By Jackie Kennedy

The history of Diverse Power Incorporated, a member-owned electric cooperative headquartered in LaGrange, Ga., is closely linked with the history of all the nation’s rural electric cooperatives. For it was within Diverse Power’s service territory in central west Georgia that President Franklin D. Roosevelt first became aware of the overwhelming need for affordable electric service in rural America.

Truly, Roosevelt endeared himself to Georgians. He continued his speech with the following words, which have been quoted countless times in promoting Warm Springs, the Little White House and Georgia’s EMCs:

“There was only one discordant note in that first stay of mine at Warm Springs: when the first-of-the-month bill came in for electric light for my little cottage, I found that the charge was 18 cents a kilowatt-hour about four times as much as I paid in Hyde Park, New York. That started my long study of proper public utility charges for electric current and the whole subject of getting electricity into farm homes. So, it can be said that a little cottage at Warm Springs, Georgia, was the birthplace of the Rural Electrification Administration.”

It was Roosevelt himself who linked the country’s rural electrification program to his adopted hometown of Warm Springs, Ga. In an August 11, 1938, speech at Gordon Military College in Barnesville, Roosevelt spoke at the dedication of Lamar Electric Membership Corporation (now Southern Rivers Energy). His comments there immortalized the impact the president’s connection with rural Georgia had in illuminating the nation’s farms and country back roads. “Fourteen years ago, a Democratic Yankee came to a neighboring county in your state in search of a pool of warm water wherein he might swim his way back to health,” Roosevelt said before a crowd of 20,000 that summer day. “The place, Warm Springs, was a rather dilapidated, small summer resort. His new neighbors extended to him the hand of genuine hospitality, welcomed him to their firesides and made him feel so much at home that he built himself a house, bought himself a farm, and has been coming back ever since.”

The Mountville connection

Upon hearing those words from the president, O.R. Caudle, a founder of Diverse Power, might have smiled to himself and thought: “Yes, and there we were, the future president and me, not even 20 miles away, discussing the need for electricity in the country all those years back, in front of my store that day he stopped for a cola.”

It’s an oft-told story that serves as the seed from which Diverse Power sprouted. Caudle believed that at least part of the impetus for FDR’s push for rural electricity was due to a chance encounter the two had in the 1920s.

One spring morning, a few years after opening his business, Caudle was sitting in front of his Mountville drugstore with Virgil Hardy, Douglas Williamson, Hubert Humphries, and his sister, Elizabeth Hogg.

“Everyone else was farming,” Caudle wrote in a history he prepared for the local co-op in 1969.

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Enjoying the warm breeze of springtime in Georgia, the five noticed an A-model Ford top the hill, coming from LaGrange in their direction. Cars were still a novelty in the mid-1920s, and to add to the novelty, this one had a wheelchair tied to the back.

“It came to a stop in front of my store and the driver asked if he could get a Coca-Cola,” Caudle recalled. “He said he was Roosevelt from Warm Springs, Georgia, and was coming from LaGrange where he had addressed a civic club.”

A cola was retrieved for the thirsty traveler and, while Roosevelt was drinking his Coke, Virgil Hardy noticed a tire going flat on the Model-A. When Roosevelt asked if anyone there could repair the tire, the men gladly obliged.

“He opened the door of his car and put his feet out on the running board and talked with us as we fixed the tire,” Caudle wrote. “He noticed we were pumping the tire with a hand pump and asked if we had ever tried to get electricity.”

The answer was a simple, “No.”

Roosevelt must have been as bewildered at the store’s lack of electricity as the storeowner and his friends were at the sight of a wheelchair strapped to the back of the Ford. A conversation ensued, with the ambitious New Yorker telling the Southerners he thought electricity should be everywhere that it would be a good thing for the country and would eventually pay off for everyone. He remarked that it was a shame that the rural people did not have electricity and that something ought to be done about it.

Before he left, Roosevelt encouraged Caudle to contact Georgia Power Company, to inquire about extension of power lines into the rural community. Caudle did just that, but the venture was deemed cost prohibitive and the matter was dropped. In the meantime, Roosevelt’s visits to Caudle’s store in Mountville continued.

“We didn’t think anything of Mr. Roosevelt stopping by my store to get a Coca-Cola,” wrote Caudle. “He did it often.”

Those visits, however, became less frequent after Roosevelt became governor of New York and then, president of the United States. But he didn’t forget the Mountville storeowner. One day, the then-president sent Caudle special words of encouragement by way of Virgil Hardy, who had gone to Warm Springs to do carpentry work for FDR, who urged Caudle “not to give up We would get electricity yet.”

And they eventually did, about two years after Roosevelt signed the bill creating the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) on May 11, 1935.

Forming the local co-op

According to Caudle’s history, it was in either April or May of 1936 when Troup County Extension Agent John Anderson accompanied M.O. Swanson, an REA representative from Washington D.C., into Caudle’s store. “He wanted to know what we had done about electricity in Mountville,” the storeowner recalled. “I told him we had not gotten anywhere with it.”
Swanson, the REA’s first chief engineer, asked Caudle to meet with him and others interested in the electric program the next afternoon. Swanson, Anderson and Caudle, along with about 25 others, gathered at the Troup County Court House the next day. With a promise from Washington D.C. that loans would be made available to cooperative groups seeking to electrify their communities, those gathered elected H.H. Greene of West Point as chairman of the loosely organized group. Within a few weeks, a petition for incorporation was filed in the Office of the Clerk of Superior Court. Caudle was at the courthouse that day on June 11, 1936, accompanying Attorney Render Terrell as he applied for the charter.

“One or two people laughed at him, for they didn’t think we would ever be granted a charter and if so, it would never work,” Caudle recalled.

But on July 9, 1936, the charter was granted and the new cooperative was named Troup County Rural Electrification Corporation. (In January 1938, the name was changed to Troup County Electric Membership Corporation; eventually “County” was dropped and Troup Electric Membership Corporation was the name it went by until 2002 when the co-op became Diverse Power Incorporated.)

The co-op’s first legal meeting was held the next day, on Friday, July 10, 1936. Seven directors were elected, including E.P. Cook who was named president; Grady Market, secretary and treasurer; and Paul A. Potts, vice president. Other directors were J.W. Combs, H.H. Greene, F.M. Freeman and Caudle. The contract for the first 76.7 miles was officially let on October 28, 1936.

Convincing the community

Between the times the charter was granted and electricity was switched on, the rural folks of Troup County had to be convinced the project would work. Caudle’s memories coincide with recollections of other rural electric pioneers across the nation who encountered much the same response from their neighbors as they sought easements in order to run electric lines. In his own words, Caudle relates the opinions of the day, the mood and attitude of the mid-1930s in Troup County as he and other co-op representatives struggled to light up the rural roadsides:

“Each director did his part, driving up and down the then-unpaved roads getting easements and membership fees’ The late Julian Jones Sr. and I would take a sack of sandwiches and get in my Model car and work hard all day trying to get people to sign applications and right-of-way easements’ I recall going to one farmer while he was plowing. We told him what we wanted to do and asked him if he would sign an easement. He sat down on his plow and signed it, then asked us when would he get electricity. Very few times were we that lucky.”

Often, it seemed, the fierce independence of country folk produced skepticism in government projects and newfangled technology. The ladies, according to Caudle, were less skeptical, realizing that electric power would allow them to retire their scrub boards, wood stoves and kerosene lanterns. Others, though, feared electricity might burn down their homes.

“Some days we would get very blue, ready to give up,” Caudle recalled. “I remember what one very old man told me once. ‘Son,’ he said, ‘as long as you have God Almighty and the women folks back of you, go ahead.’ We were sure about the women but not too sure about the other party.”

The directors plowed on, though, and by mid-January of 1937, all right-of-way easements had been signed. Line construction already had begun on Mountville Road and, with all easements secured, pole and line placement could continue, full speed ahead.

In March, the EMC hired its first manager, J.K. Jones, and paid him $30 a week. At the March board meeting, a committee from Gray Hill approached the directors with a map showing easements covering close to seven miles of new lines they wanted built. At the April meeting, more citizens came asking the directors to build lines leading to their farms. All of a sudden, everyone wanted to get in on the action, even those who had earlier resisted.

On May 6, 1937, the first switch for rural electricity in Troup County was flipped, and electric power lines west of LaGrange were energized, almost two years to the day after FDR enacted the REA. In appreciation of the co-op’s tireless efforts, Fuller E. Callaway, the local textile magnate, treated Troup EMC directors to a steak supper at his boathouse on Country Club Road that night.

Thirty-two years later, Caudle, still serving on the board of directors, marveled at how the co-op not only had survived-but also had thrived. In 1969, he couldn’t help but tout the local cooperative he had worked so hard to make viable: “They told us years ago it was not practical, that it would never work.”

Caudle, and west Georgia’s other rural electric pioneers, had proved them wrong.

Local legacy

On April 12, 1995, close to 6,000 people joined President Bill Clinton in Warm Springs to remember FDR on the 50th anniversary of his death. Held on the front lawn at The Little White House, the annual commemorative ceremony featured an address by President Clinton and speeches by former President Jimmy Carter and former Atlanta mayor and ambassador Andrew Young.

But it was Anne Roosevelt, the Depression-era president’s granddaughter, who spoke of how important it was to her family to be in Warm Springs that day, at the west Georgia retreat her grandfather sought from the pressures of Washington, D.C., and home of the soothing warm waters that comforted the polio patient.

Here, we’ve heard some wonderful stories of our grandfather and we’ve seen the simplicity and earthiness of his ideas, Anne Roosevelt said that day; chief among those ideas was FDR’s work to bring electricity to the countryside. She addressed mostly residents of Warm Springs and west Georgia when she added: “We who bear his name by birth do not own his legacy. You do.”

In her own way that day, FDR’s granddaughter recognized Warm Springs as the birthplace of rural electricity, just as the president had, decades before.

At Diverse Power, we continue to provide power throughout the same countryside that first attracted Roosevelt’s attention to his neighbors’ need for electric power.

It was here in Meriwether, Harris, Troup, Heard, Coweta and Muscogee counties that FDR traveled in his roadster, greeting farmers and forming ideas for his New Deal policies, including establishing rural electricity.

It is here in these same communities and in Quitman, Randolph, Clay, Calhoun and parts of Early, Stewart and Terrell counties in Southwest, GA. Chambers County, AL as well, that Diverse Power continues to serve the electric-related needs of our neighbors.

 

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Together, we’re bringing energy to life. Diverse Power is more than just your electric company, we’re your neighbor. A member-owned cooperative, we’re delivering advanced technology, service and quality to homes and businesses in the counties we serve.

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LaGrange, GA 30241

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