The Cooperative Difference
Unlike investor-owned utilities, electric cooperatives are owned by those they serve. Electric cooperatives are non-profit, with any profits allocated to the members as capital credits, which are based on patronage and returned over time. Because they are locally owned, electric cooperatives are community-focused organizations that deliver safe, reliable and affordable energy to the consumer-members they serve.
While co-ops serve the fewest number of people, our electric lines cover more than 75 percent of the U.S. landmass. This is because we provide power where others once refused to go because of the low population density.
Electric co-ops consistently rank highest in member satisfaction among the three types of utilities: co-ops, investor-owned and municipal/publicly-owned. We believe this is because we serve consumer-members, not customers. We are neighbors serving neighbors.
Tri-County Electric Cooperative, Inc. is headquartered in Mount Vernon, Illinois at the intersection of Interstates 64 and 57. The cooperative provides electric power to over 16,000 residential, agricultural, commercial, and industrial customers in Jefferson, Marion, and Washington counties.
Our mission is to safely provide our member-owners with reliable electric service, superior customer service, and practical energy solutions, all at reasonable prices.
Kerosene lamps, candles and oil heaters were standard fixtures in rural southern Illinois homes in the 1930’s. Although their city counterparts had electricity (bringing the basics of lighting and refrigeration), many farmers and rural dwellers in southern Illinois counties of Jefferson, Marion and Washington, were unsure if they would have the same advantages. They were often told by existing utilities that it was just too expensive to extend the power lines into the rural areas. Some progressive individuals believed that the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) would provide the means to bring electricity to the dark countryside. Some 20 Illinois electric cooperatives preceded the organization of Tri-County Electric Cooperative, so the cooperative roadmap had been drawn.
Tri-County Electric Cooperative’s neighbor to the east, Wayne-White Counties Electric Cooperative, was organized two years before Tri-County Electric and had its first lines energized nearly a year before the Mt. Vernon-based cooperative held a membership meeting. With other cooperatives to use as an example, Tri-County’s pioneering leaders set out to form the electric cooperative. Ben Tuttle of Woodlawn, A.E. Drennen of Ina, and C. Glenn Jones of Salem, were among the early promoters of the organization. The cooperative was organized at a meeting in Mt. Vernon on October 6, 1938. During that meeting, the incorporating Board of Directors was elected. Members included: Tuttle, Drennan, Jones, G.W. Clark of Bluford, Roger Young and Loren Cope of Salem, Martin Schaeffer of Hoyleton, Phillip Heggemeier of Nashville and G.C. Webb of Ewing. Ben Tuttle was selected as the first manager of the cooperative.
Following the organization, the big job of signing up members and obtaining easements began. Former longtime cooperative director Preston Carson or rural Oakdale remembered his father, Elwyn Carson being joined by Washington County farm adviser Owen Hertz to sign up new Tri-County members. Charlie Swain of Nashville (one of Tri-County’s first employees) also signed members up in Washington County. He once told of a short period in November 1938, when cooperative employees were offered a 75 cent-per-member premium for each new member who signed up. “That was a lot of money in those days,” he said.The organization and sign-up period progressed rapidly and the cooperative’s first loan of $507,000 from the REA was granted on December 10, 1938. The construction of Tri-County’s “A” section of lines - 605 miles, serving 1,124 members - began almost immediately. Seven months later, on July 29, 1939, the system energized its first electric lines.
Electric service from Tri-County Electric brought miraculous new changes to the farm home; however, electricity was misunderstood by many cooperative members in the early days. Retired employee Archie Ferguson recalled, “Most people knew nothing about electricity, except that it came through a wire. They couldn’t understand how a wire could come into the house and light their light bulbs. Many people were afraid of it. Sometimes they wouldn’t sign up at first, but then they would see their neighbors with electricity, and they’d come into the office for service.
Misunderstood or not, rural people wanted this new service. They clamored for it. It was the desire for power on the farm and in the rural home that Tri-County’s pioneering leaders hoped to feed with rural electrification. Construction on the cooperative’s “B” section started the next year. This section involved the construction of 209 miles of line to serve an additional 518 members. Longtime Tri-County Electric Manager Herb Downey, recalled that not everyone in the area believed in the electric cooperative program. “Those initial feeder lines passed by the homes and farms of many a doubting Thomas who just ‘knew’ that this program wouldn’t succeed. They changed their minds later.”
|The advent of World War II brought Tri-County Electric Cooperative’s efforts to a screeching halt, as it did growing cooperatives across the country. Poles, aluminum and copper conductor, gasoline and truck tires were among the many items being rationed - and cooperatives often received the leftovers by rationing boards. Like many other cooperatives, Tri-County members were able to get service extensions during the last two years of WWII by providing they had enough “units” of animals on their farms. These “animal units” would help contribute to the war effort and electricity would increase farm efficiency and the food effort for the war, the government concluded.|
Downey remembered that farmers and cooperative leaders would sometimes get creative when counting animal units. “We could get transformers, service wire, conductor, poles and everything else needed to build lines,” he said. “But to get these items, we had to have a certain number of cattle, and we did find some cases where those cattle seemed to move around. They would move over to somebody else’s pasture where there was an application for electric service. That’s when we began to realize that we had seen those cattle before.”
Following the war, Tri-County began hiring local men, often returning home from military service. During this era, Leroy Reu, Archie Ferguson, John Boeschen, Robert Worley and others joined the cooperative. Many stayed to work their entire careers at Tri-County Electric. Francis Wittenbrink first joined Tri-County as a Lineman in September of 1940. He had served in the military during World War II and returned with the others in 1946. He went on to a long career at the cooperative, serving many years as Line Superintendent.
Ferguson was one of those who came home from World War II and joined Tri-County Electric in June of 1947. For many years he worked as the cooperative’s Right-of-Way Solicitor. Part of the job was spent driving up and down the back roads of the cooperative’s service territory. He said, “Most of our roads back then were dirt roads - we had a few rock or gravel roads, but most were just dirt. So we didn’t travel the roads much unless it was frozen or solid. A lot of times you could only get so far by car and then you’d have to go the rest of the way on foot... usually in bad weather.”
In the early years, holes were dug and poles were set by hand. Former employee and longtime Forestry Man and Truck Driver Verne Breeze, who joined the cooperative in 1959, remembered Tri-County’s first digger truck - which helped save many a lineman’s back of the years. “The digger was made form an old rear end off a Model A Ford. We had a power take-off on the back of a truck, with a shaft that came back to this rear end, which had one axle headed down. That propelled the digger,” he said.
Like the other cooperatives in the early days of electrification, Tri-County utilized the office technology of the day: carbon paper, copy machine, manual billing machines, adding machines and manual typewriters, etc. The cooperative’s board and managers have seen many changes since the inception of the cooperative. Ben Tuttle, one of the incorporating directors, served the cooperative as Manager until his death in August of 1944. He assisted in signing up new members for electric and saw Tri-County through its early formation years.
Herb Downey succeeded Tuttle and became the second Manager of the cooperative. Downey came to the cooperative with an engineering background having worked as a field engineer for Rural Line Engineers. He recalled that the manager’s desk was completely cleaned off, except for two items, upon his arrival on the first day of work. “The only thing on the desk was a stack of 3,000 applications for service and a big bottle of aspirin (provided by the ladies in the office),” he said. Shortly after starting at the cooperative, Downey flew to Cleaveland with Director C. Glenn Jones to meet with REA officials regarding loan funds to construct the current headquarters facility which was built in 1952-1953. At one time, Downey reflected on his love for the cooperative. “At Tri-County Electric Cooperative’s Manager, I can’t recall a day that I dreaded going to work, even though we had a lot to do. We had a lot of problems, but none we didn’t solve. We had a wonderful group of people working for the cooperative.” he recalled.
Allen Sisk joined Tri-County as Manager in 1974, following Downey’s retirement. He too had an engineering background and saw many improvements in equipment used by line personnel particularly in hydraulics for drills, wrenches and saws. These tools enabled line crews to work more efficiently. In 1985, Sisk resigned to join the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation (CFC).
Jim Hinman was promoted from Assistant Manager to General Manager to succeed Sisk. Hinman’s accounting background served him well in his manager’s position, one he would hold for 11 years. Under his leadership, the cooperative saw improved technology including the organization’s first in-house computer system. Former employee Agnes Tapocik recalled that first system. “I always associate our computers with Jim Hinman. The computers and Jim came at the same time. Of course, this was a big change for me because I was already getting older and transferring my ‘books’ to the computer... I thought that would be the end of me.” Hinman passed away in May of 1996.
Tri-County staffer Marcia Scott, who had worked at the cooperative for 16 years, followed Hinman as manager of the organization. Scott’s thorough knowledge of each department at the cooperative and her accounting abilities served the membership well. Scott retired in 2022 after 42 years of dedicated service to Tri-County Electric Cooperative. Following Scott's retirement, the board of directors hired General Manager Luke Johnson.
The cooperative led by Johnson would be unrecognizable by Ben Tuttle, Tri-County’s first manager. The board of directors, management and employees have seen the cooperative advance dramatically through the years. Big improvements for linemen came during the 1960’s and 1970’s with the advent of hydraulic bucket and digger trucks. The always progressive board made it possible for the cooperative to be among the first in the state to purchase modern line vehicles. In the 1970’s a lot of new equipment was purchased for the crews. Utilities were going to hydraulics for drills, wrenches and saws. These tools enabled line crews to be more efficient.
Within the office, Tri-County made the jump to electronic data processing in the 1970’s, sending punched tape records to a processing center in St. Louis. In 1975 the cooperative purchased its own computer, an IBM system 3. Nellie Poole, who joined Tri-County in 1950 as Cashier, remembered many of the office changes and improvements, many of them driven by John Perino, Office Manager for many years. “We got new equipment from time to time and we made many improvements,” she said. “But I remember John telling us about Mr. Downey’s theory. He said ‘we are not going to be the first and we’re not going to be the last to buy something. We’re going to wait until the bugs are worked out and then we’ll buy it,” she said. Over the years that philosophy served the cooperative well.
The IBM System 3 was used until 1983 when the cooperative installed an IBM System 38. That system was upgraded to an IBM AS/400 in the early 1990’s to handle the cooperatives growing data needs. In 2007, the cooperative moved from its in-house programming and now utilizes the services of National Information Solutions Cooperative, Inc. (NISC) for its billing needs. The NISC system allows for fully integrated software from consumer information and accounting to electronic staking, mapping and outage management.
The new technology in line trucks and operations helped Tri-County meet the challenges over the years: the 1957 tornado, a 1979 ice storm, the blizzard of 1982, the ice storm of 1999 and the wind storm of 2006.
The 1957 tornado left its mark on the cooperative for all time. It struck southern Illinois on December 18, 1957, cutting a path through Tri-County’s system as well as damaging the cooperative’s Mt. Vernon headquarters facility. Former employee Bill Jones remembered that the cooperative crews were at the office because it had rained all day. “About four o’clock we went back to the warehouse and were standing in the doorway when we saw the funnel coming up the alley. We could see part of a neighboring building in the air, and that’s when everyone dove under the concrete ramp in the back. Archie (Ferguson) and I stuck our heads out and saw a garage fly by our radio tower behind the building. Just as it got even with the building, it exploded,” he said. “It was a terrible storm. We had a mile of our line near Cravat that just disappeared. We never did find it. The poles, lines - everything was just gone.”
The tornado left massive damage in its wake and several employees recalled the confusion that followed in the minutes after the storm passed through Mt. Vernon. “After the tornado, the fire trucks came roaring up to the cooperative office. There was a report that our office had been blown away and that everyone was trapped inside,” Jones said.
The 1979 ice storm left many Tri-County members without electric service for as long as a week. The storm hit in the middle of a Sunday night, and by 3:00 a.m. the cooperative staff began to know how serious the damage was with power lost to nearly every substation of the cooperative. Allen Sisk was the Manager then and called the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives (AIEC) to activate the Emergency Work Plan which brought crews in from other cooperatives to assist with power restoration.
Jones remembered that storm, and the famous central Illinois ice storm of 1978, as the real start of the IEC Emergency Work Plan coordinated by the AIEC. “These were the times when the program was really put to the test and the cooperatives were called upon to work together and help one another,” he noted. “The cooperative people who came to help us were great. They worked hard and were as good as you can get.”
A major snowstorm on February 29, 1982, also left its mark on the cooperative. Longtime Line Foreman and Serviceman John Boeschen remembered the ‘leap year’ storm because he wound up spending the night at a member’s home in the tiny town of Plum Hill. He and the line crew of Derwood Baker and Jim Hester abandoned their trucks in thick snow in the center of the highway, he recalled. “Nobody was going anywhere anyway. The snow got so deep that finally, they were pulling my service truck with their line truck. We got to Plum Hill and the hub stripped out on the back of the line truck, so there we sat,” he said. After getting service to the town connected to the one phase that was still energized, the crew was invited into a member’s home to spend the night. “We had not eaten all day, so this family brought us in and fed us dinner, and then we just laid down to rest in the middle of their living room. They brought us blankets and pillows and kept the fireplace going all night long. The next morning the cooperative sent help from Nashville on snowmobiles, and then we got out.”
The year 1999 roared in with a severe ice storm. On January 1st, crews were called out to respond to outage calls. As the day progressed Tri-County began experiencing more extensive trouble as falling snow changed to sleet and freezing rain. Three contract construction crews, four contract forestry crews and six crews from other cooperatives were called in to assist Tri-County crews. Unfortunately, there was nothing Tri-County could do to prevent ice from forming on the lines and trees. The ice buildup caused lines to break and/or ice-laden tree limbs to break or sag into power lines. At the height of the storm, some 5,000 members were without power. Following the storm, the cooperative received many calls and cards of thanks from members for the work of the employees in some extremely difficult weather conditions.
On July 21, 2006, some straight-line winds roared through Washington and Jefferson counties, causing the most damage in Jefferson County. Although not technically classified a tornado, the damage to some of the cooperative lines made it appear that a tornado had ripped through the area. Within 20 minutes, the cooperative had lost service to eight substations in Jefferson County and four substations in Washington County. Again, additional crews were called to help restore power. More than 8,000 members were out of power - more than half of the membership at that time. Approximately 200 poles were broken and 150 security lights damaged or destroyed. An important double circuit, three-phase line along Shiloh Drive just west of Mount Vernon was completely on the ground. The conditions in that area were so dangerous the area was closed to traffic until the street could be cleared. Tri-County crews, as well as 53 extra people, worked 18-20 hour days for five days to get power restored.
The office staff backs up the line personnel during trying weather conditions. It’s an around-the-clock job to keep the restoration operation organized while staying in contact with line crews and the membership. During major outages, teams are utilized on a rotating basis so that phone calls from members are answered at the office 24 hours a day.
Meeting members’ needs continues to be top priority for the board and management at Tri-County Electric Cooperative. The cooperative continually strives to put members first and has done its best to provide the highest level of service at a fair and affordable price.
The power supply needs of the cooperative have grown since its inception in the 1930s. Tri-County has gone beyond the traditional services to farms and rural homes and now serves large industrial members such as North American Lighting in Salem, and commercial loads such as Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, Rend Lake College, Menard’s and Good Samaritan Regional Health Center. Many restaurants and hotels near the interstate highways are also served by the cooperative. We’re proud to serve the traditional rural constituents as well as these new, growing businesses. We’re able to do this successfully because we haven’t forgotten the cooperative principles that have made cooperatives successful.
The needs of the membership have always been foremost in the minds of the directors. To provide better service to the members, the cooperative also maintains an office and outpost in Salem as well as an outpost in Nashville. Any decision faced by the board is met with the question, “How will this affect the members?”
The board stresses that the annual meeting is an important time for the cooperative. Members have the opportunity to ask questions, elect representatives and hear reports from the board and management. The open line of communication between the cooperative and the membership has made for very enjoyable annual meetings.
We salute the cooperative pioneers who began this journey 80 years ago.