Most rural electric cooperatives got their starts with a group of civic-minded farmers who simply wanted electricity for their rural homes and farms. Wayne-White Counties Electric Cooperative has a history that’s a little different. WWCEC owes its beginning to a group of small-town business leaders who joined together in 1935 and 1936 to bring electricity to the small communities of Wayne and White counties.
George Deem of Geff, Waldorf Springer of Springerton, and C.W. “Charlie” McCullough of Fairfield were three of those leaders who helped to get Wayne-White Counties Electric onto its feet. Deem and Springer were small town businessmen. Deem ran a feed store in Geff, where he bought cream, chickens, and eggs from nearby farmers. He also sold insurance and served as Geff’s village clerk. Springer operated a general store, complete with gas pumps, in Springerton. McCullough served as the city engineer in Fairfield.
Deem and the others got the ball rolling in 1935 after reading about the formation of the Rural Electrification Administration. He wrote a letter to REA asking for more information, and days later, a stranger in a dusty government car came rolling into Geff. C.O. Falkenwald, an REA field representative, would help Wayne-White leaders establish one of the first co-ops in Illinois. “Charlie” Falkenwald would later go on to help start electric cooperatives across southern and central Illinois.
The meeting was held April 16, 1936, in Fairfield. The makeup of this group was different from others forming electric co-ops around the country, but then this cooperative was to be different. The leaders of this co-op were the small-town businessmen. They included Deem, the feed store owner; Springer, the general store owner; E.R. Martin of Burnt Prairie, who owned a hardware store; H.G. French of Mill Shoals, who farmed and owned a grain elevator; Wes Barth, general store owner from Enterprise; L.M. King, Mill Shoals produce dealer; J.C. Bestow, a Geff bridge builder; Irvin Yohe, a livestock broker from Mt. Erie; and Ray Baker from Sims, a barber and dry cleaning operator. The nine-man slate was elected by acclamation at the meeting. Officers included E.R. Martin, president; L.W. Springer, vice president; L.M. King, treasurer; and Ray Baker, secretary.
The group faced many challenges right from the start. Controversy blossomed from another unlikely source – the Wayne County Farm Bureau. Some farm leaders were unhappy that all the incorporating directors came from the small towns, with no farmers represented on the board. The Farm Bureau requested that at least two farmers be placed on the board. On September 22, Ray Baker and J.C. Bestow resigned from the board at a special meeting and Frank Gray of Sims and Allen Towns of Jeffersonville replaced them.
Edgar Amrine, the Wayne County extension adviser who would later move on to a similar role across the state where he helped initiate Monroe County Electric, took an early leadership role in the organization. Amrine chaired early information meetings for prospective members, encouraging farmers and others to sign up. By mid-August of 1936 nearly 1,000 families and businesses had signed up for service. By mid-1936 Wayne-White leaders had signed up enough members to move ahead. The co-op applied for an REA loan of $175,000, which got caught up in REA’s bottleneck of loads and was “pigeon-holed somewhere in Washington,” recalled Vera Greathouse, longtime office employee. Fairfield businessman H.G. Ferguson made a trip to Washington to resolve the issue and the loan was finally approved on September 14, 1936.
That evening in Fairfield the original directors of the co-op were named as incorporators. Hugh Dobbs of Springfield was selected as co-op attorney, J.C. Cooney of Belleville was named engineer and McCullough was named as project superintendent. McCullough and Fairfield Mayor Jerd Smith promoted the idea of Fairfield serving as the co-op's supplier of wholesale power from the city’s power plant.
This plan sparked resentment at first from some in Fairfield. The city’s newspaper reported that the co-op would buy at the wholesale rate of 1 1/3 cents per kilowatt-hour, while Fairfield consumers were paying about 7 cents/kWh, according to the article. Despite the opposition, the city council approved an ordinance allowing the municipal plant to supply the new cooperative with power.
In early October of that year the line construction phase began, bringing hope and the first lights to the country. Six firms bid on the initial project – part of the original “A” section, with C.R. Cento of Decatur winning with a bid of $53,941 for 75 miles of lines. In February, the Porter-DeWitt Construction Company of Kirkwood, Missouri, won the remainder of the project – 100 miles of line for $81,352.31.
The initial lines were energized on November 16, 1937, bringing service to more than 900 Wayne-White members. The highly anticipated event was scheduled for 2 p.m. and Bill Endicott, a youngster at the time who would later work his entire career for the cooperative, including many years as general manager, recalled the interest and fascination that many people shared. “There was one member who lived about 20 miles from where we were energizing lines. They called about noon and wanted to know what time the electricity would reach their homes if the lines would be energized 20 miles away at 2 p.m.”
Electricians and co-op linemen were connecting services as quickly as possible, with contractors working at breakneck speed to build new lines. By March 1938, six months after construction started, some 500 members were in service, with more added to the list every week.
Chaney managed the co-op through its years of swift and steady growth during the 1950s and 60s. He recalled the “surge” of requests for service following the war. “During the early years we had to solicit people to become members. Once the war was over, our big problem was taking care of the insistent demands for electric service. It was impossible to satisfy everybody.”
Fairfield has been the location of the cooperative’s headquarters since its beginnings. Over the years Wayne-White has had three headquarter facilities. The first office was on the second floor of the Elliot Building on the downtown square. By 1942 the cooperative had outgrown this site, moving to the Oil Exchange Building on East Court Street and storing materials and trucks across the street. During the early 1950s the co-op was growing so rapidly that the staff quickly outgrew the downtown location. That’s when plans were drawn to move to headquarters on Fairfield’s west side.
The headquarters was completed in 1953, with 12,000 square feet of office and warehouse space in the initial facility. During this era the cooperative attained area coverage throughout its 11-county service territory. Nearly every member who wanted electricity now had access to it, Endicott said.
Wayne-White Electric’s source of wholesale power during the formative years of the 1940s, 50s and 60s was Central Illinois Public Service Co. CIPS took over as the power supplier after it quickly became apparent that the Fairfield municipal plant would be unable to fulfill the co-ops growing energy demands.
Sam Miller, longtime operations superintendent and later general manager, recalled that the co-op originally had several metering connections with CIPS, with the initial cooperative-owned substations at Carmi and Albion. In the early days CIPS was willing to let the cooperatives serve the rural consumers, Miller said. But later, as business established and grew in our area, they wanted to serve those customers.
Eventually, service area squabbles that were taking place across the state helped lead to passage of the Electric Suppliers Act in 1965. Following passage of the ESA, Wayne-White and CIPS filed territory maps with the Illinois Commerce Commission that still define service areas for both power suppliers.
Like most other electric cooperatives in the state, Wayne-White Counties Electric found itself with a power supply crisis in the early 1960s when CIPS drastically increased wholesale rates and tightened its power supply terms. During the late 1960s and early 70s, the investor-owned utility even threatened to end power sales to Wayne-White and the other cooperatives it served.
In 1963, Wayne-White and four other southern Illinois cooperatives (Clay, Tri-County, Clinton County and Southwestern) formed Illinois Southern Central Power Cooperative. South Central was formed to build a power plant near Carlyle Lake, however the project never got off the ground. Wayne-White became a member of Soyland Power Cooperative in 1975.
Many cooperatives struggled with rising power costs during the 1980s and early 1990s and in 1999 the cooperative’s leaders made the decision to buy out of its obligation to Soyland Power. The co-op then began receiving its wholesale power from Entergy, a Louisiana investor-owned utility.
In 2005, under the management of Rick Colgan, the co-op entered into a low-cost contract with Constellation Energy. Wayne-White became a full purchasing member of Hoosier Energy Cooperative in Bloomington, Indiana after the contract with Constellation Energy ended in 2010.
Wayne-White Counties Electric annual meetings have been major events for many years – dating back to the 1950s when the meetings were held outdoors in large tents. During the early years the annual meeting would be an all-day event, stretching into the evening with live entertainment, usually country and western singers like Tex Montana or Lulu Belle and Scotty. In 1973, Kathy Harris (Land) of Fairfield (pictured above) was Miss Wayne-White Counties Electric. She went on to win the state competition at the annual meeting of the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives, as well as the national contest at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association annual meeting in San Francisco.
Today, Wayne-White Electric has over 10,000 members on over 3,200 miles of line. Our 51 employees help provide service to parts of 11 counties in Southern Illinois. We have seen many changes in our over 86 years as an electric cooperative, but one thing remains the same: our dedication to providing affordable and reliable electric service to you: our members.