From Coal Oil to Fiber

History of electric co-ops traced through the life of an original member

Posted on Apr 23 2021 in Profile
Leona Wright and Randy Price
Leona Wright with Carroll White REMC CEO Randy Price.

Leona Wright doesn’t remember the exact day electricity came to her family’s White County farm, but she remembers the results: “It sure was nice to get away from the coal oil lamps to do my homework.”

Now 95, Wright was just a teenager when her local REMC turned the lights on in the waning days of the Great Depression. She recalls going with her dad to the store to purchase light fixtures. “There was one in the bedroom that you had to pull. And then there was one in the living room that had four different lights. You turned it on at the light itself. It was very, very limited, but it was light.”

Fast forward to today, the waning days (we hope) of the COVID pandemic. Just like Wright in the Great Depression, today’s teenagers are living through some unprecedented times. Trying to do homework today or e-learning at home without high-speed fiber is akin to folks in those days working by coal oil lamp. And, as with every business in direct contact with the public, Indiana’s electric cooperatives have had some adjustment, too, especially as they go through their second “annual meeting season” working with COVID precautions. The annual meeting, the staple gathering of the membership of electric cooperatives since they first lit upon the countryside 85 years ago, has evolved, as well, to the new challenges. 

Wright not only remembers what it was like to finally get electricity from her REMC, she remembers that original organizational meeting that became the “annual” meeting. “I don’t remember where we gathered,” she said, “but the whole community gathered to vote on whether or not to have the cooperative. We were all excited about the idea of having lights.”

That meeting in White County may have been June 22, 1939, when the consumer-owned cooperative organized. Wright, who was born in October 1925, attended the meeting with her dad, Frank McCall. She was just 13 at the time. “It was just a calm meeting but with a lot of chatter,” she recalled. “Everybody was excited. It was quite a momentous decision.”

By the time White County REMC energized its first build of lines in spring of 1940, 38 REMCs were already energized across Indiana. By 1942, the original 43 REMCs serving rural Indiana were in place. One of those original REMCs included White County’s neighboring Carroll County REMC. The two neighboring REMCs consolidated as Carroll White REMC in 2012. Today, with other consolidations, 38 electric co-ops now serve the state.

Who knows what teenagers today will recall from these days in 80 years, or what 80 years from now will even look like. But in less than the lifetime of folks like Leona Wright, electric co-ops played a major role in taking homework from the light of coal oil lamps to helping bring the entire world to students’ fingertips with high-speed fiber.