Sen. Lyndon Baines Johnson inspired the Youth Tour when he addressed the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) Annual Meeting in Chicago in 1957. He was a longtime advocate of electric co-ops, having lobbied for the creation of Pedernales Electric Cooperative in 1937 as a young politician in Texas. The senator and future president declared, “If one thing comes out of this meeting, it will be sending youngsters to the national capital where they can actually see what the flag stands for and represents.”
With that encouragement, some Texas electric co-ops sent groups of young people to work during the summer in the senator’s Washington, D.C., office. In 1958 – according to an original itinerary for the trip – 17 electric co-ops in Iowa (and three from Nebraska) sponsored the first group of 29 young people on a weeklong study tour of the nation’s capital. Later that same year, another busload headed to the nation’s capital from Illinois. The idea grew, and other states sent busloads of students throughout the summer. By 1959, the “youth tour” had grown to 130 participants.
In 1964, NRECA began to coordinate joint activities among the state delegations and suggested that co-op representatives from each state arrange to be in Washington, D.C., during Youth Tour week. The first year of the coordinated tour included about 400 teens from 12 states.
During the last 50 years, nearly 50,000 students from rural areas and small towns across America have participated in this program. Last year, electric co-ops from 43 states sent more than 1,600 students and 250 chaperones on the trip.