The Emergency Relief Act of 1935 gave President Franklin Delano Roosevelt the authority he needed for a rural-electrification program. When on May 11 of that year he started the Rural Electrification Administration as a depression relief agency similar to the Work Projects Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, rural electrification at first seemed to offer the large-scale project that was needed, since only 10 percent of the nation's farms then had central-station electricity. In Texas, with sparse population and vast spaces, the figure was only 2.3 percent. It soon became clear, however, that rural electrification was not a suitable relief project. It needed small numbers of skilled men rather than large numbers of unskilled labor. By August 1935, the agency was modified to a lending agency. It took its permanent form in 1936 with passage by Congress of the Norris-Rayburn Bill. By that time Texas farmers were already at work. A loan to a group at Bartlett had been approved in November 1935 for $33,000, one of the first ten loans made by the REA. The Bartlett farmers had contracted to buy power from the municipal generating plant, so they were able to move ahead swiftly. Their first fifty-eight-mile line serving 120 members was energized on March 9, 1936. Members claim that date made the Bartlett project the first in the nation under the REA. Investor-owned utilities and municipalities could borrow from the REA for rural electrification financing, but few did. The utilities feared uniform rate and area coverage regulations. Municipalities were not sure about their legal power to build rural lines. Utilities undertook some rural line building, but did not use REA loans. Most borrowers were organized groups of farmers and ranchers like those at Bartlett. Each group had to convince REA officials that their project was feasible and that the loan was sound. In some areas this was difficult; for example, in Schleicher County ranchers proposed a cooperative with less than one member per mile of line. After several revisions, their loan application finally was approved when one member signed a contract guaranteeing to pay a minimum of seventy-five dollars a month, and several others agreed to pay fifty dollars monthly.
By January 1, 1965, the REA borrowers and investor-owned utilities had more than reversed the statistics on rural electrification-instead of only 2 percent of Texas farms with electricity, there were only 2 percent without electricity. By 1966 REA loans had financed seventy-seven distribution systems in Texas (seventy-six cooperatives and the Rural Electric Division of Bryan) and two generation and transmission cooperatives. Together, these systems operated more than 165,000 miles of line reaching into all but ten Texas counties. By January 1, 1971, the seventy-seven distribution systems financed by REA loans in Texas operated more than 180,089 miles of line, serving 496,083 rural connections and reaching into 246 of 254 counties in the state. The REA cooperatives in Texas formed a statewide association, Texas Electric Co-Ops, Incorporated, with headquarters in Austin. The association issued a monthly publication, Texas Co-Op Power, with a circulation of 260,000 (the largest statewide circulation in the nation), operated a transformer and repair division with shops in Austin, and maintained a pole-treating division with a plant in Jasper. A data-processing center in Austin did the addressing and billing for sixteen co-ops serving 113,000 consumers all over Texas. By the 1980s, seventy-five electric distribution cooperatives maintained headquarters in Texas, along with the rural electric division of Bryan, and served more than 750,000 rural connections. These systems, with the Brazos Electric Power Cooperative and South Texas Electric Cooperative, operated more than 210,000 miles of transmission and distribution lines statewide. The average density of consumers was 3.5 per mile of line. Total employment by the distribution systems and three generation and transmission cooperatives exceeded 4,000. By 1977 rural electric systems numbered seventy-six, and total power generated and purchased had reached over 9.9 billion kilowatt-hours, with consumer needs increasing. In the 1990s, the seventy-six electric distribution cooperatives operating in Texas served more than 1,075,000 rural connections. These systems, plus two of three Texas generation and transmission cooperatives, operated more than 257,000 miles of line extending into all but nine Texas counties. Power produced by the third generation and transmission co-op was relayed through non-co-op-owned lines to the distribution cooperatives' load centers. Seven additional cooperative federations had no operating facilities, but represented their cooperatives in relations with regulatory bodies and wholesale power suppliers. The seventy-six distribution co-ops and five staffed generation and transmission co-ops employed more than 5,550 persons. The average number of consumer units served by the distribution cooperatives per mile of line was 4.18.