Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 12, 2013

Book documents history of local electric cooperative

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — It's hard to envision the darkness of night that blanketed the region's rural areas 75 years ago.

Nick Edson sheds light on that subject in a new book that details the birth and history of Cherryland Electric Cooperative.

“Lighting the Way: Cherryland Rural Electric Cooperative’s First 75 Years” has hit Traverse City bookstore shelves. It was published by the utility as part of its 75th anniversary celebration. Edson is Cherryland’s communications coordinator and a former Record-Eagle sports editor.

The 121-page hardcover tracks the cooperative’s history since its founding in 1938. That was three years after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Administration as part of his New Deal package of legislation to bring the United States out of the Great Depression.

At the time, nine out of 10 homes in rural America still had no electricity. Farmers milked cows by kerosene lantern. Women washed clothes on a washboard. Lack of electricity limited economic development in rural areas to agriculture. Factories and businesses gravitated toward urban areas, 90 percent of which were wired for electrical power decades before.

In the 1930s, municipal and investor-owned electric utilities had the market on towns and cities and could easily service their poles and lights because people clustered there. However, when farmers asked for service, utilities balked because of the the high cost erect poles and string electric lines in sparsely populated areas.

Cherryland was one of the last cooperatives in Michigan to be created as part of the effort to accomplish rural electrification with federal assistance. Three men — Max Goin, Frank Burkhart and Eino Lehto — led the charge in 1938 to create the cooperative to electrify the Traverse City region’s rural areas. $372,000 in federal funding made it possible to build the first 302 miles of power lines and a substation. By the following year, power pulsed to the properties of 60 cooperative members.

“Our goal was to make the book interesting to the average member, so the chapters are done by decade, starting in the 1930s, and running to the present day,” Edson said. “We wanted to tell the story of what it was like for people then to have the lights turned on and also what it was like for the cooperative workers who made that possible."

Each chapter features a member, employee or board of directors member and ends with Cherryland accomplishments during that decade. “Lighting the Way” also includes more than 30 photographs.

“I didn’t want a dry book,” Edson said. “I wanted my book to be about people. That’s why I started each chapter with a person. I wanted people to tell the story first hand.”

“Lighting the Way” opens with the late Alice Falck, an Interlochen summer resident from Cincinnati. She was 23 when the lights went on at her parents’ summer home near the Interlochen National Music Camp in 1939.

“When it came time to flip the switch for our lights, you could hear the sound of them coming to life, then the light just sprayed across the room,” she said. “It was so wonderful.”

The cooperative has had six managers since 1939: Harry Hall (1939-1962), Bob Lambert (1962-1976), Phil Cole (1976-1993), Bruce King (1993-2002), Don Pahl (interim 2002-2003) and Tony Anderson (2003-present).

An electric “cooperative” is different than a “municipal” or “investor-owned “utility.” Traverse City area has all three. As a cooperative, Cherryland is owned by its members. Traverse City Light & Power is a municipal governed by elected officials who represent city taxpayers. Consumers Power is an investor-owned utility that represents people who have purchased stock in the company.

Today, Cherryland has 34,000 members in 40 townships in Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Leelanau, Manistee and Wexford counties. Through its power supplier, Wolverine Power Cooperative, Cherryland is also an investor in the Harvest Wind energy project in Michigan’s Thumb. On June 7, Cherryland will cut the ribbon on Michigan’s first Community Solar Project.

Lighting the Way” marks Edson’s third book project. In 2004, he published “Beyond the Games,” a compilation of his favorite columns written during his 24 years at the Record-Eagle and as editor of Cherryland’s Country Lines Magazine. He also was a contributor to “The 1984 Detroit Tigers: What a Start! What a Finish!” It focused on the famous and not-so-famous players involved in that magical year. Edson, who grew up in Mancelona, wrote about Bellaire’s Roger Mason.

"Lighting the Way" is $10, available at Traverse City area bookstores and from Cherryland offices at 5930 U.S. 31 South in Grawn. Proceeds from the book will be donated to area nonprofits through the Cherryland Cares program.

The June 7 ribbon cutting for Michigan's first community solar project is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. at Cherryland Electric Cooperative's headquarters at 5930 U.S. 31 South in Grawn. The Solar Up North Alliance program gives electric cooperative members the opportunity to purchase SUN shares and receive a monthly bill credit for their shares without the risk and maintenance costs involved with traditional net metering. Cherryland retains ownership of the solar panels, then leases them to customers for a one-time fee of $470 per panel, or share. Several rebates are available through the cooperative and members can buy as many panels as they want. Customers will receive a rebate of about $2 per share. Participating customers can expect to break even on the investment in about 20 years. The utility plans to add two additional 72-panel arrays on its property.