DEMCO celebrates 75th Anniversary
Holden resident Foster Roberts remembers the excitement his family experienced when word came that DEMCO was bringing electrical power out to the rural farms, fields and tiny hamlets located between Baton Rouge and Hammond.
Roberts, 83, has vivid memories of those days back in 1945 during his senior year in high school when his father put him to work helping prepare the old family home to receive power for the first time. The job required running wires throughout the structure, installing switches and putting the meter pan in place on an outside wall.
"He had all the know-how and I did all the dirty work," Roberts chuckles as he recalls tackling the project with his namesake.
Once all the hard work was done and a DEMCO lineman came by to connect the home to the growing cooperative's electric distribution grid, the elder Roberts decided to have a little fun.
A farmer and World War I veteran with a sharp sense of humor, Roberts hatched a plan to surprise his wife when she got home from her commute working the day shift at a shipping company in Baton Rouge. He made sure to have all the lights on when she arrived before nightfall and told his three boys to keep mum. She stepped in the house, and out of habit she grabbed the coal oil lamp off the top of the upright piano in the living room and went about her usual routine with lamp in hand until long after dark.
Roberts and his three boys got a good laugh.
"We followed her around the house from room to room giggling at her because she didn't realize the lights were on. It took her a while before she realized she didn't need to carry that lamp around anymore," the junior Roberts remembered.
The day the power arrived in the Holden community was a turning point in the lives of the Roberts family, a scene repeated many times over for thousands of people throughout the area as DEMCO experienced a rapid rate of expansion that has continued unabated during the past 75 years.
The scenario remembered by Roberts was made possible by the work of the founding visionaries of Dixie Electric, who used the establishment of the federal Rural Electrification Administration (REA) in 1936 as a means of forming a cooperative business and receiving a low-interest loan to construct a system of poles and lines designed to serve those rural residents who were still in the dark.
Even though urban and suburban dwellers in New Orleans and Baton Rouge were enjoying the modern convenience of electricity at that time, those rural residents living in the country were deprived of power by for-profit, investor-owned utilities that knew very well there was no money to be made in serving sparsely populated, low-density areas. Consequently, at the time the REA was formed, only 2 percent of Louisiana's rural population had electricity.
But that soon changed as community leaders living in small towns and on farms all across the state began to take matters into their own hands by holding organizational meetings, applying for REA loans and going door-to-door to collect $5 memberships and gather all the capital needed to begin the construction process. This year will mark the creation dates of six of the state's member-owned electric cooperatives, as well as hundreds across the nation.
DEMCO received its official charter as a non-trading corporation on Aug. 9, 1938 and acquired its first loan from the REA for $309,000 on April 1, 1939. The loan money was used to build the first 362 miles of power line serving 1,311 members in East Baton Rouge, East Feliciana and Livingston parishes. One of the most historic events in DEMCO's history was the energizing of its first lines on Dec. 20, 1939.
Among those in attendance for that life-changing event were pioneer board members Philander Smith, president; Mrs. Joe W. Annison Sr., vice-president; Leander D. Hooper, secretary-treasurer; J. Frank Millican, Mrs. James E. Robertson, William J. Wicker and S.S. Lipscomb. The first manager was Ellis B. Thompson.
That first momentous year, DEMCO members used about 43 kilowatt hours of power per month and paid an average bill of $3.6 — or about 7.3 cents a kWh. DEMCO had 18 employees with an annual payroll of $12,081.98 and four service vehicles.
Today, DEMCO serves more than 100,000 meters over seven parishes and 9,600 miles of power lines while employing 225 workers along with many more contractor crews.
"It was a very humble beginning," said Henry Locklar, longtime general manager and CEO. "When it first got started, the new corporation existed only on paper. It had no employees, office, stationery, supplies, equipment or money. Had the incorporators realized the enormous task they were undertaking they may not have accepted the challenge. But they were dedicated to bringing electric power where it had never been before and in the process provided jobs, economic opportunity and a better quality of life to everyone in southeast Louisiana."
Landing one of those jobs was Nolan Lang, 68, who was hired at DEMCO in 1965 and retired in 1998. Though Lang's uncle worked in the co-op's mechanic shop and another black man was employed as a janitor, Lang was the first black lineman at the cooperative.
Lang worked out of the main office located on Airline Highway at the time he was hired, then later worked out of the Livingston and Zachary branch offices.
"It took a while for everyone to get used to a black man working on the lines, but once everyone got comfortable with it we all got along great. It was tough work that could be dangerous, but I liked it. You just had to make sure you played by the book and didn't cut corners when it came to safety. But DEMCO is a good company and everybody was real close and helped each other out anytime there was a need."
Also close — sometimes a little too close — were the cooperative members, Lang said, especially those he knew on a personal basis in his neighborhood.
"I was happy to serve the members and help them anyway I could. A lot of the times they would call my house at all hours of the night instead of calling into the office first," he said. "But I did whatever I could for them because I knew they would do the same for me."
Both Locklar and Lang agreed that at DEMCO the members come first. As a member-owned, democratically controlled organization, DEMCO is accountable to the members, and board representatives, managers, staff and all employees work hard every day to deliver safe, reliable, affordable power to thousands of homes and businesses.
"Much has changed over the course of the past 75 years, yet our primary guiding principal has remained constant," said current General Manager and CEO John Vranic. "Our commitment to our membership for local control, quality service and competitive prices remains a fixture from the past that will continue as we move into the future striving to improve the quality of life for the people of southeast Louisiana."