Bringing Power to the People
A Brief History of the Hood River Electric Cooperative
During and immediately following the 1930’s depression an unprecedented spread of consumer owned utilities began. In the Northwest, the Bonneville Project, later established as the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), began building huge hydro-electric dams which would multiply the electricity available for residents and businesses of the region.
Who would deliver this energy to homes, farms and factories became a question debated vigorously in any forum – in newspapers, lecture halls and business offices as well as in barber shops, on street corners and over rural fences.
About 2,000 persons attended an outdoor meeting of the People’s Power League held at Bonneville on August 29, 1937. Speakers advocated state and municipal ownership of electrical systems and urged the formation of committees throughout the state to carry out an active campaign for publicly owned power.
The late 1930’s and early 1940’s saw the formation of many consumer owned electric utilities across the nation as well as in the Columbia River Gorge. Formation of Skamania County and Klickitat County PUDs as well as the city owned utility in Cascade Locks occurred during this period. Loan funds from the USDA Rural Electrification Administration (REA) enabled construction of rural electric cooperatives throughout the nation. Locally, an investor owned utility, Pacific Power and Light, served those areas deemed profitable. Legislation enabled PUDs and municipal utilities to acquire the service area of investor owned utilities if approved by a vote of the citizens within the PUD area.
Hood River Electric Co-op was established June 15, 1945 after nine valley residents filed articles of confederation for a cooperatively-owned electric utility: Walter Wells, William Vollmer, John Sigler, Eino Annala, H. J. DeWitt, St. Clari Dianond, Earl Moore, Eino Jakku and W.C. May. A month later this same group was elected to lead the new Cooperative. Wells became president, Jakku Vice-president, DeWitt the treasurer, the rest forming the initial board of directors.
The directors of the new cooperative adopted an official seal, bylaws and certificates for membership; they empowered the president and the secretary to issue and deliver to each of the incorporators and subscribers a certificate of membership. “The applicant,” the certificated stated, “by paying a membership fee and becoming a member, assumes no personal liability or responsibility for any debts or liabilities of the Cooperative, and it is expressly understood that under the law his private property is exempt from execution for any such debt or liabilities.”
The fee for membership is the same now as it was since inception: $5.00
It must have been immediately apparent to the men who were early Co-op directors that keeping the fledging cooperative afloat financially was not going to be easy. At the Co-op’s November 4, 1945 meeting, director Earl Moore moved that the president and secretary accept loans from Co-op members, on notes due in four months without interest for the privilege of advance payment, in sufficient amount to pay for poles and other expenses. Some of the original line construction consisted of used poles, wire and transformers purchased from the WWII town of Hanford, which was dismantled after the war. The notes were to be credited later on bond purchases by members. A total of $3,700 was contributed at the meeting, by directors.
This private, local financing arrangement was unique at a time when most newly organized rural cooperatives obtained financing from the REA. Though very difficult at times, HREC directors and staff were successful in finding financial support from local citizens and did not seek federal financing through the REA. Local financial participation strengthened the sense of ownership and independence of the HREC membership. Members and other Oregon residents continue to invest with the Co-op by purchasing unsecured promissory notes with terms of maturity ranging from 1 year to 10 years.
Following a period of increasing competition between Pacific Power and HREC in the 1960’s, an arrangement for allocation of exclusive service territories was negotiated and subsequently approved by the Oregon Public Utility Commission.
Five managers have overseen HREC operations since 1948. Willard Johnson served as manager from 1948 to 1973 – likely the most challenging period of the cooperative’s history. Theodore Perry served from 1973 to 1986; Don Walker from 1986 to 1997; and John Gerstenberger from 1997 to 2018. Libby Calnon became HREC’s fifth manager upon John’s retirement on June 27, 2018.
Today, the Co-op serves approximately 3,500 accounts owned by more than 2,300 members. Delivery of energy is from three BPA points of power delivery through approximately 250 miles of distribution line.
More than 60 years later the Co-op continues to carry out the resolve expressed in the preamble to HREC bylaws, adopted in 1945:
“It shall be the aim of Hood River Electric Cooperative to make electric energy available to its members at the lowest rate consistent with sound economy and good management.”