LBJ Honored as Power PioneerBy Derrill Holly | ECT Staff Writer Published: August 30th, 2011
In the big state of Texas, it took big men with even bigger ideas to bring electric power to the countryside. On a warm summer morning in the Texas Hill Country, one of the men who helped make that possible was remembered by consumer-members of the largest electric distribution co-op in the nation.
A state historic marker was unveiled, Aug. 26, outside the Johnson City headquarters of Pedernales Electric Cooperative, within sight of the boyhood home of President Lyndon Baines Johnson.
“Thanks to LBJ and the pioneers who organized PEC, the people of the Texas Hill Country became part of 20th century America,” said Patrick Cox, a PEC director, and retired University of Texas-Austin history professor.
While many Americans remember Johnson as the 36th president of the United States, in central Texas he is equally well known for helping to bring electricity to the homes of his rural neighbors.
In 1938, Johnson was a first-term Democratic congressman. The 29-year-old traveled from farm to ranch in his central Texas district, urging families to invest $5 in a future that would literally change their lives.
Within months, Johnson and other area ranchers had successfully recruited 3,300 residents for the project and Pedernales Electric Cooperative was formed. That led to the largest single loan ever made by the Rural Electrification Administration.
The co-op received $1.3 million to build nearly 1,800 miles of electric lines. The power began flowing in 1939 and 72 years later Pedernales EC remains the largest electric co-op in the nation, serving more than 240,000 meters.
“This pivotal event literally revolutionized the quality and essential standards of life for larger numbers of hard-working, yet destitute Americans,” said Marsha Sharp, an education specialist with the LBJ Library and Museum. (Video from the dedication ceremony can be viewed here.)
The cast metal plaque provides details of Johnson’s role in the “formation and expansion of electrification in Texas,” which the late president considered one of the highlights of his long public career.
“Nothing has been more gratifying to me than my association with the rural electrification program,” Johnson said during a speech to NRECA directors delivered in the White House Rose Garden July 14, 1965. “That program stands today as one of the most successful enterprises ever undertaken anywhere, at any time, by anyone.”
Johnson not only helped harness the hydroelectric potential of two dams on the lower Colorado River, he also personally helped persuade President Franklin D. Roosevelt to ease requirements for participation in the REA program. Broadening those regulations ultimately made it possible for other sparsely populated communities to form co-ops and develop their own rural electrification programs.
“Ten years ago, at the NRECA annual meeting in Dallas, President Johnson posthumously received the NRECA Distinguished Service Award,” said Martin Lowery, NRECA’s executive vice president for external affairs. Lowery represented the organization at the dedication ceremony.
“The memorial plaque is a symbol of the close relationship that exists between Pedernales Electric Cooperative and LBJ,” said Lowery. “Pedernales Electric Cooperative and the local community are linked in a very important way to the history of electric cooperatives.”