HISTORY OF OCONTO ELECTRIC COOPERATIVE
Farmers in Oconto County were tired of living in the dark and spending long days doing manual labor. If electricity were available to farmers, motors, lights and appliances could make their lives so much easier. Investor-owned utilities (IOUs) primarily served large populated areas because they could serve a lot of people with a relatively small investment in material and equipment. Besides, everyone knew farmers couldn’t afford electricity even if it were available, or so the IOUs thought.
On May 5, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Administration, or what we all know as the REA. This administration provided loans to cooperatives for the purpose of electrifying the rural areas. Knowing this money was available, 12 men living in Oconto County got together on December 9, 1935, at the home of Oscar Gilbertson to begin their own electric cooperative. The names of these 12 men are, Oscar Gilbertson of Cecil, Otto Schreiber of Suring, William Procknow of Gillett, J.H. Bartz of Suring, Ewald Druckrey of Underhill, Earl Whiting of Gillett, Harry Heiden of Underhill, Christ Heaney of Oconto Falls, Albert & William Delzer of Oconto Falls, August Sommerfield of Gillett and Arthur Krause of Oconto Falls.
After their first meeting, they signed up 144 neighbors as members of the cooperative and drew up Articles of Incorporation. As people heard of the North Eastern Electric Cooperative, they signed up to become members, hoping to bring power to their own farms.
During this time, the five-member board of directors was working to get a loan from the REA. Originally, the loan request was for power to serve farms in the townships of Oconto Falls, Green Valley, Gillett, Maple Valley, Underhill and How. As more people clamored for power, a decision was made to expand the loan and the service territory. On January 18, 1937, the North Eastern Electric Cooperative relinquished its charter and the Oconto Electric Cooperative was born. In February of that year, a loan was approved from the REA for $290,000 to finance the construction of 305 miles of distribution lines in Oconto and Marinette counties to serve 1,000 members.
During all of this time, the IOUs realized that maybe they underestimated the rural folks and suddenly decided there was money to be made. By this time, however, the farmers were so angry at the IOUs that they wouldn’t have anything to do with them. IOUs would build lines in the middle of the night just to be able to take over some of the cooperative’s territory. These were known as “spite lines.”
The OEC board of directors and the membership persevered, but it wasn’t until October 13, 1937, that Oconto Electric’s first 75 miles of distribution lines were completed and energized. Power was purchased from the Union Falls Manufacturing Company, and the first wholesale power bill that OEC paid was for $46.52. OEC’s power bill for August 2001 was $240,616.00.
OEC currently has 1,423 miles of lines serving over 9,600 members.