Rural America needs electricity, too

Posted: Friday, August 26, 2005

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

There is often a difference in attitude between generations of men and women.

A recent story in the Empire tells of the many rural Alaskan towns which are discontinuing municipal government because of lack of funds. The State a couple of years ago ended a sharing program that helped these small and isolated communities.

Sometimes those of us living in the big cities of Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau think that Alaska is only for us, and we neglect to appreciate how much tougher it is to survive in rural Alaska. Just think what higher fuel prices will mean to the small villages of Southeastern Alaska and along the Kushkokwim River and the Yukon and on the Bering Sea coast. It already seems so high here in Juneau. Just tack on another dollar or two a gallon for our rural neighbors.

I read in a recent issue of Alabama Living about a different attitude, in a tribute to an American president. The caption on a picture of a modest house at Warm Springs, Ga., is titled, "the Birthplace of Rural Electrification."

The editor of the magazine writes that he had recently visited the southern home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Little White House was located at Warm Springs near the therapeutic baths where President Roosevelt found relief from his symptoms of polio.

The article goes on to say that it was here President Roosevelt realized people in rural areas needed electricity as much as their city counterparts.

At the time, it wasn't profitable for investor-owned utilities to take electricity into the sparse, rural areas. So, as part of his New Deal package of programs that brought the country out of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt established the Rural Electrification Administration in 1935, which set up a network of community owned and operated cooperatives.

When my wife Sally was growing up in Alabama there was no electricity on the farms. But President Roosevelt knew his responsibility was not only to people living in the big cities like Chicago and New York, but to the people who needed help most, living in the small towns and isolated homes in rural America.

• Elton Engstrom is a lifelong Alaskan, retired fish-buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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