Early History of the Cooperative
Up in the rugged North Country of Minnesota, with its northern boundary formed by beautiful Lake of the Woods and the fast-flowing Rainy River, North Star Electric Cooperative traces its history back to the winter months of 1940.
It was a time when war clouds were looming up black and menacing on the horizon. Far-thinking men could see the impact it would have on the United States and they knew time alone would tell when the advance of rural electrification would be halted by wartime emergencies and shortages. Sparked by the efforts of two county agents – George Berggren of Lake of the Woods County and R.E. McMillen of Koochiching County – a small group of determined men in each of these counties began laying the groundwork for rural electric systems. Only a few farmers living in this northern area really believed they could ever be served by a rural electric system. For years, they had heard how the power companies were refusing to serve rural regions – even in the more densely populated areas of southern Minnesota.
“If they figure it wouldn’t pay to serve farmers in that area,” many skeptics pointed out, “how in the world could a farmer organization make it pay out?”
It seemed like a logical question to many doubting Thomases in the area. And, for that matter, the skepticism wasn’t limited to the farmers and townspeople. There was even some doubt in the minds of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) officials regarding the probability of this Cooperative ever solving its many problems. However, they kept those doubts to themselves.
Border Electric Cooperative – The Beginning
The group promoting the rural electric systems in Koochiching County was the first of the two county organizations to incorporate. Meeting at International Falls March 7, 1940, the Koochiching County men listened attentively to an explanation of the rural electrification program. County Agent R.E. McMillen of International Falls had taken an active part in laying the groundwork for the meeting. Through his efforts, a group of farmers turned out for the discussion. Charles Clark, a Hubbard County attorney, was present and gave some helpful legal advice.
Much of the work required to get the Border Electric Cooperative into operation had fallen upon the shoulders of those who had signed the articles of incorporation. Einar Johnson of Ericsburg had been elected president; Elmer Petrell, Ray, vice president; L. Roy Lutz, International Falls, secretary; and Almer W. Palas, International Falls, treasurer. The board of directors included Norman Clementson of Clementson, Charles Noack of Ray, Norris K. Cline of Kabetogama, Albert Dobbs of Indus and Andrew Grazin of Border. M.M. Abbott of International Falls was hired as the attorney.
By May 11, over 200 members had been signed up. The big problem facing the officers and directors of the Border Electric Cooperative was that of getting a suitable source of power. This required obtaining a contract for power from a source able to meet present, as well as future, needs of consumers. In addition, the wholesale price had to be approved by REA officials in Washington before a contract could be signed.
Border Electric Cooperative’s board of directors always had assumed they would secure a favorable contract for wholesale power from the generating plant of the Minnesota and Ontario Paper Company (Mando) in International Falls. This proved to be a mistake on their part. Officials of the paper firm learned that the generating capacity required by the new cooperative was more than they had to spare and so informed Border Electric. This caused real consternation among the officers and directors. All too well they knew that without a source of wholesale power willing to sell them electricity at a reasonable price, their Cooperative was doomed.
Border Electric Cooperative was housed in the Baehr building in International Falls. At the first annual meeting held October 14, 1941, the Border Electric Cooperative had 471 members. A short time later, Border officers and directors were jubilant over a telegram notifying them that REA officials had approved an allocation of $107,000 for construction of distribution lines. Karl Shell of International Falls was hired as project coordinator for Border Electric. The contract for the first section of line was let February 12, 1941, with Franzen Brothers the successful bidder.
North Star Electric Cooperative
Meanwhile, North Star Electric Cooperative was organized through the efforts of George Berggren, Lake of the Woods county agent at Spooner (now merged with Baudette). A mass meeting was held June 23, 1940, upstairs in the Spooner auditorium with Steve Gadler, representing the Division of Rural Electrification, State Department of Agriculture as the principal speaker. The minutes reveal that more than 300 people attended this meeting with Norman Clementson, A.N. Grems, Andrew Grazin, Chris Christensen, Willima Rivard, Nels Hallberg, Albert Gillie, Peter Sorensen, Edgar Bratton, Emil Ramberg and Joe Rowell becoming incorporators.
Norman Clementson was elected president, William Rivard as vice president, A.N. Grems as secretary and Edgar Bratton as treasurer. Frank Timm was named attorney and a membership fee of $5.00 was voted with a minimum of $3.50 for 40 kWh was agreed upon for each consumer.
Oddly enough, that minimum of $3.50 per month for electricity was to cause many people to postpone becoming members of the electric cooperative. It seemed like an unreasonably large sum to have to pay for electricity since most farmers figured they would be using electricity only for lighting their homes and possibly their barns. The prospect of someday owning scores of electrical appliances was quite remote from the minds of most members.
The directors deliberated over a selection of project coordinators. Mr. Clarence Peterson of Pitt, accepted the position with the stipulation he begin work July 24, 1940 at a salary of $100 per month. North Star got its initial allocation of $196,000 approved January 30, 1941, with the understanding it would get its power from the municipal power plant at Baudette. Bids for building the first section of North Star’s lines were let February 13, 1941,with E.W. Wiley as the contractor.
Sears Roebuck & Co. was awarded a contract to do the wiring of farms homes and buildings. Both the North Star and Border systems were among the several in northern Minnesota who were designated as “self help” projects. Members were given an opportunity to work on clearing and other construction jobs to help pay for the wiring of their farms and homes. This proved to be of great help to the members but was a nightmare to the coordinators or foremen. Charged with the responsibility for arranging for crews, they had trouble finding enough men when nice weather made haying or other farm work equally important to the members.
The vexing problem of a suitable source of power continued to haunt both systems.
Border Counties Power Cooperative
The solution finally came when representatives of three neighboring electric cooperatives, North Star Electric, Border Electric, and Roseau Electric, met and formulated plans to construct a generating plant at Warroad. This resulted in formation of the Border Counties Power Cooperative with Einar Bergen as the manager. Plans called for installation of three 350 kW engines first with room for future expansion to add two more 1000 kW units. A booster plant to be constructed elsewhere was also in the plan.
The power cooperative was allocated $315,000 for the construction of the two plants. Work was started on the project February 12, 1941 – ten months before the attack on Pearl Harbor at Honolulu was to plunge the United States in to the thick of World War II.
A nine-man board of directors was appointed to govern the operations of the generating plant. North Star’s representatives on the board were William Rivard, Chris Christensen and Peter Sorensen. Border named as its directors Einar Johnson, Neil Watson and Albert Dobbs, while Roseau appointed William Wilson, Albert Brandt and Jalmer Wellen.
The Two Merge Into One
Before long, it was apparent that a consolidation of Border Electric and North Star Electric would be in the best interests of both cooperatives. Two-thirds of the memberships of both cooperatives had given their written consent to the merger March 15, 1943, and this union was effected. At a meeting held the next day, it was decided that Peter Sorensen, Chris Christensen, Norman Clementson and A.N. Grems would be the representatives from the North Star board and Melvin Johnson, Adolph Hartje, Einar Johsnon and A.W. Palas from the Border board. Emil Ramberg was picked as the ninth member.
The first manager of North Star Electric Cooperative was Charles H. Carl of Bismarck, North Dakota, hired on March 2, 1943, at a salary of $175 per month.
During World War II, North Star Electric was in the wiring business. The crew would wire houses and build line.
During the war the farm people would have to have so many cows, chickens, hogs or sheep to get a line built into their farm place. They were called “animal points”. One cow, 75 chickens or three hogs would be required to build 100 feet of line. Rumors have it that the cows changed hands to get the animal points, to have line constructed during the war years. North Star did not get started in building many lines until 1946.
Littlefork Links Up
On March 15, 1944, Mr. Melvin Johnson gave a report on the probability of purchasing the power plant and distribution system in the village of Littlefork, Minnesota. This purchase in the amount of $29,999 was approved on August 14, 1945.
Service Quality Improved
On May 14, 1946, there was a delegation of members that appeared before the Board of Directors stating that voltage variation was from 125 volts in the daytime and 85 volts in the evening, and fluctuation voltage was causing damage to electrical equipment. Members of the Cooperative were buying light plants and disconnecting service from North Star Electric to save their refrigeration equipment. The load on the east end had grown about 33% from 1945 to 1946.
A discussion was held with the Manager from Border Counties Power Cooperative and in May 1946, a 60 KW portable generator was installed at Lake Kabetogama and operated during the peak load hours to improve the service.
Also in May of 1946 a new three-phase line was constructed from the Border Counties Power Plant in Littlefork to one mile west of the junction of highways 11 and 71. The line was tied into Border Counties, fed from Warroad, and operating in parallel so it also brought the voltage up on the east end of the project. In September of 1946, a 150 kW diesel plant was paralleled with Border Counties Power Coop.
In April of 1947, North Star Electric began construction on 313 miles of line to serve 500 new members, and to improve service to 350 members who were not receiving adequate electric service.
The first item on the agenda was to build 18 miles of three-phase line from Littlefork to Ray to improve the voltage at the Lake Kabetogama end of the system. This line was completed and Border Counties Power Co-op installed another 1540 kW Budda diesel plus two 60 kW, GM diesels to operate in parallel with Border Counties. This brought the voltage up around Littlefork as long as Littlefork and Border Counties were paralleled. But if a fault occurred and the breaker tripped out, the voltages would drop to 95 volts.
A meeting was held with Border Counties Power Cooperative, and they agreed to build a new generating plant at Littlefork scheduled to be on line in November 1947.
The construction of lines continued around the Littlefork area. Some of the townships that were connected to North Star were: Lindford, Forsythe, Jameson, Meadow Brook, Cingmars, Nett River Dentaybow, and Cross River – all in Koochiching County.
The Baudette crews were busy building line to Haycreek, north and south of Williams, south of Baudette to the Carp area, Black River, and south of Pitt.
In the winter of 1948, a line was constructed to Rainy Lake and Black Bay. This line was completed in April of 1948. The distribution system in the Village of Littlefork was completely rebuilt during the spring and summer of 1948. Mr. Charles H. Carl resigned a Manager of North Star Electric as of April 30, 1948, and Mr. Gordon Farel accepted the position of General Manager as of May 1, 1948. Mr. Farel continued as General Manager for over 26 years until his retirement.
On December 14, 1948, a discussion was held regarding the need for a transmission line and a substation in the vicinity of Pitt, as recommended by the Engineer. Points brought out in the discussion were: low voltage problems especially evident toward the extremities of the area and the desire of members over the whole system to expand their consumption.
Big Falls and Margie Join the Ranks
On November 4, 1950, the Board approved the joint purchase of Croswell Power Company of Big Falls, Minnesota. North Star Electric would purchase the distribution system and Border Counties would purchase the generation station.
Border Counties Power Merges with Minnkota Power Cooperative
A joint meeting was held with North Star Electric Cooperative and Roseau Electric Cooperative to discuss the alternatives for increasing the capacity of Border Counties Power Cooperative, and specifically the possibility of integrating Border counties Power Coop with Minnkota Power Cooperative to insure the most economical and reliable power possible at all times. Integration with Minnkota Power was approved by the board in September 1955. Manager Farel reported he had been to a membership meeting of Minnkota Power Cooperative on December 20, 1955, at which North Star Electric and Roseau Electric Cooperatives were accepted as members of Minnkota. At the March 27, 1956, board meeting the contract was signed to become a member.
Citizens Utilities Splits the Blanket
By February 1958, Citizens Utilities had been sold to North Star Electric and Roseau Electric and service boundaries were established. Now consumers between Williams and Warroad were North Star Electric Cooperative members.
Today North Star Electric Cooperative serves over 5,400 members (more than 6,500 accounts) with 1,444 miles of distribution line in Lake of the Woods, Koochiching, St. Louis and Roseau Counties. There is an average of 4.5 accounts on each mile of line. Over 100 million kWh’s are sold annually. The average monthly residential consumption is 1,500 kWh per year-round member. The residential fixed charge is $42 per month. North Star’s average residential rate per kWh is lower than the average rate charged by cooperatives, investor-owned utilities, and municipal systems in Minnesota and across the country.
Over 80 years after incorporation North Star Electric Cooperative continues to serve the needs of its members. Cooperatives are owned by those it serves, controlled by those it serves, and dedicated to those it serves.
At your service we remain…