of a kerosene lantern and reading their Bibles, newspapers, and magazines in the dim light of a kerosene lamp. They wanted the convenience represented by electric refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, electric ranges, electric radios, and electric irons.
Toward that end, a group of local men met to hear REA representatives discuss the method of organizing a rural public power district. They were willing to sacrifice their time to sign up their neighbors. They cheerfully ignored the skepticism of the critics. When people scoffed at the idea of farmers being able to organize a power district that would deliver electricity, these trailblazers persisted in their efforts.
That is how the Elkhorn Rural Public Power District came into existence.
The Early Years
Actually, the little group of men who organized the Elkhorn RPPD could scarcely have selected a worse time. Withering drouths had caused crop failures and farmers were worried and unhappy. They had problems enough without worrying about organizing a power district.
Following is one example of the things that critics were saying: “You’re crazy! You’ll never get enough signers because it will cost too much. Farmers scarcely have the money to buy kerosene for their lamps and lanterns; how are they going to find money for a monthly electricity bill?”
It is to the persevering credit of the little group of men who organized the power district that they didn’t listen to the skeptics and the enemies of rural electrification. They had a vision of some day guaranteeing every farm family the blessing of electricity — and they stuck to the line, letting the chips fall where they would.
The years of 1934 and 1936 were the worst of the ‘Dirty Thirties.’ Hundreds of acres of corn made practically nothing in those years.
The corn binder was used to cut off the dried-up corn plants (in an effort) to salvage something to keep a few cows alive. Farmers would talk about how high their corn grew before they cut it with a wheat binder. The question of making grain was forgotten by late July and August. The county average in those years was about four to six bushels an acre. Some hay was shipped in and sold at cost to farmers in order to keep a nucleus of livestock alive.
Home gardens did not produce any food unless a water well was situated so that the windmill could be turned on to irrigate a small area. Many wells failed; and, in some cases, water had to be hauled into areas for household use.
The tile drain on the County Farm near Battle Creek, however, did not stop flowing during all these dry years. People would haul water from the outlet of this tile for home use and for livestock.
Nevertheless, the interest in rural electrification remained.
In the summer of 1938, George Malin, of Madison, called on J.H. Williams, the Madison County agricultural agent, in his office at Battle Creek to see about organizing a public power district.
Mr. Malin wanted electricity badly. He had a number of laying hens on his farm southeast of Madison, and he figured electricity would help to increase his hens’ egg output. He had written for information and was advised to see the county agent. He told Mr. Williams of a meeting to be held in Lincoln at the Cornhusker Hotel, where procedures would be explained for organizing a rural public power district.
After Mr. Malin’s visit, Mr. Williams discussed with several other people the possibility of bringing rural electrification to Madison County. Despite the drouth, depression, and despair which characterized that period, he persuaded two others to attend the Lincoln meeting. Along with Mr. Malin, they were John K. Peterson and Arthur Berg.
Following the Lincoln meeting, the group stopped at Seward for a meal. While waiting for the food to be served in the little restaurant, Mr. Williams – assisted by the others in the party – drew up a list of leading farmers from each township.
A meeting was called for Aug. 23, 1938, with C.A. Sorenson, a prominent Lincoln attorney, as the primary speaker. Held at Battle Creek, the session attracted 35 people, representing all the townships in Madison County with the exception of Norfolk, Valley, Deer Creek, and Meadow Creek. Mr. Williams acted as temporary chairman at the meeting.
Mr. Sorenson spoke first. He outlined the procedure for setting up a power district and clarified a number of matters. He was greeted with a flood of questions from the farmers, some of whom were not entirely convinced of the feasibility of a power district in Madison County. Mr. Sorenson then reviewed a number of obstacles which had slowed the progress of rural electrification for others in past years. These included the high cost of building highlines, the reluctance of private utilities to extend service to outlying farms, and the scarcity of funds at a satisfactory interest rate.
These problems, he assured the group, had been eliminated by the creation of the REA.
He informed the group that the U.S. Congress had made $140,000,000 available for building rural electrification projects throughout the United States. This money was to be loaned at a reasonable interest rate. However, he also told them that the Federal government had set strict standards for measuring the worth of each loan application. In addition, REA employees would supervise the construction and operation of power districts and electric cooperatives.
The farmers also were told that money could be borrowed through a special fund for the purpose of wiring farm homes and buildings and purchasing the necessary appliances and equipment.
Following the discussion, this question was asked: “Are you sufficiently interested to keep working on this project? Or do you want to drop it?”
There was no doubt. The farmers were interested in the proposal. They voted to continue working on the project and suggested holding another meeting Aug. 30.
By this time, interest in the project was mounting steadily. Little groups of farmers were assembling to discuss the rural electrification program, both pro and con. Some were enthusiastic; many others adopted a wait-and-see attitude.
The Aug. 30 meeting was held at the Battle Creek High School with a panel of authorities on rural electrification present to lead the discussion. Among them were D.J. DeBoer, chief electrification engineer; Ed Fricke, chief accountant; Ed Lusienski, purchasing agent; and V.M. Young, rural division superintendent. All of them were from the Loup River Public Power District headquartered at Columbus.
Watson Purdy of Madison Township suggested that Mr. Lusienski act as temporary chairman while Mr. Williams was approved as secretary. Mr. Lusienski explained provisions of Senate File 310 and pointed out the situation in Nebraska differed from that of other states as far as rural electrification was concerned.
At that Aug. 30 meeting, Frank Malone, of Madison, was named president; A.H. Dederman, of Norfolk, became vice president; and Mr. Williams, of Battle Creek, was named secretary. Watson Purdy moved that the power district should consist of Madison County with the exception of 12 ward precincts in Norfolk and two ward precincts in Madison. This was approved by voice vote. Mr. Dederman recommended the formation of a nine-man Board of Directors; this was seconded by Frank Malone. The motion carried. Walter Purdy then made a motion that two directors be elected from each quarter of Madison County, while the remaining seat was to be elected on an at-large basis. This, too, was approved.
Directors named were A.H. Dederman, Norfolk; William Dittrick, Meadow Grove; George Klein, Meadow Grove; A.H. (Pete) Lewis, Newman Grove; George Malin, Madison; Frank Malone, Madison; John K. Peterson, Newman Grove; Harry Tannehill, Norfolk; and Herman Werkmeister, Madison.
This board met for the first time on Sept. 10, 1938, and divided the county among the nine directors. Mr. Malone had made an introductory talk in which he urged directors to “put your shoulders to the wheel and get this fine program started for our farmers.”
Each director was instructed to secure volunteer workers for his area and to supervise their activities. At this meeting, Mr. Lewis was named project coordinator at a salary of $125 per month, plus three cents a mile for the use of his own car. Survey leaders were to be paid $4 per day, but would get no mileage for use of their own vehicles. C.A. Sorenson of Lincoln was named project attorney.
The power district also received its name at this meeting. Mr. Dederman suggested that the name of Madison County Rural Public Power District be adopted. This was approved Oct. 7, 1938, and an application to the State of Nebraska was prepared.
(Later, when Antelope County was added to the district, the present name of Elkhorn Rural Public Power District was adopted.)
At the meeting on Oct. 7, Mr. Lewis reported on the progress of the work being done in the county. He said that most of the county had been organized with survey leaders named, but a few precincts’ leaders still had not fully covered their territories. He was instructed to make a map of the entire county showing the location of each applicant for electric service. At this meeting, Mr. Williams resigned as secretary and Lewis took on the dual job of project coordinator and board secretary.
A goal of 500 applications for Madison County was approved, while Mr. Dederman emphasized the importance of completing the survey by Saturday, Oct. 15. The application was completed and sent.
When the officers and directors gathered at the County Extension Office on Jan. 17, 1939, they were informed that, on Dec. 31, their application for creation of a rural public power district had been approved by the Department of Roads and Irrigation of the State. Director William Dittrick’s name was the first one on the petition for the creation of the district.
At this meeting, Frank Malone was named president, Arthur Dederman, vice president; A.H. Lewis, secretary; and George Malin, treasurer. Mr. Lewis also was named project superintendent with a monthly salary of $150 and mileage of five cents per mile. H.H. Henningson, of Omaha, was appointed district engineer, and Mr. Sorensen, of Lincoln, as counsel for the district.
Miss Verona Tegeler, of Battle Creek, was hired as bookkeeper and stenographer.
An agreement with the REA and the Madison County Rural Public Power District was tentatively approved. This called for serving approximately 660 customers. A loan of $280,000 at a rate of 2.73 percent interest for 25 years was contemplated.
At the meeting held on March 9, Mr. Lewis resigned as director to take the position of project superintendent and the first general manager. Lee Jenkins, of Battle Creek, was named to the board in his place. H.S. Nixon was appointed engineer for the project, replacing Mr. Henningson.
On March 24, rates of $3.50 per month for the first 50 or fewer kilowatt-hours were approved.
By this time, the preliminary work was rolling along smoothly. Mr. Nixon presented an estimate showing the cost of constructing 273.75 miles of line with 34.5 kV substations using aluminum conductor would be $193,221.88. However, when bids were opened May 25, 1939, the Elkhorn Construction Company, of Norfolk, had submitted a low bid of $167,273.89. This was slightly less than the bid of $167,479.34 submitted by Roberts Construction Company of Lincoln. The Meridian Construction Company of York, Neb., had entered a bid of $170,097.33.
On being awarded the contract, officials of Elkhorn Construction Company were requested to employ “as far as possible and practicable, local farmers who are prospective patrons of the District and to use as far as practicable, local trucks and local truck drivers” in constructing the line.
That First Day
The big day finally arrived when 116 miles of line were energized on April 29, 1940. A total of 148 consumers were hooked up. One year later, the records showed 250 consumers connected with an average consumption of 64 kWh per consumer. There was no special ceremony when the first – or “A” – section was energized. When the lights were turned on that day at a farm home nine miles northwest of Norfolk, the incident was notable because a fuse blew. The family had built the house in 1923 and was using a Delco home lighting plant. They were on their third set of batteries for the little plant which did nothing more thanlight the house and provide a little power to run a washing machine.
Rural residents had gotten a taste of electricity via many alternative units. Now, they were anxious to get the real article. The “real article” was central-station electricity.
Mr. Dederman took a philosophical view of the hard work, the innumerable meetings, and the vexations and frustrations that went into creating the district. He is quoted as saying, “We never realized what we were starting. We were blindfolded, so to speak, for we didn’t know all the ground rules for getting the district started. Lots of people were quite frank in telling us they didn’t think it was possible to serve our area. They said the farms were too far apart and that it would cost too much to bring electricity out to them. Well, we showed them they were wrong.”
Mr. Dederman said about the “only satisfaction was being able to attend conventions in different parts of the country. We learned there were power districts and electric cooperatives with problems similar to ours. We derived a lot of enjoyment from these conventions and learned how other people were solving their problems.”
World War II Years and Later
Work moved steadily along. On June 5, 1941, the directors applied for a ‘B’ section loan to build 352 miles of line. However, by this time the rumblings of World War II were being heard and it was not until Feb. 3, 1942,—almost two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor—that the loan was approved.
By now the nation was engaged in an all-out attack on the Axis powers and materials for building lines were being rationed very sparingly.
Farmers clamored for extensions to their farms in order to further the war effort, and the War Production Board did grant allocations where it could be proved farmers were entitled to electricity. A few lines were built to accommodate these people but the great impetus did not come until after the war had ground to a halt.
What was it like for Directors and employees of the upstart District to recall those frenzied, hectic years immediately following World War II?
Farm people were anxious to get electricity, so on Sept. 6, 1945, an allotment for building 610 miles of line (known as Section ‘C’) was sought from REA officials. Later, this allotment was called the ‘B2’ section. On Nov. 1, 1945, a contract was awarded to Douglas Construction Company of Omaha to build 172 miles of line under the district’s ‘B’ section. However, this line was not energized until almost two years later—in August 1947—due to the shortage of material caused by war restrictions.
The contract for the B2’ section was let on July 15, 1948, to Jacobs & Doyle Construction Company and was energized in November 1949. This section was noteworthy because it was the first< built in Antelope County. It consisted of 236 miles of line. On Nov. 4, 1948, Jacobs & Doyle Construction Company had been awarded an amendment to its contract to build 441 miles of line in the southwestern part of Madison County and the southeastern part of Pierce County.
For a short time during 1949, Ben F. Snively served as acting General Manager. Later in 1949, Roy L. King was hired as the third General Manager.
The network of lines spanning the region served by the district was further increased on Nov. 17, 1949, when the Douglas Construction Company was awarded a contract to build the ‘F’ and ‘G’ Sections. This consisted of 253 miles.
Then, on April 6, 1950, the construction of 420 miles of line was awarded to the B-Line Construction Company of Oklahoma. This represented the ‘E,’ ‘F,’ and ‘G’ sections. The year of 1952 was a noteworthy one in many respects. In addition to the construction of more and more lines, the sub-office at Neligh was completed and opened for business in March. A two-way radio was installed in May. On June 2, 1952, the board of directors approved plans and specifications for the ‘H’ section, which included 133 miles of new line, 43 miles of line changes, and 39 miles of removal. This completed the line building by contractors.
The fourth General Manager of the District was also hired at the June 2 meeting. His name was Le Roy Hansen; he had worked for the District since 1941 as a lineman and later an electrical advisor.
Completion of the ‘H’ section provided about 95 percent coverage of all farms in our district. District line crews had been busily at work all these years building line by force account.
For many years the district office had been in downtown Battle Creek, but on July 15, 1953, the Board authorized the purchase of a tract of land on the outskirts of the village. On May 16, 1955, a contract was let to the William Welfl Construction Company for the building of the new headquarters building. The handsome structure was completed in 1956, and on Feb. 7 the transfer was made to the new building. That building is on Highway 121 through town; the address is 206 North 4th Street. This was a proud and happy moment for the directors, officers, and employees of the District. A formal open house was held June 8, 1956, with a large crowd on hand to tour the building. Another addition was completed late in 1964.
In May 1973, Le Roy Hansen retired as General Manager. Milton Smith, who was office manager from 1959 to 1973, was promoted to the position.
The District began an extensive construction and maintenance program in 1973, which included constructing a new substation, building new line, and decreasing spans between existing lines by setting new poles. This process was complicated by two events that occurred about that same time. Money was more expensive because interest on REA loans increased from 2 percent to 5 percent; and fuel was more expensive because the national oil embargo reduced and greatly limited the supply of gasoline for vehicle travel.
In November 1973, the District experienced – what was at that time – the worst ice storm in its history. About 50 workers from other districts were brought in to assist with the restoration. The linemen worked some long and sleepless overtime hours, and it was five days before power was completely restored.
During the summer of 1975, the District operated its first experimental load-control program for irrigation wells. Load data was brought into the Battle Creek office from Norfolk and Neligh, and switching the wells on-and-off was controlled by radio. Mr. Smith said, “I believe that this was one of the greatest contributions to the District during my time as manager.”
In 1976, Elkhorn RPPD began serving its first community: the village of Hadar.
In 1979, the office, warehouse, and garage at Neligh was opened. It is located on Highway 275 east of the city.
Overall, during the years between 1964 and today, growth has been steady.
Two ice storms in back-to-back years – the first was Nov. 27-28, 2005, and the second was Dec. 31, 2006 – laid claim to the worst storms in the districts history. With each one, about 100 workers from other districts were brought in for mutual aid. It was eight and nine days, respectively, before power was restored to residential customers, but it would be a couple years before all storm damage would be repaired.
ERPPD’s systems, manager, and directors today
On April 29, 2000, on the date when the District completed 60 years as the area’s electric energy provider, it was in the process of expanding to 2,460 miles of distribution line, 176 miles of transmission line, 24 substations; there were 8,386 customers in nine counties using an average of 1,357 kWh per month; there were 37 employees on the payroll. In 2000, the communities of Clearwater, Elgin, and Ewing were added to Hadar as being served by the utility.
Terry Carson was hired by Elkhorn RPPD in 1972 as an accountant; he became office manager/assistant manager May 1, 1973. Then on July 1, 1992, when Manager Milton Smith retired, Mr. Carson became only the sixth manager in the utility’s history. He retired on Jan. 5, 2009.
On Jan. 2, 2009, Thomas Rudloff became the seventh manager in the district’s history.
Today, the board and management look forward with confidence to years of quality service. The current Board of Directors is comprised of Rodney Zohner, president, Battle Creek; Tim Means, vice president, Meadow Grove; Larry Lindahl, secretary, Tilden; Dennis Kuchar, treasurer, Madison; Jerrell Dolesh, Tilden; Mark Miller, Madison; Joe Thiele, Clearwater; Greg Weidner, Madison; and David Hoefer, Elgin.
Directors’ terms are six years. Three members are elected to represent each of Elkhorn RPPD’s three subdivisions. They are elected by non-partisan ballot during the November General Election to fill any seats that come open during that year or any seat that has been appointed prior to the end of a term.
Election of Board officers takes place at the January meeting. Board meetings are held on the second Tuesday of each month.