BY ANGELA CATTON
October is National Co-op Month, and electric cooperatives across the country are highlighting the many ways they “Power On.” For more than 80 years, rural electric cooperatives (RECs) have been defined by their mission to enrich the lives of members and serve the long-term interests of the communities they serve.
This month, when we honor a long history devoted to cooperatives and their relationships with those they serve, Northwest Iowa Power Cooperative (NIPCO) celebrates the 65th anniversary of an initiative to “Power On” a farm in Ida County. The event – the first of its kind in Iowa – was called Wire-Rama and held on Sept. 28, 1955, on the George Hoffman, Sr. farm north of Ida Grove. Today, the farm remains in the family and is owned by Dan Hoffman, one of George’s grandsons. Dan, who currently serves as an Ida County director representative on the North West REC board of directors, was just three years old at the time of the event. His older brother George Hoffman III was 12 years old. The farm is served by North West REC.
“I remember the promotional marketing,” recalls Hoffman III. “There were brochures and posters that featured Willie Wiredhand. That was really neat!”
According to the November 1955 issue of Iowa Rural Electric News, “Wire-Rama translated into language everyone can understand, could be described as souping up an entire electrical system on a farm, including a complete rewiring job, and the addition of new electrical equipment, appliances and a fan, etc.”
Wire-Rama promotes “modern electricity”
Wire-Rama was the brainchild of NIPCO’s Public Relations/Power Use Advisor Kinney S. Reiser. In his role at NIPCO, Reiser was responsible for promoting the benefits of electric power. Construction on the NIPCO 69,000-volt transmission system had already begun three years earlier but member-consumers in the region were slow to understand the advantages that improved wiring and electrical systems could provide. With farms and homes already incorporating modest and primitive wiring and equipment, Reiser recognized an opportunity to educate and promote how “modern electricity” could further revolutionize mid-century life on the farm, relying on the expertise of their local electric cooperative.
The Hoffman Farm was identified as the ideal setting for the 1955 Wire-Rama. George Hoffman, Sr. was already a heavy user of electricity (about 10,000 kilowatt-hours each month). Hoffman raised and showed cattle and Berkshire hogs. He was interested in improving his operation by adding more electric equipment but his outdated existing wiring, installed in 1917, could not handle the increased electric load.
NIPCO’s Reiser worked with power use advisors from each of NIPCO’s member distribution cooperatives, which included 10 co-ops at the time. Power use advisors (or “P.U. men,” as they were often called), were the predecessor to today’s REC energy advisors and member service professionals. The group met regularly with Hoffman to plan a system that would meet his needs. Once the layout was finalized and materials list set, they worked with local vendors, manufacturers and “jobbers” (local electricians and tradesmen) to solicit donations of materials and labor. According to the Iowa Rural Electric News article, “A favorable reply from the jobbers, as well as offers from manufacturers contacted by them, saw the first phase of Wire-Rama well on the way to completion.”
By donating materials and labor to the project, partners hoped to perpetuate the notion of modernizing antiquated electric systems and electric appliances. Wire-Rama served as a working trade show exhibit for local electricians and vendors to market their services and products.
Underground wiring stands the test of time
It took approximately one week to rewire the Hoffman Farm. Work began on Sept. 20, with the digging of trenches that would accommodate the underground wiring. Hoffman III remembers that the underground wiring was “really something special” at the time and that many, including his grandfather, wondered how long it would last. Sixty-five years later, Dan Hoffman confirms that much of the underground wiring remains operational today.
A 400-amp capacity service was installed on the yard pole, followed by 100-amp services to several outbuildings, including the family home.
Thanks to these improvements, George Hoffman, Sr. was able to install a 42-inch fan with a two-horsepower motor to keep flies away from his cattle, something he could not do with his older system. George III distinctly remembers the giant fan. “It was about 5-foot square, and I remember it was red.”
In addition, the Hoffman home was upgraded to include new wiring throughout, including a 100-amp circuit breaker panel, all new light fixtures, outlets and electric appliances. Mrs. Hoffman received a modern electric range but, according to her grandsons, insisted that her trusted propane stove be moved to the basement as her backup.
National spotlight shines on historic Wire-Rama in 1955
When the big day arrived, more than 1,500 REC members attended the Wire-Rama, including regional and national media. The event also caught the attention of organizations who supported innovation that improved the agricultural industry. National Rural Electric Cooperative Association General Manager Clyde T. Ellis topped a notable list of VIPs who spoke on the “Electrical Future of Farming.”
George III recalls the day as being full of fanfare. Several vendors promoted their services and products and co-op personnel served as tour guides for smaller groups throughout the farm, stopping at specified areas to highlight a variety of innovations. “There was one demonstration where a generator was connected to a tractor,” says Hoffman III. “If the power went out, that generator could be hooked up to the tractor, which could power the whole farm!”
The following spring, NIPCO had selected the Lowell Parks Farm, southeast of Remsen, Iowa, to be the site for the 1956 Wire-Rama to be held in the fall. While equally successful in its mission and execution, a record-setting hot and dry summer distracted area farmers’ attentions. An historic drought and dismal harvest season resulted in decreased attendance at the 1956 Wire-Rama, which would serve as NIPCO’s last.
Wire-Ramas may be a thing of the past, but rural electric cooperatives remain dedicated to educating members in a variety of ways providing innovative solutions for their members to #PowerOn, safely, responsibly and sustainably.
Angela Catton is the manager of member relations and development for Northwest Iowa Power Cooperative.