BY ANN THELEN
In September, the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives’ (IAEC) board members toured one of Iowa’s best-kept secrets – the REA Power Plant Museum in Hampton.
In celebration of National Co-op Month, it’s fitting that we dig into our archives to re-tell the story of this iconic landmark.
First electric generating plant west of the Mississippi River
The REA Power Plant Museum preserves and documents a very important part of rural life in Iowa: a generating plant built by farmers to provide electricity to farmers.
Once known as the Reeve Electric Association Plant, it was the first electric generating station built west of the Mississippi River. When it went online in 1938, residents in the rural Iowa communities it served experienced the advantages of electric power for the first time.
Progress arrived in the area’s rural homes and barns through wires strung on wooden poles, and farm families used electric power just like their city cousins. Farm wives bought electric irons, families listened to radios powered by electricity and light bulbs replaced lamps and lanterns to push back the dark edges of night.
The 80-year-old plant showcases the diesel generating units, as well as artifacts from the pre-electricity era. The plant once furnished power to rural electric cooperatives serving members in Butler, Franklin, Grundy, Hancock, Hardin and Wright counties. Not only was it the first electric generating plant west of the Mississippi River to begin operation, it was also the first plant to receive funds from the Rural Electrification Act (REA), the federal agency that paved the way for RECs to form.
At that time, at least 80% of rural citizens didn’t have access to electricity. It’s a story the community members wanted to tell and memories they wanted to preserve.
Building a museum
In the late 1980s, an enterprising group of area residents, under the guidance of the Franklin Historical Society decided to restore the power plant and turn it into a museum.
In July 1989, the REA Power Plant Museum Committee was formed under the leadership of Kenneth Showalter as chairman and Lois Hovey as secretary/treasurer. Under their leadership and with the help of countless volunteers – tallying up 1,800 hours of work – the building was renovated, and a museum was created. The project was vital in documenting the era that served as a foundation for the network of present-day rural co-ops now providing energy across Iowa.
The building had significantly deteriorated before the renovation. The group raised money and amassed a large force of volunteers to restore the building. Funding came from a government-funded Resource Enhancement and Protection grant, the Winnebago Foundation, Corn Belt Power, community members and donations from the electric cooperatives who formed the original Federated Group.
Three of the plants’ generators were removed after the plant closed, but the first Nordberg three-cylinder, 525-kilowatt generating unit remains in the building. When the individual who installed the generating unit arrived in Iowa’s countryside, he said the first generator would provide all the electricity the community would ever need.
The need for electricity outgrew everyone’s expectations. The energy the plant produced was vital to local electric cooperative members, and it also became a closely guarded commodity during World War II. A guard tower was built on top of the building to shelter armed guards as they protected the building in case the enemy tried to sabotage the plant.
Because of its unique origins, the Reeve Electric Association Plant qualified for listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.
The REA Power Plant Museum documents the role of electricity in rural Iowa. It also stands as a tribute to both the people who decided to build their own generating plant more than 80 years ago and to the people who renovated the building into a museum that proudly stands today.
Ann Thelen, editor of Living with Energy in Iowa, compiled this article with excerpts from former magazine writers Le Spearman and Jody Garlock.
A historical timeline for Iowa’s first generating plant
May 1935: President Franklin Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Act (REA) to provide money to build lines to distribute electricity.
March 1936: An ad in the Hampton newspaper sought possible interest in establishing electrical service for rural residents in the area.
February 1937: Five county cooperatives – Butler, Franklin, Grundy, Hardin and Wright – formed the Federated Cooperative Power Association to build the generating plant near Hampton.
November 1937: Hancock County REC became a member of the Federated cooperative group. Federated borrowed $222,000 from REA – the first loan in the country from REA – to build the generating plant near Hampton, where the small town of Reeve once had flourished.
March 1938: The Reeve Federated Plant came online, just 11 days after another REA-financed rural generating plant in La Crosse, Wisconsin, began electric service to its members.
1948-1950: The Reeve Federated Plant reached peak production. It became one of 14 cooperatives that created Corn Belt Power in Humboldt. The Reeve Federated Plant was then used as a standby station before closing in 1974. At full production, it employed 12 to 15 people.
1988: Don Yadon of Hampton, who bought the building after it closed, donated the building to the Franklin County Historical Society.
1989: A group of volunteers, operating under the umbrella of the Franklin County Historical Society, restored the building.
April 1991: An open house was held to celebrate the opening of the REA Power Plant Museum.
2002: The REA Power Plant Museum was selected as a Point of Interest in the Silos & Smokestacks National Heritage Area.