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75 YEARS OF POWER: Bluebonnet's story in 2014

0101
 2014


Linemen gather in a co-op storage yard, circa 1947. Today, Bluebonnet’s workers in the field use the latest, safest equipment and trucks. (Photos by Lower Colorado River Authority and Sarah Beal)

In 1939, everything changed for rural Central Texas. That's when the co-op that became Bluebonnet was born.

By Ed Crowell

Harry Namken grew up on a farm fewer than 10 miles from the bright lights of Giddings. His family was in the dark, though, until 1939, when workers showed up to put in poles and string wire for electricity.

As members of the brand new Lower Colorado River Electric Cooperative, later renamed Bluebonnet, the family finally got the power that so many city-dwelling Texans were beginning to take for granted.
 
The electric-powered lights, household appliances and farm equipment that vastly improved families’ lives in those early years were a godsend to the rural areas. 

It is hard to imagine that almost 60 years before that, in 1880, the first central power plant was built in New York City. Soon after, one lit up Galveston. Dallas and Fort Worth followed.

Austin put a dam across the Colorado River and started serving the city with a hydroelectric plant in 1892. 

Even Giddings, where Harry Namken saw his first light bulb burning, got power in 1905. Twenty years later, 148 customers were served from a privately owned plant. 

When the Lower Colorado River Authority began building dams in the mid-1930s the floodgates of electricity opened for much of rural Central Texas. Electric co-ops sprang up to bring members into the modern era.

Bluebonnet became one of the first in line 75 years ago.

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OUR GOALS REMAIN THE SAME: A legacy of safe, reliable power and great people


By Mark Rose
 
In 1939, the newly formed electric cooperative that would become Bluebonnet set the first poles and hung the first spans of wire that delivered power to farms, ranches, schools, churches and businesses in dozens of Central Texas communities. The goals then were to provide safe, reliable, affordable power and serve the members’ needs. 
 
Seventy-five years later, the goals remain the same.
 
In 2014, Bluebonnet will celebrate its rich history. We will share stories spanning the past seven and a half decades in the pages of Texas Co-op Power magazine, on our website, in social media and at our Annual Meeting.  Members who recall when electricity first came to their home, or the first electric appliance that forever changed their lives, will share their memories. Employees whose careers span decades will tell us about work in the co-op’s early days. We invite you to read their stories and to share yours. We want to add your memories about Bluebonnet and what it has meant to your family or business to our yearlong celebration. 
 
From the beginning, Bluebonnet was committed to its members, and that commitment led us to continually improve. The technology and tools we use to serve our members have changed: Bluebonnet is one of the most progressive, technologically sophisticated utilities in the country. By staying focused on what we do best — keeping the power flowing, building lines and processing bills, taking care of members’ problems and smartly stewarding the finances of our members’ investment — Bluebonnet has grown into one of the largest co-ops in the state.
 
In 1940, we had 646 miles of line and 1,468 members. Today, we have 11,042 miles of line and serve more than 65,000 members. 
 
As we begin to celebrate our 75th anniversary, we are committed to carrying on the traditions set by the first Board of Directors, employees and members, while setting the standard for other co-ops and utilities. 
 
Yet, let us never forget that the goals for our communities today are the same as they were in 1939: reliable electrical service at reasonable rates, clean water, good roads and great schools. We are proud to do our part in meeting your expectations. Our great traditions and rich history only serve us well if they serve as the direction for our future more so than a celebration of our past. Some things never change and, in that context, neither will we.
 
We hope you enjoy this year of reflection and celebration. Thank you for being a part of our past, and our future. 
 
Mark Rose is General Manager and CEO of Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative.

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'AS BRIGHT AS THE SUN’: A former U.S. treasurer’s memories of getting electricity

 
Azie Taylor Morton, whose signature as treasurer of the United States was on currency issued from 1977-1981, grew up in St. John Colony in Bastrop County. In a recollection before her death in 2003, she told what getting electric power meant to her as a young girl when it arrived on her family’s farm in 1946.
 
My grandmother’s family had a lot of property and we lived on a farm, and they came through the farm putting in these huge poles. I used to run out there every day when I came home from school to find out what they were doing, and they told me they were putting in electricity.
 
I wanted to know how they made electricity and the guy told me to put my ear to the pole and I’d hear it. So every day I would go back to school and tell the kids I knew how to make electricity — you just had to put big poles in the ground and stretch long wires across them.
 
That was our introduction to electricity. Our family was one of the first to get hooked up to it, by the Bluebonnet Co-op, and on the night it was to be turned on, my grandmother had a big party. Most of the people in the community came. She had fried chicken, biscuits, vegetables, and pies and cakes. It was quite a celebration.
 
Til then we had used kerosene lamps, but now we had one new bulb hanging from the ceiling, and when that light came on it was as bright as the sun. Then after about a minute my grandmother had us turn it off because she said it was too expensive. In her mind, the brightness of the light meant a lot of money.
 
After that we still used it very sparingly. The one thing she liked about electricity was that she could stop buying ice and use a refrigerator to keep the milk and butter fresh.
 
She still used a wood-burning stove for seven or eight years afterwards. We had an electric stove that was just pushed up against the wall – my aunt had bought it – and finally one day, when my grandmother was away, we took out the wood stove. Matter of fact, we broke it on purpose so she couldn’t make us put it back in.
 
What she enjoyed the most was a big electric fan we bought to keep cool by.
 
My grandmother’s name was Ella Taylor. My grandfather’s name was James, but he used the initials J.S.R. Taylor.
     
This account was included in “Born of the River,” a book written for the Lower Colorado River Authority.

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WITNESS TO TRANSFORMATION: Harry Namken was 12 when electricity arrived at his family farm. His fascination led to a lengthy career at Bluebonnet

 
By Ed Crowell
 
Like other 12-year-olds growing up on a farm in Lee County at the close of the 1930s, Harry Namken kept an eye on the world of progress beyond the cotton and corn fields. Houses and stores in nearby Giddings had electricity. When were the lights going to come on at Harry’s home?
 
In town, they had refrigerators instead of wooden ice boxes to keep food and drinks cold. They listened to music and shows on radios. They had plenty of lights that didn’t smell at all like kerosene lamps. 
 
His mom and dad were ready for change, too. When a man already known to the family of seven as an agent for the soil conservation district came calling on behalf of the Lower Colorado River Electric Cooperative, which later was renamed Bluebonnet, Harry’s father gave the co-op a $5 membership fee. He was convinced that if the line passed by his place now it would cost more later to install.
 
None of the immediate neighbors of the Namken farm signed on to join the co-op. They did fine for generations without electricity, they figured, so why should they pay $1.25 for 15 kilowatts a month in hard times? 
 
Harry watched as the co-op workers dug holes by hand, set tall poles in the holes and strung wires to the Manheim community farm where Harry lived with his three brothers and a sister. He couldn’t wait to see what it would look like when his family’s parlor was lit by an electric bulb dangling from a wire above his head. No more homework beside a dim kerosene lamp.
 
The co-op employee who put in their meter told the Namkens the lights would come on after dark when the electric feed was to be switched on. So Harry waited in eager anticipation for the 35-watt bulbs to turn bright.
 
“I remember when it happened my mother looked up between the rafters of our unsealed house. She said, ‘The first thing I’m going to do tomorrow is get rid of all those spider webs.’ You couldn’t see those with a kerosene light,” Harry said.
 
Soon the family got a radio and a 5-cubic-foot refrigerator with a compressor on top. “We were in hog heaven making homemade ice cream and always having ice,” Harry said. “It was a big improvement over the little wooden ice box that we had to fill at the ice factory in town.”
 
Harry’s interest in the delivery of power to his family’s farm would evolve a few years later into working for the co-op for 44 years. 
 
He was witness to the creation of rural electrification projects that built dams and power plants along the lower Colorado River with federal loans in the late 1930s. He saw cooperatives form to deliver that electricity to farms and small communities.
 
Decades earlier, private utility companies in Texas had brought power to the cities and household appliances had made life easier there. The poorer and less populous outlying areas remained stuck in an electricity time warp. That situation lifted for some families like the Namkens before World War II, but the war years slowed progress.  
 
On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, the Namkens were listening to gospel music on their radio and getting dressed for Sunday services when President Franklin Roosevelt came on to announce the bombing of Pearl Harbor. “It was all anyone talked about at church,” he said.
 
Through the war years the family did without more electrical comforts. Extending the co-op’s lines into new areas all but ceased because the raw materials and manufacturing plants were needed for weapons production.
 
Four years after the war, Harry got married and moved into town and bought their first electric cooling fan. When televisions came to stores, crowds would gather each night on the sidewalk outside Orsag’s department store in Giddings to watch a set left on in the store window. The young family didn’t buy a TV of their own until their daughter was 6.
 
In 1945, Namken had joined the Lower Colorado River Electric Cooperative (LCREC) as a brush cutter for 35 cents an hour. The war was over and the co-op was busy again building new lines, turning on lights and ushering in modern appliances across the rural counties east of Austin.
 
“We were furnished a double-blade ax and a file for keeping the ax sharp,” Namken said in describing his first job for the co-op. “We had yaupons in the Davidson Creek Bottom area of Burleson County that were as high as a ceiling and as slick as the hair on your head. I had the privilege of cutting the right-of-way through there and helping to string wire.” 
 
He later dug holes — “we had a spade, spoon and a bar” — that had to be 5½ feet deep for 30-foot poles and 6 feet deep for 35-footers. After about three years “I decided I needed to learn how to climb poles. That was my big mistake,” he said with a laugh.
 
On the afternoon of Dec. 23, 1948, Namken was helping to hang a transformer near the top of a pole and looking forward to being off for two days at Christmas. It was the last transformer of the day for the crew of two linemen and a foreman working the Turnipseed community east of Elgin.
 
Unlike today, linemen had no truck-mounted buckets and state-of-the-art safety equipment and gear to work safely. Namken had climbed the pole to drill holes and install bolts for mounting a transformer. As the workers below began bringing the transformer up “I moved to get out of the way and lost my balance.
 
“My foot was spiked into the pole and I had my safety belt around the pole, but as I tried to steady myself I reached up and grabbed the primary wire with one hand. It was hot.”
 
That meant 7,200 volts of electricity surged through his body.
 
Before he passed out, Namken remembers hearing the power arc and felt a squeezing sensation in his chest. “I knew I was gone and I prayed to the good Lord. I came to, though, before my crew could get up to me.”
 
The limp weight of his body had pulled his hand free from the line and he was hanging upside down.
 
His crew members got him down and took him into a nearby house that fortunately had a phone. The co-op trucks had yet to get two-way radios. An ambulance was called to take him about 15 miles to the Elgin hospital.
 
Namken was transferred the next day to Seton Hospital in Austin. Gangrene had quickly set in where his right hand and fingers had been badly burned through his dirty leather glove. His arm had to be amputated just below the elbow. One foot was burned as well, but that healed with time.
 
He stayed in the hospital until April 4.
 
“My mother still had the Christmas tree up for me when I came home. It wasn’t nothing but an ol’ cedar tree…,” he said as his voice trailed off with the memory.
 
Painful skin grafts and fittings in Dallas for a hook and artificial lower arm followed. “The first thing I did when I got home with the hook was go into the corn crib to shuck corn. My daddy couldn’t believe I could do that but it was real easy. I had to try everything with my new arm,” Namken said.
 
By the end of May, he was back at work for the LCREC. Although he had no medical insurance at the time, the co-op paid all his bills.
 
“I was an inside man from that point on. My first job was in the line materials storeroom in Giddings, which was a big building we shared with bales of cotton brought in by farmers. The wood platform floor was full of cracks that small items kept falling through. We had to crawl underneath to retrieve them,” Namken said.
 
Eventually a storage facility was built, adding to the downtown headquarters building.
 
In 1970, five years after the co-op name was changed to Bluebonnet, Namken moved to the purchasing department. By the end of the decade he was in charge of selecting bids from suppliers for everything from line materials to office supplies to vehicles. 
 
“When computers came out, that’s when I checked out,” Namken said of his retirement in 1989 from Bluebonnet. The co-op had served him and his wife Janet well, he said, through the years of raising two daughters and four grandchildren. 
 
Namken’s brother, niece and nephew also worked for the co-op. The co-op is, in a sense, a family business. Many other employees had — and have — family members who worked for Bluebonnet for years. 
 
Retirement is good for Namken. His favorite pastime is fishing the lakes around Central Texas, and he has dozens of fishing poles to prove it. 
 
Like the dwindling numbers of others who witnessed the birth of electric power in the region, Harry Namken is a treasured link between the past and the present  for Bluebonnet.

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