January 22, 2015
FKEC Celebrates 75 Years
It was 75 years ago today, January 22, 1940, that Florida Keys Electric Cooperative Association, Inc. was certified by the Florida Secretary of State! Can you imagine life here in the Keys prior to reliable electricity? It is something a few of our longest standing members can envision, but for younger generations it is almost impossible to picture.
It is thanks to the vision, ambition and hard work of those who founded this company, and the hard work of many in between, who has built this company to what it is today –We've come a long way, baby!
To celebrate this milestone we will be sharing pieces of our history throughout 2015. To start, let us share a timeline of how your Co-op came to be and the milestones accomplished over the last 75 years.
Read more about our history and see additional photos in our Florida Currents newsletter.
FKEC Timeline Overview:
1930s – The Need for Power Grows
In the early 1900s, many years after the rest of Florida had central electric service, the Upper and Middle Keys still had none. In the 1930s, a few privately-owned generating plants provided a limited number of homes and businesses with electricity for a few hours a day, but even those hours were unreliable.
1935 – Two Events Impact Future of Power
It was the combination of two major events in 1935, plus the determination of a handful of local residents, that ultimately advanced the delivery of electric service to our service territory.
The first was the creation of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) by President Franklin Roosevelt, which offered federally financed loans for the construction of electric distribution systems in rural communities.
The second event was the 1935 hurricane, which wiped out the railroad. The loss of the railroad prompted the development of the Overseas Highway, which in turn created easier access to our islands as well as a greater demand for electricity.
1939 – Founders Round-up Members
Despite a growing demand for electricity many Keys residents were still skeptical of joining an organization that demanded a $5 membership fee, paid in advance. In fact, it was difficult to obtain the 300 memberships required by the REA to start the Co-op. Luckily, the vision and determination of the founding leaders could not be discouraged. In fact, enthusiasts like Allen Parrish of Marathon bought 20 memberships himself to meet the quota.
1940 – Inception!
On January 22, 1940, the Florida Keys Electric Cooperative Association, Inc. was certified by the Florida Secretary of State with an office address of the “Marathon Grocery, Marathon, Florida.”
Four days later FKEC had its first board meeting and John A. Russell of Islamorada was elected chairperson.
1943-1951 – Generating Plants Grow
By 1943, FKEC operated a small plant with three generators in Tavernier and had two portable units in Marathon.
In 1947, FKEC extended electric service up North Key Largo to the Angler’s Club and to houses in between. In 1951, Coral Shores School opened for grades K-12, and FKEC had to keep expanding to meet the greater demand for power.
1957 – FKEC Connects to Mainland
In 1957, FKEC constructed a 69,000-volt transmission line to deliver power from the mainland. The following year FKEC began purchasing electricity wholesale from FP&L, as it does today. At this time the line did not extend to Marathon. There the generating plant was expanded.
1960 – Hurricane Donna
By 1960, the Marathon facility could provide 11,000-kw from its plant. It operated faithfully through Hurricane Donna which destroyed much of the outside facilities; however, the diesel generators kept running as each portion of poles, transformers and lines were restored.
1981 – Grid Expansion
The next major grid expansion was in 1981 when transmission lines were installed between Tavernier and Marathon. This combined the two separate facilities and Marathon could use the purchased power from FP&L. After nearly four decades of constant operation, the diesels at Marathon could shut down and be reserved for emergencies.
1992 – Hurricane Andrew
In 1992, Hurricane Andrew destroyed the 69,000-volt transmission line (a secondary line at that time) that was built in the 1950s. It was replaced with a larger 138,000-volt transmission line.
We have come a long way and look forward to serving you with the same determination and progressive vision as our founders. Look for more details about our historical milestones in coming issues of Florida Currents and updated press releases.
The Inception of Florida Keys Electric Cooperative:
Let us elaborate on our humble beginnings and recognize a few of our founders:
Electricity in the Keys
Ten years after Thomas Edison produced an electric dynamo producing direct current in 1879, John J. Philbrick built the first power plant in Key West. This was great for Key West, but the luxury of centralized electricity was still absent in the Upper and Middle Keys.
Many years after the rest of Florida had central electric service available to homes and businesses, most of the Keys were still in the dark.
The first real attempt to provide the small but growing population in the Upper Keys with access to electricity was made by H.S. “Mac” McKenzie. McKenzie came from Miami in 1928 and began constructing a small business center. Along with bulk oil storage tanks, he built a gas station, an icehouse, hardware store, lumberyard, auto repair garage, drug store and theater.
The theater he built, in anticipation of entertaining the WWI vets building the highway, was not successful and was later converted into a hotel. That hotel still exists as the Tavernier Inn located at Mile Marker 91.8.
Behind the Tavernier Inn (see photo below) is where McKenzie, in conjunction with Florida Power and Light (FP&L) first installed a 50-horsepower diesel generator and electric lines to those residents who wished for his service. Mac's daughter Joanne remembers the generator being named "Old Hessie."
In the beginning, power lines running along US 1 only carried power from “Old Hessie” to homes and business from MM 90.5 to MM 92. And it was only offered for a few hours in the morning and in the evening. It wasn’t even enough hours for food refrigeration, but it was something.
A few years later, Alonzo Cothron constructed a small electric system in Matecumbe. Like the Tavernier unit, he only provided electricity during essential hours. Eventually, “Mac's” Tavernier plant served about 37 customers and Matecumbe about 22 customers. Marathon had a similar small generator operation.
Another early private power plant was installed for the Caribbee Colony on southern Upper Matecumbe Key in the early 1930s. It was known for its electrically lit outdoor dance floor and its extremely large thatched roof chickee hut built by the Seminole Indians. Excursion trains came in the morning and departed in the evenings from the Matecumbe siding. The 1935 hurricane destroyed the Caribbee Colony.
FKEC is Born
As we noted last month, it was the combination of the creation of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) by President Franklin Roosevelt, the destruction of the 1935 hurricane, and the determination of a handful of local residents that ultimately lead to the creation of FKEC.
In 1938 the official opening of the Overseas Highway brought growth in population and electrical demand; however, many Keys residents were still skeptical of joining an organization that required a $5 membership fee, paid in advance. In fact, it was difficult to obtain the 300 memberships required by the REA to start the Co-op. Luckily, the vision and determination of the founding leaders could not be discouraged. Finally, Allen Parrish of Marathon bought 20 memberships himself to meet the quota.
With the required membership, Florida Keys Electric Cooperative Association, Inc. was certified by the Florida Secretary of State on January 22, 1940, with an office address of the "Marathon Grocery, Marathon, Florida." Four days later the Cooperative held its first board meeting and elected John A. Russell as chairperson.
FKEC Goes Online
In April of 1941, Chairperson Russell obtained a partial loan of $50,000 from the REA to start construction of lines. A few months later the company purchased the holdings of FP&L and McKenzie for $6,230. We also purchased land and constructed a plant in Tavernier. With all the equipment in place, FKEC went online on December 1, 1942.
Captain Eugene Lowe, William "Spud" Albury and Austin Reese worked as the first plant generation equipment operators. Alonzo Cothron (who had built a small electric system in Matecumbe prior to 1935) installed the power lines and would later serve as FKEC’s second board president.
By 1943, FKEC operated a small plant in Tavernier with three generators and had two portable units in Marathon. With the end of the war the economy grew even more. Many tourists who visited the Keys decided to stay, and each new resident meant more work for the Cooperative. FKEC would grow rapidly over the next 20 years.
Capt. Eugene Lowe, FKEC Pioneer:
Life-long Tavernier resident and professional fisherman Captain Eugene Lowe was influential in FKEC’s earliest years. His first major impact on the utility would come in 1942 when a fishing charter he captained resulted in FKEC acquiring the transformers needed in the construction of the power system.
Wilson Lands a Fish, Lowe Lands a Deal
In the time between becoming a certified utility and going online in 1942, FKEC was busy constructing the power system, but due to the war, supplies were scarce. The company was in need of essential equipment such as transformers before it could deliver power.
Luckily for FKEC, in 1942 a man by the name of Charles E. Wilson booked a day of fishing with the community-minded Captain Eugene Lowe.
Wilson was the president of General Electric, a builder of electric transformers, and was serving as a dollar-a-year civilian advisor on President Roosevelt’s War Production Board. That board happened to control the use of war-critical materials.
Wilson landed a big tarpon and decided his great day of fishing should be celebrated. Sometime during the celebration Capt. Lowe mentioned how badly the community needed electrical transformers. When Wilson asked how many, Lowe modestly replied, “We could use at least six.”
Only a couple of weeks later the transformers arrived. Imagine the need for merely six transformers. Now the average neighborhood power system consists of dozens of transformers.
This deal was the first of many that Lowe contributed toward the advancement of FKEC’s power system.
Plant Operator and Elected Trustee
Lowe had worked at the McKenzie generator facility prior to FKEC purchasing the holding, so it was natural that he would became one of the first Tavernier generation plant operators in 1941. Later, he would be the first plant manager, a job he often did without pay.
In 1946, Lowe was elected to the Board of Trustees (an organization we now call the Board of Directors). He served on the board for 20 years and as president for 17. He was also on the Safety Committee. When he stepped down from the board in May of 1966 he had been associated with Florida Keys Electric Cooperative longer than any other person.
While many people played large rolls in FKEC’s inception, Lowe’s is the longest of the founders and one of the most influential.
Look for more historical accounts in upcoming issues of the Florida Currents newsletter and future press releases.