OUR OPINION: After Tupelo, TVA’s power lit up region’s rural areas

Tupelo and TVA have maintained a mutual admiration society for the past 80 years, and the landmark anniversary that started it all will be celebrated Friday at Church Street School.

Eighty years ago that day TVA and Tupelo flicked the switch that brought the new public utility’s power to Tupelo, making it the first city in the TVA service area to receive power under contract.

Tupelo already had electricity because it was profitable for a shareholder-owned company to provide it, but power stopped pretty much at the city limits because population density in rural areas made profitability impossible.

The greater story after Feb. 7, 1934, was the steady electrification of rural areas. TVA was not driven by profit but by a mandate to electrify the rural, poor Tennessee Valley region, in which Northeast Mississippi had been placed by the political influence of President Franklin Roosevelt’s conservative Democratic ally, the late U.S. Rep. John Rankin of Tupelo. Rankin had co-authored the TVA Act.

Roosevelt came to Tupelo in November 1934, months after Tupelo had TVA electricity and rural electrification had started in TVA affiliates like the Alcorn County Electric Power Association. In fact, FDR stopped and spoke in Corinth the day before arriving in Tupelo.

People from the rural areas to whom the promise of electricity was made thronged into Tupelo to welcome Roosevelt.

University of Kansas historian Sara Morris has written, “People concerned with improving rural life and decreasing rural-to-urban migration believed electricity was among the most important factors in making rural life more appealing.”

Before establishing a national cooperative system to distribute electrical power, officials wanted to test the model. And they did it in Mississippi in “The Corinth Experiment” in the form of the Alcorn County Electric Power Association (ACEPA). Rankin had arranged for a group of Alcorn County businessmen and a TVA official to meet in January 1934 at McPeters’ Furniture Store in Corinth. They established ACEPA, the first electric power cooperative in the United States.

Due to the presence of TVA and Rankin’s work, Northeast Mississippi quickly became one of the nation’s earliest adopters of rural electrification.

By 1940, 27,670 farm homes in Mississippi had electric lights, a significant increase from 4,792 10 years earlier, and some of those first electric homes are still occupied and the lights are on.