Co-op member reminisces about bringing power to the prairie

Photo of Henry Richter

At the flip of a switch, dark becomes light. At the push of a button, we’re connected to the world around us. But, it hasn’t always been that easy. Not all that long ago, electricity was a luxury.

Henry Richter, 88, grew up on a grain and dairy farm south of Menoken. His family raised corn,  wheat, oats and barley. It was a  true labor of love. They spent their mornings milking cows by hand and their days working in the fields. To power their home, they relied on a gas generator and batteries to provide them with enough energy to meet their needs.

“It was hard work,” remembers Richter. “And, there were so many details involved in making sure [the generator] worked properly. And, it didn’t always work right.”

For a farm kid in the Dakotas, growing up without electricity wasn’t all that uncommon. In 1935, only ten percent of the country’s farms had electric service. With so few residents per mile of line, the existing power companies didn’t find it feasible to
serve rural areas.

On May 11, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order making federal funds available for rural electric service, and the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) was born. The REA was a household acronym in its day. To farmers across the nation, it meant the start of a movement that would provide them with a better standard of living.

And so, in 1945, friends and neighbors banded together, cooperatively, to light up the countryside, and Capital Electric Cooperative (CEC) was formed. Over the next five years, the co-op would grow to serve more than 1,400 farm families across 1,300 miles of distribution line in Burleigh County and the southern ten townships inSheridan County. But, it wasn’t a easy process.

“It was a huge undertaking,” says Operations Supervisor Rick Dressler, CEC. “Back then, building electrical infrastructure was very physically demanding work. Bucket trucks weren’t available, so most poles were climbed. Holes were tamped by hand, and wire was placed by hand. And yet, in five years, they installed nearly half of our electrical system. It’s very impressive.”

Still without power in 1949, Richter’s father visited the co-op to see if they could get connected.

“They said, ‘Mr. Richter, the only way we could possibly put you on this list is if you could furnish us with somebody to work for us,’” remembers Richter. “I was 18 years old. I was farming with my dad, and we had just got done with the crop. He mentioned it and asked, ‘What do you think?’”

Richter decided to go to work for the co-op.

“I wasn’t looking for a job,” Richter says with a smile. “I said, ‘Well, hey. We definitely want electricity. If that’s what I got to do, then that’s what we’ll do. So, between me and Dad, we agreed that we could get by if I helped on the farm on the weekends. And, they kept their promise. After I went to work, they got us [on the list].”

The co-op paid Richter $1.25/hour – a fair wage in 1949 – to drive its Dodge Power Wagon and help a line crew build the infrastructure needed to deliver electricity to new members.

“I did everything, but I never had to climb [the poles],” says Richter. “I hauled out the poles and helped set them. I got stuck with the heavy work.”

Richter worked for the co-op for two years, staying on long after his farm was connected. During his time at the co-op, he helped bring electricity to 35 farmsteads near Bismarck, Baldwin, Wilton and Wing.

“They couldn’t have been more thankful. They thanked us, and they were happy to see it happen. It made life so much easier for all of them,” says Richter.

CEC has come a long way since those first utility poles were placed. Today, the co-op serves 17,600 members along 2,700 miles of line. In Richter’s short time at the co-op, he helped build crucial infrastructure that allowed the co-op to grow into what it is today. Now, he is involved in the co-op in a different capacity – he’s a proud member-owner.

Richter leaves the next generation with this advice, “Do the right thing, do the best you can and show people you care.”


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