Our History

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Click here to view an 11-minute video of Todd-Wadena’s history.

 

Our Story

While the method of distributing electric power is fundamentally the same as when the first substation was energized in 1941, the industry itself has undergone immeasurable change. All the while, past and present directors and employees have delivered a steadfast record of safe, reliable, affordable electricity to Todd-Wadena members.

Next Greatest Thing Photo The drudgery of life before electricity is something most of us can only imagine. In Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, the endless cycle of labor is summed up like this: “Washing, canning, shearing, picking and sowing; and every day carrying water and wood and having to do it all by hand because there was no electricity.”

It’s no wonder that President Roosevelt declared, “The farmer above all should have that power, on reasonable terms, for cheap transportation, for lighting their homes and for innumerable uses in the daily tasks on the farm.” By May of 1935 the Rural Electrification Act (REA) was ordered under Roosevelt authorizing federal assistance to rural America for the purpose of electrification.

About 90 percent of farms across the United States were without electricity at the time. Raising PoleConstruction tools and methods for extending power were primitive by today’s standards. It was an assembly-line process, where two men would first measure pole spacings and drive stakes where holes were to be dug. They’d move along to the next point, followed by a truck that would drop off poles, wires, insulators and transformers. Post hole diggers dug the holes by hand and a crew with pike poles arrived to set the poles in place. Conductors were strung, transformers hung and line was prepared for service.

The moment “the electric” lit up a farm was not to be missed. The first general manager of the National Rural Electric Association, Clyde T. Ellis, said it this way: “I wanted to be at my parent’s house when electricity came. It was 1940. We’d go around flipping the switch, to make sure it hadn’t come on yet. When it finally came on, the lights just barely glowed. I remember my mother smiling. When they came on full, tears started to run down her cheeks.” It was the people that made it all happen. They truly brought and built something to and for themselves. Working together, electric cooperatives became working symbols of what we’re all capable of achieving under democratic, cooperative principles.

CLICK HERE FOR A QUICK VISUAL OF HOW ELECTRIC COOPERATIVES SPRUNG UP ACROSS AMERICA STARTING IN THE 1930’s.

Todd-Wadena Electric Cooperative is no exception to this. Like hundreds of other cooperatives around the country, Todd-Wadena began with a small but dedicated group of men – many of whom formed the cooperative’s first board of directors:

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Todd-Wadena’s original Board of Directors dedicate the first substation near Verndale on Sept. 28, 1941.

Earl Schultz, President, W.J. Tils, Vice President, Lloyd Sapp, Secreaty, Otto Tappe, Treasurer, George Voss, Earl Chaffee, Matt Wirkkala, Boyd Conley and Nick Schmith.

(See Todd-Wadena Board Members, Past to Present.)
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It was during the drought of the late 1930’s when the task of soliciting memberships in the area began. Membership fees were $5, a sizable investment at a time of such uncertainty. The cost to wire a house or barn was simply out of reach for many. While some farmers viewed the coming of electric power as a saving grace; others considered it a “pipe dream.” Former Wadena County Extension Agent Miles Rowe said he often wished he had a tape recorder along to preserve some of the conversations in those days. “I recall one meeting held at a farmhouse where the discussion centered on the dangerous aspects of electricity,” Miles recalled. “Yet I remember how the heat from the kerosene lamp was so intense it was blistering the varnish on the woodwork.”

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Paul Richter, Project Coordinator and the cooperative’s first general manager, 1940 to 1977.

On June 9, 1939, the newly-formed board of directors selected Paul Richter as Project Coordinator. Attorney Rol E. Barron helped draft Todd-Wadena’s original Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws and Todd-Wadena was officially incorporated on October 15, 1940, after receiving its first REA loan of $237,000. The first substation with a capacity of 450kW was built near Verndale and energized in September of 1941. The first lineman, Royale Aarvig, climbed a pole later that month at the J.B. Conley farm to provide electricity to the first residence on the system’s lines. After the first month of operation, 170 members were receiving electricity. Construction was slow in the early years due to the effects of World War II and the resulting lack of wire and other equipment. Connecting the first 1000 members required a period stretching from 1941 to 1946, while the second 1000 members were connected in just two years, from 1946 to 1948. Just one year later, another 1000 members’ homes were electrified. By 1949, the cooperative’s growth required a move from space on Jefferson Street in Wadena to a new building at its present location. 49bldg

Gordy Olson, 1949, using the two-way radio, a significant improvement in safety and efficiency.

Former linemen recalled 1949 as a pivotal year: the new building was constructed, membership hit the 3000 mark and a two-way radio system was installed. Another giant step was achieved that year when the cooperative purchased its first post hole digger. Throughout the 50’s and 60’s Todd-Wadena continued along a pattern of growth while maintaining an excellent safety record. With proper training and common sense, linemen wired hundreds of miles of line without a single major accident. The addition of a bucket truck in the mid-60’s made the job of wiring much easier and safer. Membership reached the 4000 mark by 1964, with 1600 miles of line and four substations.

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Jon Bellgowan – general manager from 1977 to 1987.

 

 

Mr. Richter’s 38-year tenure as the cooperative’s leader came to an end in November of 1977, when he turned over the general management duties to Jon Bellgowan. Bellgowan’s chief concern was to continue to provide electric service to all areas of the cooperative’s service area at a reasonable cost. This was the challenge of the time, considering the ever-increasing use and demand for electricity.

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Coal Creek Station power plant under construction near Underwood ND. Unit 1 was completed in 1979, Unit 2 in 1980.

The demand for electricity throughout the country was in fact doubling every 10 years – a rate that eventually necessitated the building of new generation facilities. Todd-Wadena’s power supplier, Cooperative Power (which later merged with United Power to form Great River Energy) made plans for what would become its flagship plant, Coal Creek Station, in Underwood, North Dakota.

The concept for the new plant was new: build a plant near the fuel source and send the power over a DC (direct current) transmission line into Minnesota. This strategy eliminated the need for rail but was met with resistance by farmers whose land the towers and lines would cross. Heated debates ensued across the state as Cooperative Power and its member cooperatives persevered on behalf of members who required reliable, affordable power.

It was also during this time that the United States experienced the ‘Energy Crisis’. The Oil Embargo led to increased costs of all energy types, leading to additional rate increases. To help combat rising costs, electric cooperative leaders developed the concept of load management – a system designed to help members reduce the demand of electricity during occasional periods of high demand and cost.  July 1980 marked the beginning of Todd-Wadena’s successful Dual Fuel heating program, one of the first programs of its type in the state.

Growth of operations and services at Todd-Wadena led to an addition onto the cooperative’s headquarters building in 1980. Under Bellgowan’s leadership, the cooperative also expanded communication efforts, including the start of a monthly newsletter, The Pine to Prairie News. Trips to central North Dakota were organized so that members could tour Coal Creek Station and the adjacent coal mines. Advisory Committees met a few times a year, giving members and the cooperative the opportunity to exchange ideas and assess services and programs.

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Dale Hendrickson, general manager, 1987-2009.

Jon Bellgowan’s leadership of the cooperative ended in 1987 when he accepted a position with an electric cooperative in New Hampshire. The board of directors selected Dale Hendrickson as the cooperative’s third manager. Dale came to the cooperative from McLeod and Meeker Cooperatives, where he had worked in engineering. In his 22 years at Todd-Wadena, Dale managed steady growth, from a membership base of about 6500 in 1987 to nearly 8700 when he announced he would be retiring early in 2010. The number of employees remained at about 30 throughout his tenure, due to added efficiencies and technology improvements, including an automatic meter reading system.

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Robin Doege, CEO, 2009-Present.

Robin Doege, the cooperative’s fourth and present manager, arrived at the cooperative during tough economic times. Robin was determined to continue on a path of increasing efficiencies to help offset rising costs. During his first year alone the cooperative gained savings by refinancing debt, modifying employee benefits, negotiating vendor prices and more. The following year, the cooperative’s vegetation management program was modified, resulting in additional savings and improvements and in 2013 a comprehensive computer software change-out was completed. Robin’s strong belief in ‘”paying the preparation price” has helped the cooperative keep abreast of technologies and cope with the retirements of several long-time employees. Through the years, the Todd-Wadena board of directors has provided steady leadership. Through retirements the board elected to reduce its size from 9 to 8 in 2007 and from 8 to 7 in 2013. Current board members are Michael Thorson, Chair, Dale Adams, Vice Chair, Marie Katterhagen, Secretary, Gene Kern, Treasurer, Tom Brichacek, Norman Krause and Miles Kuschel.

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David_Mike_2Mike Thorson has served as Todd-Wadena’s representative on the board of its power supplier, Great River Energy, since 2002 and has chaired the Great River Energy board for the past two years. He is shown at right with Great River Energy CEO David Saggau.

Next Greatest Thing Photo 3 (2)No one really knew what was in store for us when that first bulb glowed in the home. No one really knew it was to be the beginning of a new way of life. Electricity has gone from being a pipe dream to a status symbol to a necessity of life. Todd-Wadena employees and directors are proud of the cooperative’s rich, 75-year history and continue to be inspired by a legacy of service that our forefathers founded. Endless possibilities exist where there is cooperation among people.