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Visit the newly expanded N.D. Heritage Center, and tour the ‘Power of the People’ exhibit

In the early 1900s, Charlie Lasher immigrated to North Dakota from Wisconsin, and homesteaded on the bald-headed prairie five miles east of McClusky. He planted flax and oats for the team of horses he was using to bust the sod. He scraped together straw to save for feed, and to use as a source of fuel for the pot-bellied stove that he had in his tar-paper shack. He survived his first brutal winter alone, before returning to Wisconsin to marry and bring his bride back to the vast openness of a prairie with no tree rows, no fence lines, no roads.

“We can’t envision what they endured in trying to succeed on the prairie; the brutal winters and the loneliness,” describes Duane “Rusty” Lasher, a grandson of Charlie. “People depended on one another for a source of encouragement and enlightenment and sharing in those days. They had to cope the best they could.”

After World War II, the objective of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) was to make life more enjoyable and easier on the prairie. Rural electrification with central station power was born — and it brought help and hope to North Dakota’s hardy pioneers.

Light for the home and barn? Heat for the stove? Power for farm machinery and kitchen appliances? Many folks said electricity was a convenience for the people who lived in town, and it couldn’t be brought to rural areas. Co-ops like Capital Electric Cooperative proved them wrong.

Charlie’s son, Norman, traveled the countryside in the early 1940s, seeking $5 from families who lived in the counties of Burleigh and Sheridan, and small portions of Emmons, Mclean and Kidder, in an attempt to form an electric cooperative and get a 2-percent loan from the REA. When enough memberships were secure, Capital Electric Cooperative was incorporated in 1945. The co-op requested a million-dollar loan to build 927 miles of line to serve 774 signed members, with a potential of serving 786 additional members.

Today, 16 distribution cooperatives including Capital Electric, and five generation and transmission cooperatives bring electric service to 250,000 North Dakotans though 178,000 meters. These co-ops, which are locally owned businesses tied to a nationwide network of Touchstone Energy® Cooperatives, are governed by local, consumer-elected members to the board of directors.

After Norman Lasher helped establish Capital Electric Cooperative, he was elected to the board of directors. Including those first organizational meetings, he served for 33 years until he died. His son, Rusty, filled the remaining term and was re-elected to the board. Following in his father’s footsteps and carrying on the legacy of the co-op, Rusty served for 31 years.

The efforts and actions of these forward thinkers, and the history and contemporary role of electric cooperatives in North Dakota, are on prominent display in the Governors Gallery in the newly expanded North Dakota Heritage Center, on the state capitol grounds in Bismarck.

 

Exhibit describes impact of electricity ― yesterday and today

The “Power of the People” exhibit opened on Nov. 2, 2014 – North Dakota’s 125th anniversary of statehood – at the same time the expanded Heritage Center first opened to the public.

Chris Johnson, museum division director for the N.D. Heritage Center and State Historical Society of North Dakota, says electric cooperative history and modern-day values were an ideal way to help launch this new era in the history of the Heritage Center.

In 2012, Historical Society and Heritage Center representatives traveled the state, meeting with community groups about what the Heritage Center expansion should display. Johnson says local people across the state repeatedly cited the coming of rural electrification to farms and small towns as a major historic milestone.

“In the public feedback part of our discussions,” Johnson says, “the thing that came up over and over again – particularly among people who remember it – was that the coming of electricity had a huge impact on their farms and small towns.”

Johnson says these comments made a significant impression on Heritage Center planners. “We looked at this as an opportunity to form a partnership with cooperatives,” Johnson says, adding that the concept of rural electrification history was a good fit for the inaugural use of the temporary display space that the new Governors Gallery features.

The “Power of the People” exhibit is a blend of vintage rural electrification emergence history in the state, with educational displays about the role Touchstone Energy Cooperatives play today in North Dakota. Exhibit features include:

• Displays depicting the coming of electricity to rural North Dakota in the 1940s and 1950s, including the advent of household appliances, farm mechanization, and new lighting and communication resources.

• Touchscreen stations, where informational video presentations on the core values of Touchstone Energy Cooperatives (accountability, integrity, innovation, and commitment to community) are viewable; and touchscreen displays about cooperative power generation and environmental stewardship.

• An early “REA” co-op headquarters, containing the story of how farmers, laborers, the REA agents – aided by the smiling Willie Wiredhand figure – set poles and strung wires across rural North Dakota.

• Life-size visual displays of rural electric cooperative organizing efforts and meetings of yesteryear, along with photo displays of people making up today’s Touchstone Energy Cooperative network in North Dakota. Nine people representing cooperative board rooms, line crews, power generation plants and information technology services are on display, describing their roles for today’s electric cooperatives.

• The “Stronger Together” hands-on teaching station where three persons, working together, lift a metal ring, sounding a bell and lighting up a “You’ve Formed A Co-op” sign. Johnson says, “Bringing electricity to rural America was not done by just one person. It was groups of people banding together to get something accomplished.”

Several area Touchstone Energy Cooperatives played a key role in vital private sector support for the Heritage Center expansion. Joining forces in contributing $1.3 million toward the expansion were: Basin Electric Power Cooperative, Great River Energy, Minnkota Power Cooperative, National Information Solutions Cooperative and the North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives. Financial support was also provided by the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation and CoBank.

Bill Patrie, executive director of the Common Enterprise Development Corporation and board director for Capital Electric Cooperative, says co-ops sponsored this exhibit to show the story of human connections.

“It’s inspiring!” he says. “Cooperatives invested in the ‘Power of the People’ display not only to tell our story, but to inspire others to take similar action in other sectors of the economy.”

While the story of rural electrification started perhaps in 1844 with the Roachdale Society of Equitable pioneers, and blossomed in America with the REA in the Roosevelt administration, there are many chapters yet to be written. Cooperatives were initially organized to get affordable power to people wherever they lived by sharing expenses with other members. Patrie says cooperatives are still necessary today because of their unique values, which are different than investor-owned companies.

“The International Cooperative Alliance lists self-help, self-responsibility, equity, equality and solidarity as the values embraced by cooperatives. Investor-owned utilities value the most return on capital. Rural people have had to form alliances with urban people to gain mutual benefit in securing affordable power. Without cooperatives, investors will extract as much earnings as possible from the provision of power. They have been given monopolies and though they are regulated, they still demand a significant return. Cooperative operate based on cost. Cooperatives are simply a better deal for the user.

“North Dakotans have built an amazing economy and culture based, in part, on our ability to cooperate,” Patrie continues. “Competition may be entertaining — especially in sports — but it is cooperation that has saved lives, reduced drudgery, and brought people proudly into the 21st Century. Today, Capital Electric Cooperative is working just as hard at providing safe and reliable electric service at the lowest-possible price.”

The mission of Capital Electric Cooperative is the same today as it was back in September 1948, when it energized its first line. The cost of a membership is the same, today, too; just $5. To the friends and neighbors Norman Lasher helped recruit to form a co-op, $5 was a lot of money. It took courage and vision, which were rewarded in the form of hope and help, bringing rural America out of the darkness.

What has changed are North Dakota’s prairies. “We’ve got fewer farms out here. Some of those are consuming more electricity than the previous farms,” Rusty Lasher reflects. “That’s what is so great about the ‘Power of the ‘People’ exhibit at the Heritage Center. This is our legacy. This is our heritage, and what our ancestors went through,” he concludes. “Today, electricity is just as convenient, just as beneficial, and just as necessary.”

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