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.