Delaware began embracing rural electrification in May 1935, marking a soaring moment in the state’s infrastructure development. This initiative took flight once President Franklin Roosevelt appointed the industrious Morris L. Cooke as head of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA).
Cooke dove headfirst into his grand plans and proceeded with both fervor and drive. He was on a mission to light up the lives of receptive farmers and their rural neighbors up and down the road. The excitement of electrification was coming to their area!
Cooke’s industry stump speech emphasized the enormous profit this program promised for home product manufacturers and existing private utilities. “The opportunity is presented to industry,” said Cooke, “to develop substantial appliances of quality at low cost in view of the vast sales field which is now opening up for them.”
A Call to Private Utilities
Cooke extended an invitation to private power systems to join hands with the REA’s program. He proposed that for each government dollar invested, utilities should pitch in with 40 to 50 cents to broaden the reach of power lines to farmers. He calculated that private firms could shoulder 95% of the responsibilities of the government’s program.
He assured established providers that financing terms would be adaptable. Then, he underlined the necessity for the REA to at least cover its costs. His insistence played a crucial role in ensuring the program would eventually become self-sustaining.
He boldly warned: if utilities chose not to participate, the REA would seize the reins and assume the authority to generate, transmit, and distribute power.
Private utilities in response proposed a $238 billion version of the program, with the condition that the government supply most of the funds. They shook hands and made a deal.
Delaware’s local REA affiliate got underway in 1936 by stringing 94 miles of wire to reach 223 customers in Kent and Sussex counties. Headquartered at the old Queen Anne Railroad station in Greenwood, the project made significant strides by 1940. A one-million-dollar investment resulted in 800 miles of crisscrossing electric wires, providing neighborhood service to the state’s lower two counties.
The Rural Electrification Administration hosted a traveling educational caravan in Delaware in May that year. This first roadshow aimed to educate farmers on creative uses of electricity. Quirky displays such as a sculpted cow that produced milk delighted onlookers.
From the project’s 1935 launch to the spring of 1940, approximately 17% of Delaware’s 11,000 farms were hooked up to electricity. The REA anticipated that by fall of that year, at least 35% of the state’s farms would have access to electricity, with many others being within nearby connection.
The REA recognized Delaware farmers for their progressive approach, evident from the fact that over 42% had electric water pumps, 60% had electric washing machines, and more than a third owned electric refrigerators. 38% had vacuum cleaners and nearly 85% owned radios. Farmers milked Bessie while she moo-ved to the radio’s beat!
Only months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, War Production Board Director Donald M. Nelson halted REA’s copper allocations. This decision, a strategic war measure, was aimed at conserving resources for World War II’s duration. Consequently, any new electric buildout came to a standstill until the war ended in late 1945.
Birth of Delaware Electric Cooperative
Delaware ‘s REA was transformed over the years. In 1946 the group became the Delaware Electric Cooperative Inc. (DEC). The new set up delivered power to more than 54,000 rural customers by 1947 and maintained 4,500 miles of wire. Attendees at the Cooperative’s annual meeting that April reported consistent year-over-year increases in electricity consumption.
The efforts of both cooperatives and private utilities had brought electricity to 75% of Delaware farmers by 1948.
Delaware’s state, county, and local governments in the following decade built a collaboration with electric co-ops and private utilities. Their 1950s efforts centered around educating and engaging the public about the best usage of electricity and its many labor-saving devices.
For example, William E. Tarbell, Kent County agricultural agent, discussed electricity at Dover’s Capital Grange. His program at the March 1951 meeting emphasized electric wiring for safety and economy. Later that same year, James R. Carroll, DEC agricultural engineer, held a session with World War II veterans at Georgetown High School. He aimed to show how two and three wire electric circuits are constructed.
The Rural Electrification Administration’s impact cannot be overstated. Ninety-seven percent of US farms had been electrified by 1960. Delaware was no exception.
Rural residents increasingly adopted the electric conveniences and technologies introduced by the REA. The First State readily transitioned from traditional farming to modern agribusiness.