Originally published in VTDigger
December 5, 2021
By Mark Bushnell
To the popping of flashbulbs, Gov. George Aiken flipped a switch and started the generators at the newly founded Washington Electric Cooperative in East Montpelier. That moment, back in 1939, was a staged political event captured live on radio and by photographers for the next day’s newspapers.
Photo ops are rarely significant occasions, but this one was. It marked the culmination of years of work by Aiken — first as a state representative, then as speaker of the Vermont House, lieutenant governor and finally as governor — to protect the interests of Vermonters against a pair of powerful forces.
The story of how Aiken helped bring affordable power to remote parts of the state runs counter to how we perceive politics today. The simplest way of distinguishing the two major parties is to characterize the Democrats as looking to big government to work in the peoples’ interests and the Republicans as looking to big business for solutions.
Though a Republican, Aiken didn’t innately trust big business, but he didn’t trust big government either. Aiken entered politics at the start of the New Deal, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was creating federal programs to help the nation’s economy recover from the Great Depression. Aiken naturally lauded Roosevelt’s goal of ending economic hardship, though not the means FDR chose, which Aiken viewed as paternalistic.
But as much as he disapproved of the New Deal, Aiken didn’t reject all federal aid. He was too pragmatic for that.
Instead, Aiken sought ways to accept federal aid to Vermont on his own terms. He supported FDR’s programs to create the Social Security system, and to offer relief to the unemployed and subsidies to farmers. He also backed the Civilian Conservation Corps’ work managing state and municipal forests, and constructing roads and trails around the state.
When it came to rural electrification, however, Aiken walked a fine line between supporting federal efforts and fighting them.
As Aiken began serving in the state House of Representatives in 1931, the Legislature was still addressing issues related to the devastating floods of four years earlier. To prevent future flooding, the Army Corps of Engineers, working with the state and public utility companies, devised a plan to construct 80 dams and reservoirs on five Vermont rivers. The plan called for private utilities to run hydroelectric plants at the sites and sell the power.
Aiken opposed the plan; he didn’t want to surrender control of the state’s natural resources, in this case its water power, to private ventures. It didn’t help that the utilities were mostly controlled by out-of-state interests. Though only a freshman state legislator, Aiken helped kill the bill, which failed by one vote.
Aiken took a similar approach six years later, in 1937, soon after becoming governor. The previous year, New England had been hit again with heavy flooding, though Vermont was mostly spared this time. The flooding was worst in southern New England.
Federal and state officials wanted to protect the region from this happening again.
Prompted by Congress, the states bordering the Connecticut River (Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut) formed a compact to direct the construction of a series of flood-control dams modeled after the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Members of the Connecticut River Valley Flood Control Commission forged a deal that called for the federal government to cover the cost of dam construction, while the states paid to acquire the required land and relocate people living in the areas to be flooded.
But who would own the dams and any electricity generated by them?
Aiken and Roosevelt found themselves at loggerheads over that question. The president wanted the federal government to control the dams and the hydroelectric power generated by them. Roosevelt believed the federal government should also control generation rights on the entire length of the Connecticut River’s tributaries—all the way back to their sources.
The president greatly distrusted private power companies and was trying to keep them from gaining a foothold on the region’s major river network.
Aiken wouldn’t give in
Aiken fought back against the federal government’s grasp for control of these Vermont rivers. He wanted the state to retain that authority. Aiken was also concerned that the dams would flood large areas of Vermont, causing “the abandonment of farms, the loss of population, the sacrifice of recreational and industrial development, the relocation of highways and other huge expenses.”
In 1938, Congress backed FDR’s plan, calling for the federal government to pay all the expenses of constructing the flood-control dams and giving the federal government the power to claim any land needed for the projects, even if state leaders objected.
Despite the setback, Aiken wasn’t giving in. He persuaded the Vermont Legislature to allocate funds for a legal defense fund. At this point, the federal government relented, saying that states could bar the dams from being built.
Aiken and his allies had won, but their victory would be short-lived. Massachusetts and Connecticut still needed those dams to reduce the risk of flooding. Eventually, after Aiken had left the governorship to become a U.S. senator, Congress addressed Vermont’s concerns by agreeing to move forward only with state approval and promising to compensate states for any lost tax revenues.
The move opened the way for construction of a series of dams on the West, Black, Ompompanoosuc and Ottauquechee rivers.
Let’s back up a moment. It’s important to note that Aiken wasn’t opposed to all federal involvement in Vermont electric power issues. When he was still lieutenant governor, Aiken strongly supported Roosevelt’s Rural Electrification Administration. He saw the federal agency as playing a vital role in solving a problem facing many rural Vermonters, especially farmers — lack of access to electricity.
The state’s private power companies saw little or no profit in providing electricity to sparsely populated areas, and therefore had no interest in doing so.
REA backed the co-ops
To address the issue, the REA provided low-cost federal loans to rural Vermonters who banded together to form nonprofit electric power cooperatives. Aiken liked the idea enough that he helped push a supporting bill through the state Legislature.
In 1938, Vermonters founded the Vermont Electric Cooperative in Johnson. The next year, others formed the Washington Electric Cooperative, which is why Aiken was standing in a crowd in East Montpelier on that cold December night, ready to pull the switch.
Aiken said the Washington Electric Cooperative could offer services that the “Big Boys,” his term for the private power companies, could not, because it “does not inflate its capital structure, does not pay high official salaries, does not hire high-priced attorneys, does not maintain expensive legislative lobbies, does not pay tribute to holding companies and does not employ high-pressure and expensive publicity methods to expound its virtues.”
Aiken’s support of the cooperatives proved unpopular among the state’s more mainstream Republican editorial page editors. “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.” declared the Brattleboro Reformer.
The Randolph Herald and News, which criticized Aiken for being as hard on the utilities as Roosevelt was, came to the companies’ defense. “(M)ost utilities are conducted with as much regard for the public welfare — on which they depend for patronage — as conditions permit,” the paper declared.
But Aiken believed too strongly that Vermonters must retain control over the state’s natural resources to accept those arguments. The founding of the electric cooperatives, he said, “should drive home to all who will see or read the fact that our farmers mean business and will not be bluffed nor seduced into paying, to a privileged few, a tribute on a heritage that rightfully belongs to all Vermonters.”