In the mid-1930s, 40s and 50s, there was a vast difference between the quality of life for town and country people living in Columbia, Walla Walla and Umatilla counties. While most townspeople had experienced the benefits of electric service since the 1920s, the Agricultural Census in 1935 showed only 19.6 percent of the farmers and country dwellers receiving electric service.
In villages, where people lived close together, the local power companies could take in enough revenue to make each mile of line profitable. Not so in the more rural areas, with only one or two potential customers per mile of line.
To profit, power companies had to charge $2,000 to $3,000 to extend electric service. And after a customer paid to build the line, the power company owned it. The situation was much the same in rural areas across the nation.
That began to change when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) in 1935. The REA was created to encourage electrification of the nation's rural areas and to provide loan capital to make electric service available. The original intent was to provide a source of funds that would be used by existing electric companies to extend service from urban areas into the countryside.
However, most people in the electric power industry concluded that serving farms and other rural residences would not be profitable. By the end of the REA's first year, only seven investor-owned utilities in the United States had borrowed funds for rural electrification.
On February 3, 1939, a sizeable group of rural people met in Dayton, Washington to formulate plans to build and electric power system to provide electricity for themselves. Roy R. Cahill, a local attorney, attended a meeting and acted as advisor in the original organization of what was to be known as the Columbia County Rural Electric Association. The organizers and other deeply interested neighbors started out with application for service contracts immediately following the organization meeting.
Their first efforts were made in the Dayton area and north through the Whetstone. Some farmers signed up at once but others were somewhat reluctant. The county was still in the misery of depression and many farmers just didn’t think they could pay $3.50 or $5.00 per month for an electric bill. Eventually, with the signup of all the applications, they prepared maps, loan application papers and other required data and sent it off to REA in Washington, DC. The first loan of $77,000, was soon approved and a contract was executed with an electric power line contractor getting construction underway. In May of 1940, 69 miles of line served 90 members. The system grew to serve more members with each passing year.
Since those early days, Columbia REA has grown to serve more than 4,500 member accounts and over 1,300 miles of electric line throughout Walla Walla, Umatilla and Columbia counties and has added a variety of services including Wireless Internet Service, provided by Columbia Energy, LLC.
Columbia REA serves members from its headquarters located in Dayton, Washington. In August, 2003 a Service Center in Walla Walla, Washington was expanded to include a Customer Service office for members in the Walla Walla, College Place and Burbank areas.
In recent years, Columbia REA has expanded its services to include electric products such as Marathon Water Heaters and ConvectAir room heating systems. Our commitment to serve our members at the lowest possible cost continues, as does our commitment to improve life in our local communities.