Pam Boyd

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October 3, 2012
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Electric moments

Being present at a moment when history is made - not just personal history but an actual incident when life changes for a large number of people - is a rare thing.

It has happened to Ed Grange twice.

Grange, 85, is the former longtime manager of Holy Cross Energy. Actually, during his 60-year tenure with the company it was called Holy Cross Electric Association. His background uniquely qualified Grange to pen the company's history, a task he completed in 2011 and his work was published earlier this year as Holy Cross Electric: In the Beginning.

"I started the history a long time ago and got to chapter 2 or 3 and put it away," said Grange. "Then about two or three years ago, I got back to it, before I forgot everything."

Grange's story begins with the May 11, 1935 executive order signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt establishing the Rural Electrification Administration.

"At that time, only 1 out of every 10 farms in America had electricity. This new government agency would make low interest long-term loans available to cooperative non-profit organizations as well as to municipalities and utility districts," his history begins.

"Of course, I grew up without any electricity," said Grange, describing his childhood on a ranch near Basalt. "We had no way to keep things cool except the root cellar and everything we did on the ranch we did with horses."

Grange noted that Colorado was one of the last states in the nation to bring electric power to rural areas, but by 1939 efforts were under way in the Minturn/Wolcott/Bond areas to form an electric cooperative. The Roaring Fork Valley launched a similar effort at the same time and because the two valleys knew it would be difficult to get two separate REA loans approved, they decided to combine efforts.

"It's not really clear just when approvals were finally received from Washington, but a special meeting was held on Oct. 9, 1940, at which resolutions were passed authorizing the borrowing of funds from REA," reads Holy Cross Electric: In the Beginning. The board approved a loan contract for $119,000 at an interest rate of 2.46 percent. "Mela Cerise, the director from Basalt, was quoted as saying 'We never in the world are going to be able to pay back all that money!'"

With the loan secured, the REA solicited construction bids and ultimately hired George Thurston as project superintendent. Thurston had experience as a linemen for the rural cooperative in the San Luis Valley and the local board was searching for someone with familiarity with new line construction. It was a momentous hire, and Thurston would lead the Holy Cross Electric for the next 35 years.

The REA established an office in Basalt and set to work building electric lines. Holy Cross Electric Association initially had 388 customers enrolled and the terms of their service contracts called for a $5 annual membership fee.

On Sept. 6, 1941, Holy Cross threw the switch and for the first time people in the town of Basalt had electric power. Grange vividly remembers that historic day.

"I was a freshman in high school and they had a big celebration in downtown Basalt," he said. "They had refrigerators out on the street making ice."

The Aspen Times recorded the event, noting "Hundreds of people from up and down the valley were in Basalt last Saturday for the big celebration of the energizing of the REA power line, which brings electrical energy to ranches throughout the valley as well as to the towns of Basalt and Emma. Reports are there were so many at the free dance in the evening the dancing had to be done in shifts so everyone could get a chance on the floor."

It was truly a life-changing moment for the people of the Roaring Fork Valley. But then three months later, a life-changing moment happened for everyone in the United States. "When Pearl Harbor was attacked, everything got shut down" said Grange. "We couldn't get materials like copper because of the war."

During the war years for rural areas in the Eagle and Roaring Fork valleys, life continued as it always had with no electric power. However, both the towns of Eagle and Gypsum had electric service from the Eagle River Electric company.

"Electric power to the Eagle-Gypsum area was provided by a hydro plant located about eight miles south of Gypsum on Gypsum Creek, which entailed a diversion dam, storage reservoir, 1,4000 feet of wooden penstock pipe and related equipment and buildings," reads Holy Cross Electric: In the Beginning.

In 1943, the owner of the Eagle River Electric Company approached Holy Cross to see if the REA would like to purchase the operation. "He wanted to sell because the systems were falling into bad shape. But we did not know how bad it was until we owned them," said Grange.

Holy Cross's move into the Eagle and Gypsum communities was a significant step in the company's history.

"All of the sudden, we were in the generation business," said Grange.

The change wasn't popular in some parts of the community. "There was a lot of resistance encountered when the consumers were asked to sign membership applications and pay the $5 membership fee. They just weren't much interested in becoming members of this upstart rural electric company," reads Holy Cross Electric: In the Beginning. To assuage some of the animosity, the company established an office in downtown Eagle and eventually as their electric service improved, residents became more accepting.

In 1950, Grange was hired by Holy Cross for a summer job. He had just finished the spring semester in graduate school at the University of Colorado and he planned to become a math teacher.

"My plan for the summer was to stay in Boulder and work on my thesis," said Grange. "I had everything done and all I had to do was write my thesis. Then the call came and I was looking at going to work at Holy Cross as just a summer job."

That summer job lasted for the next 60 years.

"In those days, everyone was concentrating on building electric lines and no one was keeping records," said Grange. The federal government had shut down any further construction loans until the company got its records in order. When Grange started work, there were 700 customers and seven employees at Holy Cross. "And, we were basically the same area then as we are today."

Things were a lot tougher in the company's early days.

"I remember a lot of months when we had to struggle to make payroll," said Grange.

He earned $1.15 per hour when he was first hired.

Throughout the 1950s, the company continued its mission to bring electric service to outlying rural areas.

"In 1958 we finally brought a line up Gore Creek to serve two Greek sheepmen. They had been pestering us for electric service for years," Grange continued.

That line would eventually prove to be very important.

Grange also vividly remembers the second time he was on hand when history was made. He and Thurston were at the Holy Cross office in Glenwood when Pete Seibert, the man who would eventually develop Vail, asked for a meeting.

"Pete told us he had a real problem. The gondola was already ordered and Public Service Company said that a ski area on the western side of the Continental Divide was never going to work. They wanted cash upfront to build the electric lines," said Grange. "Pete told us he didn't have the cash to do that and asked if Holy Cross could help him."

The rural electric operation was understandably nervous about the plan, but Thurston agreed to take the proposal to the Holy Cross Board of Directors. Two things were working in Seibert's favor. The company was already serving a modest ski operation on Aspen Mountain, so the concept of a resort was not totally foreign. And, just as importantly, because those Greek sheepmen had been successful in their efforts to get Holy Cross to bring service to the Gore Valley, the company considered the area as part of its territory. Holy Cross agreed to service the Vail area, and that is how history was made.

"That's what you call a good business decision," Grange said with a grin. "But if that had gone bankrupt, we probably all would have been out of a job."

"That was really the big push for Holy Cross," Grange continued. "From then on, it was just growing out of our ears."

Today Holy Cross Energy's assets are valued at approximately $306 million. The company serves 55,000 customers and has 153 employees.

"That's quite a change from those early days. But the area served is still about the same as it was in the 1950s - Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin counties plus a little bit in Gunnison County around Marble," said Grange.

While Grange retired from Holy Cross in 1993, he came back to work for the company on special projects until 2011. One of those projects included writing Holy Cross Electric: In the Beginning.

"Obviously, I never did finish my thesis for my masters at CU," said Grange. But he has managed to record his first-person experiences as this valley evolved into a world famous resort community. He says he's more than satisfied by the way things turned out. After all, how many people can legitimately say they were present to watch as history is made?

A copy of Holy Cross: In the Beginning is available at the Eagle Public Library Eagle County History archives.

Holy Cross Energy, founded in 1939, is member-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperative utility providing electricity, energy products and services to more than 55,000 consumers primarily in the Western Colorado counties of Eagle, Pitkin and Garfield.

Each consumer receiving electric service from Holy Cross is a member-owner eligible to vote at meetings of members, to become a director, to receive member equity allocations and/or distributions and to share in the proceeds should Holy Cross be dissolved.

As a not-for-profit electric utility, annual revenues that exceed operating expenses are credited to each member's equity account based upon their annual energy purchases. Each member receives an annual statement showing their current and past year(s) member equity allocation and equity account balance. Members may receive cash distributions from their equity account up to two times per year depending upon length of membership. Cash distributions are made at the discretion of the board of directors based upon the bylaws and financial condition of Holy Cross. Members have received cash distributions of over $105 million since 1963 with nearly $37 million distributed since May of 2005.

Holy Cross is governed by a duly elected board of directors consisting of seven active Holy Cross members from specific geographical districts serving staggered three year terms.

- Courtesy

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The VailDaily Updated Oct 3, 2012 01:04PM Published Oct 3, 2012 12:58PM Copyright 2012 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.