"I thought it was an April Fool's joke and I chased him off with a broom," stated Mrs. U. M. Babb as she recalled the arrival of electricity to her farm home. This was April 1, 1940 and the Babbs were the first members to receive electricity from Farmers' Electric Cooperative. The Babbs lived just east of Chillicothe. Bringing electricity to the Babb family was the culmination and the beginning of the effort that would bring this life changing service to rural locations in Livingston, Caldwell, Daviess, Ray, Carroll, Linn, Chariton, Dekalb, and Clinton Counties. It all had began in 1935 with the founding of the Rural Electrification Administration, better known as The REA.
Championed by Nebraska Senator George Norris and Texas Representative Sam Rayburn, the Rural Electrification Act was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Then on September 2, 1938 a determined group of twelve farmers, including Ernest C. Wood, incorporated Farmers Electric Cooperative. Wood then became the first general manager and the cooperative's first office was opened in Hamilton, Missouri. The following June the cooperative's office was moved to Chillicothe. The entire office, including equipment and paperwork, was moved to Chillicothe in the back of a single pickup truck.
The growth of Farmers' Electric can be attributed to three areas: The many people who resided in rural areas who wanted the advantages of electrical power; the energetic Cooperative employees who traveled the miles and miles of dirt and gravel roads signing up new members; and, the guidance of the University of Missouri's County Extension Agents. The Extension Agents worked alongside Cooperative employees, scheduling meetings and talking to people in the countryside. The university's agents knew that electricity in the rural areas would make work and life easier and they actively pursued this opportunity.
The first REA loan to Farmers' Electric was issued in February 1939. It totaled $505,000. Construction of the Cooperative's first power lines began that summer. Twelve months later the Cooperative had 478 miles of distribution line and a total 792 members. At the time Farmers' Electric purchased its electricity from the city of Chillicothe. The first power bill totaled $34.43 for the purchase of 2,700 kilowatt hours. "It was required that you have at least two farmers per mile signed up before you could build a line to them," recalled W. L. Altheide, who retired as general manager of Farmers' Electric in 1982. He had succeeded Wood in 1967 after serving as assistant manager for a number of years. "There were a number of areas that didn't qualify because there simply were not enough people living in those areas," Altheide said. "We had people using names off tombstones in some areas so they could get enough signatures to have electricity delivered to their farms."
The cooperative grew steadily until the beginning of World War II. Construction of new lines was difficult then because aluminum and copper were scarce. These materials were needed for the war effort. At one time there were over 100 miles of power poles in the ground in Daviess County without power lines attached. For an area to get the materials required to build the distribution lines to the farms there had to be so many "units" per mile. For example, one milk cow equaled one unit. Ten beef cattle equaled one unit. Units were also assigned to chickens and hogs, while fields of row crops didn't count. "If a farmer didn't have enough units to qualify for electricity, he would borrow some livestock from his neighbors to meet whatever the requirements were at the time," laughed Altheide. "They would drive herds all over to get the units they needed. That's how much they wanted electricity!" Altheide recalled that, "Once the war ended we experienced an amazing growth period. We couldn't keep up with the requests for electricity."
The steady growth continued into the early 1950's. As the distribution system grew so did a need for a new facility. Construction on the present office building began in the fall of 1952. On May 2, 1953, the new office, located on Business Highway 36 East, opened for business.
By the 1960's growth had slowed because, for the most part, those who wanted electricity now were receiving this service. Farmers' Electric did grow in numbers during this era by purchasing several independent systems, including a farmer-owned line on the western edge of Chillicothe that ran to the old Campbell Country Club, now the Grand Oaks Baptist Assembly. The largest acquisition for the Cooperative occurred in 1964 when Farmers' Electric purchased the Consumer Public Service Company. This purchase included the areas around Sumner, Mendon, Meadville, Laclede, Hale, Wheeling, and Rothville. The majority of the purchase involved customers in Linn County. Remembering the work involved in this acquisition, Altheide said, "It took 32 pounds of paperwork for us to justify the purchase of the Consumer Public Service Company to the federal government." He added, "We took hundreds of photographs and when it was finally over it took almost a year to complete the transaction." Ironically, part of the area obtained in this purchase was involved in a trade with Union Electric in the late 1990's.
In the mid- 1960's the Cooperative also secured the exclusive rights to provide electric service to Lake Viking, located northwest of Gallatin. The service area of Farmers' Electric Cooperative did not change much after the 1960's until 1989.
The third manager in the Cooperative's history, Dan Bryan, came to Farmers' Electric at the beginning of 1982. Later that year the Cooperative became one of the first REC's in Missouri to initiate the use of interruptible power contracts with major industrial concerns within its service area. This provided the Cooperative with an avenue to prevent potential peaking situations and, in turn, aided in the control of its rate structure. "These interruptible contracts have worked extremely well for us and they have opened new doors for expanded opportunities for our industrial customers," Bryan said in 1988.
On July 5, 1989 Missouri Governor John Ashcroft signed a bill allowing neighboring electric utilities to agree on service boundaries. The first agreement in the state was signed on October 9, 1989. This provided territorial integrity for the City of Chillicothe and Farmers' Electric Cooperative. Dignitaries from the State of Missouri as well as national figures were present for the signing ceremonies. With the signing of this agreement the Cooperative announced its intentions to purchase a 176-acre tract of land and establish an industrial park. Recognizing the need to help boost the area's economy, the Cooperative dedicated itself to bringing jobs to its service area.
The first tenant in the industrial park was American Nail. Although this small industry never became a major employer it did provide avenues to help build the park's infrastructure. In 1993 Wire Rope Corporation of America opened an expansion plant in the park. Since purchasing 175 acres of undeveloped land in 1988, FEC Development has attracted businesses and industries to the CAIP that have created over 400 new jobs for area residents. Government offices include the Social Security Administration office and the USDA Service Center.
A second Industrial Park was added near Gallatin after the Cooperative and the City of Gallatin had also established a territorial agreement. The development of this park has been slow but marketing efforts continue.
Improving the quality of life for the Cooperative's members has been one of its primary goals from the time Farmers' Electric was established. In 1987 the Cooperative become one of the first in the nation to create a wholly owned subsidiary. The Rural America Service Company (RASCO) began to provide programming for C-band satellite dishes. Within a few years RASCO had over 3,000 rural customers and was the third largest provider of this programming in the nation.
Later the subsidiary's name was changed to FEC Services and its range of business expanded to provide other services designed to improve the quality of life for the residents in the nine county area served by the Cooperative. In April, 2009, FEC Services halted its DISH Network services, and in 2010, the Dairy Queen and Fuel Expresso businesses were also sold. Sale of the Culligan Water franchise was announced on December 30, 2010.
Farmers' Electric Cooperative has always believed in the youth of the nation and has worked diligently to provide opportunities for the young people living in rural Missouri. The Cooperative has participated in the Rural Electric Youth Tour for many years sending high school juniors to participate in the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association's Youth Tour to Washington, D. C. The Cooperative has also assisted in bringing leadership programs to all of our schools.
In 1987, the Cooperative donated a C-band satellite to each school district so all schools could have access to specialized educational programming available from various colleges and institutions. In the years following the Cooperative also made an Internet web site, USA Kids Today, available to each school to utilize for communication and education purposes.
The Farmers' Electric's Area Youth Benefit Fund (AYBF), a 501(c)3 charity, was established by the Cooperative in 1993. With this local charity designed to help area families with health care costs for their children 18 years of age and under, the Cooperative reached out to every corner of its service area. With the establishment of the AYBF the Cooperative became one of the very first businesses anywhere to have its own charity supported by the public. Funding for the AYBF came through auctions of celebrity memorabilia and donated items from area merchants and individuals. As of March 2018, over $721,000 has been distributed to 660 area families living in the Cooperative's nine county service area to assist with health care.
Early 1998 found Farmers' Electric stepping up to become one of the first cooperatives in the state to join with sister cooperatives across the nation in affiliating with Touchstone Energy. This national brand is a symbol of quality service to all customers.
A reliable and economical source of electric energy has always been the goal of Farmers' Electric Cooperative. Early in their existence the distribution cooperatives in the state exhibited great foresight and formed transmission cooperatives. In 1961 these transmission cooperatives created Associated Electric Cooperative, Inc. AECI is a generation and transmission cooperative and now owns coal fired generation stations at Thomas Hill and New Madrid. In addition AECI now has internal combustion generation at several locations in Missouri and Oklahoma. The efforts of AECI have resulted in low cost, reliable electricity for most of the rural electric cooperative members in the State of Missouri.
Farmers' Electric Cooperative has a strong belief that the members should share in the benefits of the operation of the business. Each year the board of directors reviews the capital credit picture and, historically, authorizes payments of capital credits. Through the year 2017, the Cooperative has returned more than $23,000,000 to the members.
In the years to come the Cooperative will be increasing its services through improved technology and a wider range of choices. Farmers' Electric Cooperative has always been and will continue to be committed to its members and the communities where these members live.