During the depths of the Great Depression, American voters and politicians began to think of rural electrification as a good policy. Many government officials and social reformers believed that electricity had contributed greatly to improving the quality of urban life and that the lack of electricity in rural areas deepened the gap between urban and rural Americans.
The federal government began to take concrete steps to bring electricity to rural areas shortly after Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President in 1932. The first big federal electrification project was the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), created in 1933. The new agency had multiple objectives: to build hydroelectric power-generating stations, transmit electricity to remote areas of the South, and foster economic development in rural communities.
By executive order of President Roosevelt, the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) was created in 1935. The REA was established with one objective: to bring electricity to farms. The $5 billion Emergency Relief Act passed by Congress in 1935 included $100 million for the construction of rural electric transmission lines. The REA administrator, Morris Llewellyn Cooke, had hoped to use the money for low-interest loans to existing private utilities for building transmission lines in rural areas, but the utilities were not interested. In 1936, Congress took the REA out of the domain of federal relief programs and made it an independent federal agency, and Cooke focused the agency’s attention on creating rural electric cooperatives.
With the creation of the REA, the Montana Extension Service, directed its county extension agents to assist local groups in organizing electric cooperative organizations. County extension agents worked hard to stimulate interest in rural electrification. In 1940, farmers in the Dagmar, Coalridge, and Westby areas took formal steps to organize an electric cooperative for Sheridan County. Mrs. Andrew (Anna) Dahl, active in the Farmers Union both local and statewide, was urged to organize steps in creating a cooperative. She contacted the Montana Extension Service who quickly described what a local group needed to do to organize a rural electric co-op and gain financing from the REA.
By August 1941, a group of citizens from around the Sheridan County area, including the only female Anna Dahl, gathered together to form Sheridan County Electric Cooperative, Inc. The group elected nine individuals to serve as the first board of directors and also electing A.T. Olesen president, Art Jonasen vice president, and Anna Dahl secretary/treasurer. At this time, the board members went out to area farmers to convince them to join the co-op. An applicant had to make a considerable commitment to become a member of Sheridan Electric Co-op, causing some farmers reluctant to join. Skeptics in the community did not believe a cooperative could succeed in an area so remote, as far northeastern Montana.
Over the next few years, the Co-op generated enough interest and survived many challenges, to energize the Coalridge substation on April 29th, 1948. P.G. Anderson became the Co-op’s first customer. By October 9th, the first gathering of the general membership’s annual meeting, Sheridan Electric had energized 334 miles of line and served 561 customers.