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THE POWER BROKER: Lyndon B. Johnson

0211
 2014


The young man from Blanco County who would become president knew the pain of growing up without electricity. So when elected to Congress in 1937, Lyndon Johnson made rural electrification his key issue. Campaigning for the Senate in 1941, he promised farm families that electric cooperatives could help end their reliance on dirty, dangerous oil lamps and wood-burning stoves. (Photos courtesy The National Archives and 1941 Austin American-Statesman photo courtesy LBJ Library and Museum) 

By Ed Crowell
 
The handwritten letter from rural Route 1, Box 24, Washington, Texas was written to a fellow Texan in Washington, D.C. 
 
“Dear Sir: Please send all the information that you have on the Lower Colorado River Electric Cooperative, Inc. I would like to know how soon this project can be completed and how certain we can be in getting a line,” wrote Charlie Fritz Holle. 
 
Holle, his wife and children lived in a house above Brazos River bottomland, where they tended a pecan orchard and cattle in the 1930s. They had no electricity. 

(Holle family photo )Charlie Holle wrote LBJ asking how soon his wife Nelda and children (from left) Dennis, Fran and Bobbie could get power in Washington County.
 
“Would also like to have information on loans for electrical appliances. We are very much interested in this project and know that as our congressman you will put forth every effort to have it completed,” the letter concluded. 
 
It was addressed to the young man who represented the 10th Congressional District, which stretched from Washington County to Blanco County. The letter was written July 29, 1939, just a few days before the LCREC held its first board meeting. 
 
Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson wrote back three days later: “I was mighty glad to receive your letter … for just today I was able to obtain $605,000 as an allotment for (the co-op) so it can construct its lines.” 
 
He told Holle to get complete details from C.A. McEachern, the man Johnson had hand picked to help him organize the co-op. It was past time for such farming communities as Washington, just 15 miles from the lit up town of Brenham, to get electricity. 
 
The LBJ Library and Museum in Austin houses boxes of papers from Johnson’s congressional years that contain many examples, like this, of the attentive congressman who was the face of rural electrification in Central Texas. 
 
Farm families across the United States were eager to get electricity and enjoy the modern advances of their city cousins, who had received power from private or municipal utilities years earlier. They wanted to end the burdens of rural life without electricity to power lights, appliances, water pumps and farm equipment. 
 
Johnson, who grew up deprived of electric power in Blanco County, had made rural electrification the prime issue of his first term, which began in 1937. historical timeline
 
“There are hundreds of farm homes all over Central Texas where the smoky lantern and the stifling kerosene lamp are still the chief sources of illumination and elbow grease is still the principal motor power although this is the 20th century and not the era of Noah’s Ark,” he wrote in a 1938 letter to the general manager of the Lower Colorado River Authority. 
 
The LCRA had begun operations in 1935 to complete unfinished dams on the Colorado to prevent floods and to generate power. (Buchanan Dam and Inks Dam opened in 1938, and Mansfield Dam in 1942.) 
 
Johnson, meanwhile, was busy making sure rural voters in his district would get that LCRA-generated power. Their electricity would be delivered by two new cooperatives — the Lower Colorado River Electric Cooperative for the eastern counties and the Pedernales Electric Cooperative for the western. He was the driving force in 1938 behind organizing the PEC based in his hometown of Johnson City and, a year later, the LCREC, headquartered in Giddings. The LCREC became Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative in the 1960s.   

(Photo courtesy LBJ Library and Museum)Johnson City, headquarters of Pedernales Electric Cooperative, boasted in 1946 that it was ‘Home of the World's Largest Rural Electrification System.’
 
THE IMPRINT OF EARLY DAYS 
 
The hardships of life without electricity were well known to Johnson throughout his youth. In 1913, when he was 5, his family moved to Johnson City from his birthplace of Stonewall, where farm and house chores were done without power. In the small downriver town of Johnson City, there was no electricity either.
 
The new home in Johnson City was nice enough — a three-bedroom white frame house with Victorian gingerbread gables. A cotton gin was around the corner and a school, courthouse and bank were nearby to serve the 300 or so town residents. 
 
But the isolation and primitive conditions were not much better than in Stonewall. While his family was freed from farm work, everyday life without electricity meant reading by kerosene lamps, hauling water into the house from an outdoor well pump, using an outhouse, washing and ironing clothes without modern appliances, and cooking on a wood-burning stove. 
 
Electricity, in its most basic and expensive form, did not come to Johnson City until 1927, the year Lyndon Johnson enrolled at Southwest Texas State Teachers College in San Marcos. 
 
That was the year the private Texas Power & Light Co., which served many Central Texas cities, finally agreed to bring electricity to a handful of Hill Country towns, including Johnson City. The company installed a 30 horsepower diesel generator. But the power level was not much to cheer about. 
 
In the first volume of his definitive biography “The Years of Lyndon Johnson,” author Robert Caro describes how TP&L had a central generating station in Marble Falls then. But smaller towns like Johnson City were out of reach financially — the cost of building electric lines was about $3,000 per mile. 
 
So, as Caro writes, the diesel generators provided “only enough voltage for 10-watt bulbs, which were constantly dimming and flickering – and which could not be used at all if an electric appliance (even an electric iron) was also in use. Since the ‘power plant’ operated only between ‘dark to midnight,’ a refrigerator was useless. 
 
“To most of the residents … such problems were academic: so high were TP&L’s rates that few families hooked up to its lines. And in any case, the diesel engine was constantly breaking down under the strain placed on it.” 
 
A decade after Johnson left behind his barely lit hometown of Johnson City (the town’s founding family was not related to him), he had made his way through college, teaching stints and jobs in Washington. First he served as a congressman’s secretary and then as Texas director of the National Youth Administration, a New Deal program to train and employ young people. 
 
Then he won election to represent the 10th Congressional District, vowing as a top priority to bring electricity to the rural areas of his district. 
 
Again, Caro best sets the scene: “For two decades and more, in all states of the country, delegations of farmers … had come, hats literally in hand, to the paneled offices of utility-company executives to be allowed to enter the age of electricity.” 
 
In Central Texas, lines built by TP&L neared many farms. But a company policy was to hook up only houses within 50 yards of those lines. The executives claimed it was too costly to extend their service farther. 
 
President Franklin Roosevelt and Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn of Texas had a different idea. They broke up the utility company monopolies. They got tougher regulations by the Federal Power Commission. They got dams built. 
 
‘WE WILL GET THE MONEY’ 
 
In 1935, the Rural Electrification Administration was established to make government-backed loans to hundreds of farmer-formed cooperatives so electricity could be delivered at reasonable rates from the new sources of hydroelectric power. 
 
The sparsely populated counties of Central and West Texas were not among the earliest recipients of those loans across the country, however. The REA, seeking to ensure the cooperatives’ success, stipulated that its loans would go only to build lines with an average of at least three hookups per mile. Said one REA representative to the group forming the PEC in early 1938: “You have too much land and not enough people.” 
 
Nonetheless, Burnet County rancher E. Babe Smith and other landowners from nearby counties continued their drive to sign up members for the new cooperative. And they had the encouragement of their new congressman. 
 
Johnson, who felt he already had Roosevelt’s ear because of his work with the National Youth Administration, told them emphatically when they expressed fear they would never get an REA loan: “I’ll get it for you. I’ll go to the REA. I’ll go to the President if I have to. But we will get the money.” 
 
On Sept. 27, 1938, the REA sent the fledgling PEC a telegram announcing a loan of $1.3 million to build 1,830 miles of lines for 2,892 families. 
 
Caro writes that Johnson’s stories about how that happened would vary over the years. But he always said he obtained a meeting with the President, who in turn told the REA administrator to approve the PEC loan request. Repeating what Johnson had told him, Roosevelt assured the REA that “those folks will catch up to that density problem because they breed pretty fast.” 
 
Bolstered by news of the PEC loan, Johnson vowed to get the same results for the Lower Colorado River Electric Cooperative. 
 
C.A. McEachern, a well-known rancher from Webberville in rural eastern Travis County, didn’t remember the date, but he recalled in a 1979 interview how Johnson sought him out to put together the LCREC: 
 
A man drove out to McEachern’s house one morning and said, “Lyndon Johnson, your congressman, wants you to come into town. He wants to organize an electric co-op. 
 
“I said, now listen fellow, I’m a farmer and in agriculture, I don’t know anything about electricity. And the man laughed and said well you don’t have to know anything about electricity. He says he wants you as one of the directors and if you could be at that (organizing) meeting, why he’d appreciate it.” 
 
The short meeting took place at 2 that afternoon in Austin. McEachern, Johnson and other future board members were there. “He went over some of what he wanted to do and how he was going to do it,” McEachern said. 
 
The rancher went home and Sim Gideon — who would become general counsel and later general manager of the LCRA — called to invite him to dinner that night at his house. Gideon asked McEachern to pick up Johnson at the Driskill Hotel on the way. 
 
“Going out there, (Johnson) told me, ‘This co-op is going to need $100,000 to start on…. I’m going back to Washington and in a day or two I’ll call you.’ ’’ 
 
“So in a couple of days he called me and he said, ‘I got it. You fellows just go right ahead now and start your business and start working on it and I’ll see you later,’ ” recalled McEachern, who put the money toward a few employees and the first extensions from some existing lines. 
 
825 MILES OF LINE, 2,125 MEMBERS
 
On Aug. 1, 1939, the congressman sent a telegram to the publisher of the Austin American-Statesman announcing that the REA had agreed to finance 825 miles of lines to service 2,125 co-op members in Lee, Washington, Travis, Bastrop and Caldwell counties in the amount of $605,000. 
 
Two days later, the LCREC board of directors held its first official meeting at the Littlefield Building in Austin and elected McEachern as board president. 
 
McEachern said that after a few co-op meetings in Austin they needed a headquarters building. He heard from people in several different towns who “wanted the office at their places, and I said well now listen, you go talk to Mr. Johnson. I said he was ramrodding this part of it, and Giddings was almost the center at that time (of the original service area), so the office was finally set up in Giddings.” 
 
Johnson got the headquarters built with National Youth Administration labor and the furniture came from NYA workshops. 
 
The congressman and later senator became a frequent visitor to the LCREC building in downtown Giddings, especially at election time, when there would be a barbecue outside and he’d glad-hand everyone in sight. 
 
Harry Namken, a longtime co-op employee, recalls meeting Johnson there and voting Democratic from then on. “It all stems back to him. He got the jobs here, got the WPA (Works Progress Administration), the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) and NYA.” 
 
McEachern would prove to be a good find, serving as president of the co-op’s board for nearly four decades. He helped steer the organization through its initial growing pains and then a near halt in new hookups during World War II. He approved line construction and operating agreements with the LCRA and then a total separation from the agency other than as a power source. 
 
In the early years, the LCREC would send Johnson monthly lists of the people who had joined the co-op and whose newly built lines were due to be energized. He, in turn, would send out letters welcoming the new members to the world of electricity. 
 
When glitches occurred, constituents who had paid their $5 co-op membership fee wrote to seek his help. 
 
A March 26, 1941 letter from J.D. Fitzwilliams and daughter Nell Fitzwilliams of Bastrop County reads: 
 
“Dear Mr. Johnson, We have just received your letter stating how the electric lines have been energized and the electricity is now available…. But as yet no electricity. We have been patient, but we wonder why we do not have it.” 
 
Three days later, Johnson writes the Fitzwilliamses: 
 
“I regretted deeply to learn (about the matter)…. I am today contacting the LCREC superintendent and asking that he give me a complete report.” 
 
Superintendent Lee McWilliams replies to the family and Johnson on April 4: 
 
“… The meter was set and the lights turned on March 28. Our plans to provide electricity on March 25 went awry due to the fact that it rained and the roads were bad on the 25, 26, 27 of March.” 
 
In a “Survey of Prospects,” LCREC reported to Johnson that in the spring of 1941 it had 512 applications for service on file, 683 prospects for co-op membership, and 552 miles of line served at an average of 2.16 members per mile of line. 
 
However, the looming prospect that the country might have to join its allies in World War II was being felt by the LCREC even before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941. The two-year-old cooperative found itself forced to slow down new line construction because of a shortage of some materials. 
 
R.M. Medlen lived near Lockhart and wrote to Johnson in November 1941 that he had helped get rights of way in his area and wiring was ready at his house, but he could not get a line out. 
 
The congressman answered: “A lot of metals have become scarce since the start of the defense program. One of the toughest and tightest of these metals to try to get is copper. For that reason, the REA is having a mighty hard time trying to build these extensions such as yours.” 
 
Three days after Pearl Harbor, Johnson, who had been a Naval Reserve officer, reported for active duty. He worked on war production problems and as a bombing observer in the South Pacific before Roosevelt ruled in the summer of 1942 that members of Congress could not serve in the armed forces. 
 
Johnson returned to Washington and answering mail from co-op members in his district frustrated by the war’s delay in getting electricity. His sights were set on a higher offi ce once the war ended. (LBJ lost a run for the U.S. Senate in June 1941 and ran again in 1948.) 
 
In a 1949 speech in El Paso, the newly elected Sen. Johnson summed up the national rural electrification effort and the government-backed loans already being repaid by cooperatives: 
 
“REA stands today as democracy’s most successful experiment in faith and hope – and there is no charity involved. In little more than a decade, we have turned on the lights in more than 3 million American farm homes -- and it hasn't cost the taxpayer a cent."



C.A. McEACHERN: CO-OP'S FIRST BOARD PRESIDENT HELD SEAT FOR 38 YEARS 

(Bluebonnet archive photo)Successful rancher C.A. McEachern of Travis County was hand picked by Lyndon Johnson to organize and lead the Bluebonnet co-op.
 
Carl Angus McEachern, known around Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative as C.A., kept a firm hand on the tiller once Lyndon Johnson picked him to steer the co-op’s first Board of Directors in 1939. 
 
He was the president of the Board for 38 years. 
 
Through the decades, McEachern operated an 1,800-acre family farm, growing cotton and raising cattle off Webberville Road in eastern Travis County. He also served on bank boards and was a deacon at Hyde Park Baptist Church in Austin. 
 
McEachern “was a wonderful, generous, Christian man,” said his stepdaughter, Louise Albertson of Dallas. 
 
That generosity shone even after his death in 1984 at age 94. 
 
In his will, the 1912 graduate of Texas A&M University gave $2.47 million to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, its largest single cash gift at the time. The seminary also received 750 acres of his land, valued at about $3 million. 
 
Hyde Park Baptist Church was given nearly $3 million as well. 
 
McEachern’s first wife, Susanna, died in 1974. The couple had no children. His second wife, Billie, who also preceded him in death, had three daughters by a previous marriage. 
 
Louise Albertson said her mother and “Mr. Carl” traveled a lot. They had a house in Austin, but he went out to the ranch every day to keep close to his rural roots. 
 
A few years before his death, McEachern recalled how difficult it was for him, as a young man doing chores in the barnyard and studying at home, to work by the light of only a kerosene lamp. When Texas Power & Light Co. built lines out of Austin to his ranch house, he wired the place himself. 
 
McEachern said it was a tough sell for the new co-op, at the end of the Great Depression, to persuade farmers to hand over a $5 membership fee and then ask them to pay monthly electric bills. However, once the demand for new lines increased as people saw the benefits of power, it was difficult to keep up. A series of loans guaranteed by the Rural Electrification Administration made it possible. 
 
“If I had it all to do over again, I’d go through the same thing,” he said in a 1979 interview. “I have the interests of the co-op at heart because I’ve been with it so long … and now it’s a big success.” 
 

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