Scott Moore was rummaging through old boxes in his office at FEM Electric Association when he came across several worn film canisters. They included old cartoons and other shorts that might have been shown at social events in a rural community a half-century ago.
But one title caught his eye: By the People for the People, a single-reel 16-mm print accompanied by a grainy set of instructions identifying it as NRECA’s first film.
“It hadn’t been used in about 40 or 50 years,” says Moore, CEO of the Ipswich, S.D.-based distribution co-op.
Turns out By the People for the People was produced around 1955, about a decade after NRECA was established. It highlighted the challenges electric cooperatives faced in their formative years and their rapid expansion after World War II.
“Sometimes private companies built lines—‘spite lines,’ they were called—parallel to already constructed farmer-owned lines,” the narrator says. But the 26-minute film stresses the faith farmers and ranchers had in cooperative organizers and their ability to get things done through collective action.
“Us farmers can do anything we set our minds to, if we do it together,” says a farmer identified as Bill in the film. “I make a motion that we start a cooperative, so we can borrow from the government and build our own electric lines.”
The movie, made by Film Productions of Minneapolis, was distributed to NRECA member cooperatives and their statewide associations for use at annual meetings and other member outreach events.
Included with each copy were instructions on how it should be presented and talking points designed to encourage group discussion and member engagement after viewing. The notes said electric co-ops served 14 million rural people, contributed significantly to local tax bases, provided employment, and helped increase agricultural production.
“The better equipped we are to inform the uninformed, the more likely we are to resist the attacks of those who would profit from our dissolution,” NRECA said in the notes.
Video | ‘By the People, For the People’
A Timely Message
The film’s release coincided with a difficult period for electric co-ops. The Eisenhower administration was questioning its importance to rural economic development, and although the goal of universal electric service had not been achieved, more than 90 percent of rural households had access to electricity by the mid-1950s.
“The film was an attempt to counteract widespread criticism of the government’s role in rural electrification,” says Ted Case, executive director of the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association (statewide) and author of Power Plays, a history of electric cooperatives and their relationships with presidential administrations. “There was a lot of bashing of the Rural Electrification Administration [REA] and electric co-ops. Co-ops were called socialist, communist, and all of the negative code words associated with the Cold War era.”
According to Case, the film and its accompanying materials were designed to reinforce the image of electric cooperatives as organizations that were very American and made up of rural people who were spiritually and politically connected to their local communities.
“NRECA should take a lot of credit for mobilizing the view that co-ops were farmers, ranchers, and local leaders banding together to build and strengthen their communities,” Case says. “This was a period of tremendous growth in rural America, and we needed REA loans to continue to grow.”
A secondary purpose of the film was to promote sales of appliances and equipment for local retailers and to reinforce the farm and ranch modernization made possible with electric power.
“You didn’t have to promote it a lot because people were anxious to get power, but you did have to let them know what was available,” says Manley Garber, who was first elected as a director of Manassas, Va.-based Prince William Electric Cooperative in 1950.
Garber, 92, remains a director of Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative, which succeeded Prince William Electric Cooperative following a 1983 merger with Leesburg, Va.’s Tri-County Electric Cooperative.
“We promoted lighting, water pumping, refrigeration, and washing machines through our newsletters and at our meetings,” Garber says.
To help mark NRECA’s 75th anniversary, By the People for the People has been fully restored and digitized and is being made available to NRECA member co-ops.
Despite its age, the short movie offers viewers insight into the past of the rural electrification program and reinforces what’s come to be known as “the cooperative difference.”
“I’m using it this June and will run it at our annual meeting,” says Moore, a 24-year employee of FEM Electric. Moore began as an apprentice lineman and served as line superintendent for 11 years before becoming CEO in 2006.
“I’m a firm believer that the cooperative way is still the way to get things done in rural America,” Moore says. “The people before us risked a lot to get electricity. It’s one of the greatest stories ever.”