Ninety-nine percent of the American countryside had central station power by the time the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) celebrated its 50th anniversary in May 1985. One of the remote locales in that last 1 percent was Riley, N.M., a ranching community of 11 families scattered along a 20-mile stretch of the Rio Salado in the southwestern part of the state.
I visited Riley on a sunny Saturday in October 1999 with Guadalupe Vega, general manager of Socorro Electric Co-op in Socorro, N.M.; his wife, Alice; and Juan Gonzalez, a barber who was the co-op’s president.
A few weeks earlier, the co-op had finished building a distribution line to serve all 11 families, and this was the day of the “Lights On” celebration. “It’s the kind of thing co-ops should do for people,” Vega said as we passed the first house we had seen since leaving U.S. Route 60 in the old mining town of Magdalena, 26 miles back.
The whole way, Vega had kept his white Crown Victoria a dozen car lengths behind the pickup truck in front of us so his passengers wouldn’t have to breathe its dust.
A few more miles passed before we forded the mostly dry river bed, back tires spinning up the sandy bank, forked left, and soon arrived at Hipolito Romero’s home, a boxy little building with a funky solar system out back and a brand new kilowatt-hour meter out front. Two party tents were set up in the dirt yard, and smoke rose from a large grill made from an oil drum. Mexican music blared from a speaker hung on a post.
Around 1:00, Vega, dressed in a bolo tie and a Stetson, delivered the first of a half-dozen speeches to the 100 or so people gathered under the tents. Quite a few of them were co-op employees; “Lupe,” as everyone called this shy, big-hearted man, had closed the office in Socorro and encouraged everyone to attend the fiesta.
He thanked the locals for their patience; it had been six years since the first meeting about the new line. He credited his staff for all their hard work.
“We don’t care about money,” he said. “We think about serving people. We believe in cooperation.”
Co-op engineer Richard Lopez said building the line had been a hard, hot job that took most of the summer. The total cost was $228,000, most of which had come from an REA loan. Each family had to put up between $1,000 and $14,000, depending on how far they lived from the line.
All of them had electricity in their homes before the new line was energized, but it was owner-operated: noisy diesel generators and expensive solar systems that didn’t always produce enough power, and they were no good at all if you wanted to watch TV when the sun wasn’t shining.
Heavy equipment operator Richard Spears picked up on that theme when Vega passed the microphone to him: “We’re rid of our generators. We’re rid of our solar systems. We’re uptown!”
Barbara Spreen-Atwood, a third-generation Riley rancher tethered to an oxygen machine 24 hours a day, started saving $600 a month the day the new line was energized. And her family no longer had to haul 175-pound oxygen tanks from town.
For Romero, Riley’s unofficial mayor, electrification meant no longer having to drink “Riley beer,” the stash he kept cool but not cold in a dark corner of his basement. For his wife, Sue, it meant having enough voltage for a freezer.
After the speeches, everyone lined up to fill their plates with coleslaw, pinto beans, steak, and the best green chile I have ever tasted.
Lopez and a crew of co-op employees, who had camped near the Romeros’ place the night before, made all the party preparations, including doing the cooking. One of them mentioned to me that they had built a fire and talked late into the night. One of the topics was how satisfying it was to work at a job where you have a hand in improving the quality of people’s lives.
Flying home to Washington, D.C., from Albuquerque, I recalled that when Lopez invited me to the “Lights On” celebration, he had promised I’d “see rural electrification the way it used to be back in the 1930s and 1940s,” when it was more of a community affair.
He made good on his promise.