The world was very different 75 years ago. The Interstate Highway System was little more than an idea and manned spaceflight remained two decades in the making when C.B. Cannon, chairman of the Rural Electrification Committee, became the lead organizer for a small utilities company in Laurens County, S.C.
Established in 1939 as a co-op, Laurens Electric has remained a customer-owned utility for more than seven decades. A co-op is distinguished by its democratic governance and the return of any profits to its members through capital credits.
With a loan of $224,000 from the Rural Electrification Administration, the Laurens Electric co-op began with a membership of 760 rural customers. At the time, the average monthly usage per member was a mere 40 kilowatt-hours.
“From the very first board meeting in May of 1939, things rolled pretty fast,” said utility spokesman Jim Donahoo.
During the 1930s, only 10 percent of the nation’s rural residents had power because it was not profitable for investor-owned utilities to provide electricity beyond the urban areas. As a result, co-ops were set up for rural communities to get power.
“The company’s initial co-op was made up of local farmers and rural residents in need of power,” Donahoo said.
Laurens Electric’s first employee, Alyce Jacobs, was hired in 1939 as a stenographer for a monthly salary of $65, while the company’s first lineman, L.J. Castles, was hired that same year.
By 1944, the same year as the D-Day invasion, Laurens Electric had grown to include eight employees, three vehicles, and 1,800 members. The utility would continue to grow following World War II, opening its first main office in Laurens on Greenville Road in 1946.
Four years later, members began receiving the South Carolina Cooperative News, which later became S.C. Living Magazine.
During the 1950s and ’60s, Laurens Electric began using its first logo, Willie the Wirehand. The company logo would change in the 1970s and 1980s, and again in the 1990s and 2000s, until its current logo today.
By the end of the 1950s, Laurens Electric had ballooned to more than 7,500 members, 29 employees, and 1,900 miles of wire, providing an average monthly usage of 354 kilowatt-hours.
The company’s first bucket truck was purchased in 1965 as its membership continued to grow, expanding to 10,900 customers. The five-digit membership required more than 2,000 miles of wire to provide an average monthly usage of 540 kilowatt-hours.
Lewis Harrison, the current board chairman, joined the utility’s board in 1967.
“Although a lot has changed over the last 75 years, our purpose has not,” Harrison said. “We are still owned by the people we serve, and all margins (profit) are still returned to the membership, making our intentions just as pure today as they were in 1939: to serve the best interests of our membership and community.”
Agreed Donahoo, “We are not interested in a return to shareholders; we are interested in getting power to the people who need it. We are still owned by the people we serve.”
Laurens Electric opened a branch office in Mauldin in 1975, while welcoming its current president and CEO, David Wasson.
“When I reflect back on the history of the co-op and my years here, the incredible relationship with the communities we serve stands out,” Wasson said. “The fact this relationship has remained consistent throughout our 75-year history is even more incredible, and it is one of the key factors that sets us apart to this day.”
The birth of the 1980s saw a first for the company and its members as Laurens Electric began reading meters for the first time. Prior to 1981, members read their own meters and sent the information to the company for a bill.
“Members operated on an honor system,” Donahoo said.
Innovation remained the theme of the company into the next decade as Laurens Electric created its first website in 1998, joined Touchstone Energy that same year, and implemented its first drive-by automated meter reading in 1999.
By 2013, Laurens Electric would include 53,000 members, 147 employees, and 6,366 miles of line.
Since 1939, Laurens Electric has seen very few policy changes, but has done so when the environmental trends demand it.
“In the company’s early years, it was important to sell power and increase usage,” Donahoo said. “Now, as energy efficiency and renewable energy becomes more important, we focus on managing power.”
In 2014, Laurens Electric is celebrating its 75th anniversary with a community initiative called “75 Acts of Kindness.”
A committee of cooperative employees will review requests for the Acts of Kindness and award up to $500 for specific projects or needs to 75 different recipients throughout the year, totaling nearly $40,000.