RE Magazine

The Little Co-Op That Could  

RE Magazine looks at the start-up struggles faced by a small Michigan electric co-op.


By Raymond Kuhl


Overcoming some unique struggles to get established, Ontonagon County Rural Electric Association on Michigan's Upper Peninsula today serves around 4,800 members.

"We started from scratch . . . hired people right off the farm and some just out of school. They didn't know the difference between a kilowatt and a kilowatthour, but they learned fast."

That's how Cy Clark described the heady first days of getting Michigan's Ontonagon County Rural Electric Association office staff "up to speed." Clark, who helped organize the Upper Peninsula co-op, became its first general manager in 1938.

Like all early co-op chief executives, Clark faced an uphill struggle, and his challenge proved steeper than most. Because the Ontonagon-based co-op's proposed service areas were not contiguous―due partly to government land ownership that prohibited residential development―wholesale power supply arrangements needed to be made with three investor-owned utilities, with delivery taken through five substations. As Uno Kamppainen, longtime Ontonagon County REA board president, observed, the territorial map "looked like a jigsaw puzzle," showing 13 separate pockets.

Thanks to federal Rural Electrification Administration (REA) consulting engineers and a push from Great Lakes State Gov. (and later Supreme Court Justice) Frank Murphy (D), Clark and his relentless recruits witnessed the first lines energized in May 1938. Of course, bringing electricity to hundreds of farms and logging operations did not come easy.

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