HUNTINGDON - Luanne Eckenrode said she can't image living without electricity.
That's how life was in many areas of rural America just 75 years ago.
"They had to pump water. They had to use wood or fuel to heat water to take a bath or cook," said Eckenrode, vice president of consumer services and public relations for Valley Rural Electric Cooperative Inc. "There was a lot of darkness in rural areas. They read by kerosene lamps. It was a different way of life than what we came to enjoy and expect. It used to be seen as a luxury but now is seen as a necessity."
(Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich)
Employees at Valley Rural Electric work to upgrade a two-mile stretch of existing power lines in a farmer’s field near Todd on Thursday. Here Crew Chief Curt White and his employees install a new utility pole.
(Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich)
Valley Rural Electric Cooperative Crew Chief Curt White (left) talks with Craig Morrison (center), a journey lineman, and Logan Booher, an apprentice lineman, about upgrades to power lines.
Rural electrification became a reality shortly after President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Rural Electrification Administration in 1935, which enabled co-ops to access funds to build electric lines.
Private electric companies were not willing to take the financial risk to extend their power lines into rural areas, Eckenrode said.
Valley Rural Electric Cooperative was incorporated on Nov. 1, 1938, with the first lines with electricity energized Nov. 17, 1939.
"That is why we are celebrating our 75th anniversary. When the lines are energized, that is your start date," Eckenrode explained.
Those first lines were energized at the Brenneman farm just outside of Williamsburg, and substation No. 1 remains at that site today, Eckenrode said.
The group that formed the co-op first met in Martinsburg with electrician Floyd Bush, the first manager.
"Farmers and country folks signed up for a $5 membership fee and banded together to put in poles and build lines to extend service to themselves," Eckenrode said.
Today, there are 13 rural co-ops in Pennsylvania and more than 900 across the United States.
Valley Rural is the fourth largest in Pennsylvania serving 21,824 consumers with 2,741 miles of lines.
Valley Rural serves parts of eight counties with 423 customers in Bedford, 5,651 in Blair, 26 in Centre, 634 in Franklin, 1,815 in Fulton, 11,232 in Huntingdon, 1,322 in Juniata and 721 in Mifflin.
Growth was steady but has slowed in recent years because of economic conditions, Eckenrode said.
"To grow, you need to have people build homes within your territory. We can't actively recruit consumers. It is all based on where you live. You have to live in an area served by the co-op," Eckenrode said.
The co-op is governed by a nine-member board of directors, which sets rates, operating policy and procedure and hires a management staff to carry out the wishes of the board.
Valley Rural purchases most of its power from Allegheny Electric Power Cooperative. "We own 70 percent of our power and purchase the other 30 percent," Eckenrode said.
Valley Rural's rates are comparable to those of Penelec, and its rates are reviewed on an annual basis.
"It is a board decision to see if it is necessary. We haven't had a rate increase in two years and don't foresee another this year," Eckenrode said.
"Valley has been able to keep rates low because we decided to own our generation resources, not sell them," said Valley Rural president and CEO Rich Bauer. "We only rely on the market for roughly 30 percent of our energy needs."
"The investor-owned utilities are buying almost their entire needs on the volatile market," he said.
Valley Rural operates differently than a company such as Penelec.
"We are owned and operated by those we serve," Bauer said. "Penelec is a for-profit company that is owned by shareholders. We are a not-for-profit company. Any money that we do make is returned to our member owners."
"Another great feature is that every member has a vote in how things are operated. It doesn't matter if you are a multi-million dollar company or a young person just starting out. Everyone gets one equal vote," he said.
Eckenrode believes in the co-op way of doing business.
"We are consumer-owned and oriented. We try to produce reliable, dependable, safe and affordable power to our consumers. It is run by a board of directors elected by the membership. We are self-regulated. That way, the directors also pay the same rates," Eckenrode said.
Today, Valley Rural has a digital map of its service area and a sophisticated outage system.
"We are very proud that we can get to outages more quickly and reduce outage time. That is what the consumer wants," Eckenrode said.
Valley Rural offers other services to its members such as a co-op connector card, which gives them national discounts, free energy audits, a Members Helping Members program to help those with financial hardships, and it provides educational programs for schools and civic organizations.
Valley Rural also has a scholarship program and gives out 25 $1,000 scholarships each year to high school seniors.
Today, the company has its corporate office in Huntingdon with regional offices in Huntingdon, Martinsburg and Shade Gap. The co-op employs 60 workers, which includes line crews, engineers and administrative staff.
Eckenrode said the co-op's consumers have been the key to survival over the years.
"We have not lost sight of our mission to provide reliable, affordable power to our consumers at the lowest possible price. We always have to think about efficiency and quality. If you do that, things fall into place.
"We have a very dependable staff to make that happen. They are second to none and provide quality service to our consumers. We focus on what is best for our consumers because they are ensuring the success of our business," Eckenrode said.
Valley Rural is a great example of the relationship between a business organization and a community, said Peter Fitzgerald, director of community relations and member services for Pennsylvania Rural Electric Cooperative.
"It has been a model that has sustained itself for many years. The program is very strong at Valley Rural and throughout Pennsylvania, as well," Fitzgerald said.
Officials remain optimistic about the future.
"The future of Valley is going to be great. The cooperative model allows us to adapt easily to the needs of our membership. Technology will change. People will change, but the mission won't. If we can continue to provide the best possible service at the lowest possible cost, all the other pieces will fall into place," Bauer said.
Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.