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The Reaction: Farmers Working Together or a Communist Plot?

Reaction to Governor Aiken’s Speech at Washington Electric Co-op on December 2nd, which was broadcast live on WDEV radio, was swift and pointed.

AIKEN AND THE FACTS

From the December 4, 1939 Brattleboro Reformer and reprinted in the Montpelier Evening Argus

If Governor Aiken is challenged to a factual defense of his argument on rural electric power co-operatives, we suspect he will be hard put to dig up the figures. His speech to the New England Conference at Boston was little more than a threat to an industry already discouraged by restrictive regulation and hostile politicians and as long as it is under fire, with every cent of profit endangered, it can hardly be expected to take the long risk of running lines out where customers are a long way apart, small customers at that.

Governor Aiken’s talk about farmers resorting to co-operatives and aligning themselves with federal regulation apparently has reference to a couple of electric co-operatives recently organized in northern Vermont. They may be successful but they are up to their neck in debt on capital that only the federal government would be so reckless as to supply. One line supplying a handful of farms was financed with a federal loan big enough to build a system for a sizeable community. This co-operative, moreover, doesn’t manufacture any electricity but buys it from an established company. It just operates a distribution line and the power company will be more than pleased to sell it current at the favorable rate. The company would also have been glad to build the line if it could see anything except loss.

The power companies are willing to build rural lines and their conditions (a guarantee of $18 a month revenue per mile) are more than generous. Even this figure could not be possible were it not for the backlog the companies have in serving populous communities. The power company critics evidently realize rural lines are unprofitable for a couple of the municipal ownership bills submitted to the last legislature were so drawn that the municipality would buy only the part serving a thickly settled area and leave the power company holding the bag for all the surrounding rural lines. This little scheme was defeated.

As long as the farmers can get the federal government to put up the cash for rural lines they may be satisfied but they might ponder longer if they had to risk their own money. The average farmer is a lot more cautious with his money than the average utility.

Aiken’s “Bugs.”

From the December 6, 1939 Randolph Herald and News and reprinted in the Barre Times

Our excellent governor has one or two “bugs” that continue to pursue him. One is his animosity to banks and bankers. He looks upon them as Shylocks, fattening off the hard-earned proceeds of toil, overcharging in interest rates, over-discriminating in making loans – tough-hided autocrats. Another bug that bites him is the privately owned public utilities. Apparently he shares Roosevelt’s antipathy to them. In his Boston speech last week he indicated his belief that these corporations are making big money for their officials and for their stockholders on heavily watered capitalization and are not serving the public as they should by failing to carry their service into rural communities. Doubtless there is basis for the governor’s criticism, both of banking and public service corporations, but he makes a mistake in widening it so far. Most banks and most utilities are conducted with as much regard for the public welfare – on which they depend for patronage – as conditions permit. The bed of neither is one of roses. They would both do better if they weren’t harried incessantly by attacks upon them, generated frequently by those seeking political support. A lot could be said within the truth that would make this clear. The alternative proposed by the governor, co-operative enterprises supported by the federal government, has little beyond theory to sanction it. Certainly the Federal Farm Loan organization cannot claim success as a business venture. It is loaded with unproductive farm properties that no private banking system could hold and continue under, with federal approval. Co-operative electric lines won’t function successfully of themselves any more than co-operative telephone lines did. And we know what happened to them.

From the December 15, 1939 Montpelier Evening Argus – “Boilin’ Down” by Val Bowman, city editor

… “Excessive rates, inflated valuations, high salaries, expensive lobbies, tribute to holding companies, high pressure methods” – all these phrases have a very familiar ring and in using them the Governor merely tore a page from the well-fingered glossary of his New Deal contemporaries.

AIKEN’S STRAW MAN

From the January 29, 1940 Brattleboro Reformer and reprinted in the Montpelier Evening Argus

It is our hope that Governor Aiken is not playing politics with rural electrification, for we do not know of anything that in the long run would have a more harmful effect on (1) rural areas at present not electrified and (2) the Governor’s career in public service. Certainly his latest remarks, issued after a conference with the state rural electrification board, do not reflect a dispassionate, constructive attitude. When he openly advises farmers to ignore power companies’ offers of electric service he appears, on the face of things, to be trying to create a straw man to knock over.

Governor Aiken’s charge that the utilities are “re-skimming” the state calls for explanation. According to him, they are picking the most profitable customers in the community and leaving the majority of less profitable ones in a position of not being able to get service at all. Does the Governor mean by this, for example, that the recent extension of Twin State lines in West Guilford and Guilford has precluded the possibility of electric service in Green River? Or if West Guilford and Guilford Center didn’t have electricity Green River would get it sooner? The laymen’s impression is that the closer the lines are to Green River the greater the possibility of a connection.

The Governor is exceedingly proud of the electric Cooperatives he has fathered, but we wonder whether there will be so much in them to be proud of ten years hence. They are financed with money borrowed on liberal terms from the federal government, and have no reserve. Has the Governor stopped to wonder who is going to put the lines back up when a storm comes along and tears them down? Has he stopped to wonder who is going to re-set the poles when a flood washes them away? It strikes us that the farmers who get service from strong companies with a backlog of urban consumption will have more and better light in their homes than those who pin their hopes on a shaky Cooperative.

December 2, 1941 Winter Says REA Seeks Socialism – Tells House Agency Has Hoard of Copper in Texas to Aid Its Utility `Program’ –┬áPLOT BY `REDS’ IS CHARGED – Communists and Sympathizers, He Says, Are Scheming to Control Our Economics

Special to The New York Times

Washington, Dec. 1. The Rural Electrification Administration was accused today on the floor of the House of hoarding millions of pounds of copper, not for the purpose of employing this vital defense metal in the distribution of current to new farm homes but to further a program of socialization of the utility industry.

Making these allegations as he displayed pictures purporting to show a twenty-three-car trainload of copper “hidden” in Texas cotton fields was a Kansas Republican, Representative Thomas D. Winter.

More frequently than not Mr. Winter has voted with the House’s isolationist group on matters relating to the Roosevelt foreign policy. Today, as he leveled his charges against the REA, he asserted that the Administration had led the nation into an undeclared war.

But now, he told his colleagues, it was the duty of every American citizen to give his best efforts in carrying out the national policy which the majority had approved. The REA and what he called its “Communists” and “fellow-travelers,” he said, were not doing this.

“Supported by the powerful farm vote,” he declared, “they are capitalizing on a popular cause, electrification of the farm, to seize control of a large segment of our, economic and political life.”

He introduced a resolution calling for a Congressional investigation of the REA.

Says Copper Is in Heavy Strands

The copper stored down in the Texas cotton fields, Mr. Winter asserted, could never be used to illuminate a single additional rural home or barn. It was in heavy cables of three and seven strands, he pointed out, usable only for high transmission lines, to serve existing cooperatives whose members are already receiving current.

For even that use, he said, the copper cables located in fields at Gilmer, Quitman, Emory, Troup, Mount Pleasant, and Henderson, Texas, could not be put to work within two years.

Meanwhile, Representative Winter said, the Office of Production Management is allocating certain amounts of copper for the continuation of REA lines, but allows no copper to private companies for expansion, either rural or urban. ….He made this charge:

“I say to you that the Rural Electrification Administration is teeming with Communists, fellow-travelers and bureaucrats who put political theory above the safety of their country.”

Even before Aiken’s speech, the REA was under attack from right-wing Republicans. On the day that Franklin Wood (engineer in the REA Research Division) visited the Washington Electric Co-op office and made recommendations for the diesel plant, he was mentioned in the Burlington Free Press on October 26, 1939. Mrs. Millen, who was collecting news articles for the Washington Electric scrapbook did not seem terribly concerned about the allegations, noting with a caption, “The Seats of the Mighty Under Fire.”