Farmers know about roots. The roots of their crops must be healthy for the plant to thrive and produce what it is intended to produce. It is not surprising, then, that the roots of Co-Mo Electric Cooperative were planted by the very farmers who worked the land in what is now Co-Mo Country. These were the people who took an idea born thousands of miles away and brought it home for the benefit of their families, their friends, their neighbors, their local businesses.
In the mid-1930s, America was in crisis. The Great Depression had ravaged the nation, obliterating family fortunes and turning out countless unemployed and starved citizens. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had a plan — a New Deal — to address the deepening crisis, and part of it hinged on increased productivity in the nation’s heartland. If rural people had electricity, Roosevelt reasoned, their farms would be more productive. This would lead to more jobs and a lessening of America’s pain.
So he created the Rural Electrification Administration — the REA — as a new government entity and tasked it with providing low-interest loans to investor owned utilities to encourage them to stretch out their lines from middle America’s cities into the countryside.
Roosevelt’s initial plan was a failure. Investor owned utilities looked at the low-interest loans available and ran the numbers: There was still no way these for-profit companies could make enough money to satisfy their investors when the number of residents per mile was so low.
But then came the farmer.
The farmers knew what could be accomplished with electricity. And, perhaps more importantly, so did their wives. They knew that arduous chores and back-breaking tasks would become much easier with electricity. They knew the potential for increased revenue from their farms was great. So they inquired of the Roosevelt administration: Would those low-interest loans be available to us if we worked to start electric cooperatives, a business model that did not depend on making profit but rather whose sole aim was to provide the service to those who could use it.
The answer was “yes.”
So farmers in what would become Co-Mo Country got to work, visiting their neighbors and asking for the tough-to-swallow sum of $5 to join the new electric cooperative in this part of the country, the Central Missouri Electric Cooperative, based in Sedalia. Slowly but surely, the momentum built, and money came from Washington to help build the first section of line, in Pettis and Saline counties.
Organizers in Cooper, Moniteau, Morgan and Cole counties continued their efforts and were ready to see some action. There were enough interested members to start construction, but no money came from Washington to begin the work. After three long months of waiting, they finally heard: The original allocation of money given for construction in Pettis and Saline counties would have to be used to build at least 75 miles of line before a second allocation could be given.
The dream of rural electrification was suddenly so much further away.
But the REA representative who delivered the bad news had something positive for the folks in the four counties. If they would split off from Central Missouri Electric Cooperative and form their own co-op, an allocation of money to start construction could be received in as little as 10 days.
The leaders of the rural electrification movement in Cooper, Cole, Moniteau and Morgan counties jumped at the opportunity. They formed Co-Mo Electric Cooperative, the name coming from the first two letters of each of the four original counties, and within the next two weeks had an allocation of $342,000 to begin construction on the first lines.
On Dec. 24, 1939, Co-Mo energized its first section of line — in Cooper County — and brought a brighter Christmas to dozens of hopeful residents.
The people instrumental in the effort rejoiced with the members.
Jack Needy, the cooperative’s first general manager.
Tom Briscoe, the first board president.
Paul Doll, the university extension service’s Cooper County agent.
Vic Gray, the Moniteau County agent.
Wally Burger and countless others who believed in the dream.
It was a dream that continued to grow.
In 1956, one line worker and his assistant moved to Laurie so they could be closer to the growing number of consumers at the Lake of the Ozarks.
In 1991 the old cabin that had been used as the lake area office gave way to a new complex that was constructed between Laurie and Sunrise Beach on the east side of Highway 5.
And today, Co-Mo’s 80-or-so employees are housed in three buildings, the Tipton Headquarters and its nearby Operations Center, purchased in 2012, along with the Lake District office in Laurie. In 2010, the cooperative began a communications subsidiary, Co-Mo Comm, to provide Co-Mo Connect fiber-to-the-home Internet, TV and telephone service.
Co-Mo’s leaders never actively sought out the opportunity to get into a completely new line of work. Rather, the people asked for the service. For-profit companies that provided these communication services to cities around Co-Mo Country had no intention of extending them here. There simply were too few potential customers per square mile.
So Co-Mo and its members stepped up to make the project a reality. Fiber optics is coming. Fiber optics, the next generation of light, brought to the people by the people who would benefit from it.
If you live long enough, you truly will see history repeat itself.