Martha Nelson, 93, and other rural electric cooperative pioneers were honored by Verendrye Electric Cooperative and National Information Solutions Cooperative in January with a tribute held at Minot's Edgewood Vista.
Nelson recalled what rural electricity meant to individuals when it first came to her farmstead in the Minot area in 1949.
The day the lights came on, Nelson recalled standing in her small main room, and ironing.
Martha Nelson holds a copy of a recognition she received from National Information Solutions for sharing her story about rural electricity, and a leather-bound book containing letters from national and local leaders recognizing her husband’s service on the board of directors for Verendrye Electric Cooperative.
"The day that rural electricity came, I'll never forget that day. I had gotten an electric iron for Christmas, and I plugged in that iron and I ironed the rest of the day. My husband came home, and said, 'You can't imagine the difference. From when I turned around from hauling that load of hay, and I could see the lights on the landscape, it was just like the heavens and earth had exchanged places,' " Nelson said.
"It revolutionized the area. Many from back then can tell you stories about it," she added.
Farrel Nelson, Martha's husband, served on Verendrye Electric Cooperative's board of directors for many years and retired in 1981. Nelson recalled the efforts of early board members to build a co-op.
"It was a lot of hard work to convince people to co-op. It's like in anything you try to organize. We (Farrel and Martha) worked together, though he was the one on the board. We've always been involved with co-ops and the struggles to gain these," she said.
"We did it for the betterment of mankind. It was for the benefit of everybody, and that's what a co-op is all about. It (rural electricity) would have eventually come, but this (the co-op) certainly made it a blessing for people in rural areas," Nelson said.
"It's just as much of a struggle now, you have to fight for everything progressive," she added.
In the early days, there were a lot of struggles.
"A lot of people didn't believe like we did, and you have to work with that. People didn't want to put out money for rural electricities at first," Nelson said.
In trying to gain a rural electricity co-op, Nelson said that the focus was always on the good of the community.
"It was all about our neighbors. It isn't about one political party, or one religious group. It's everyone working together, everyone working for a common good," Nelson said.
Neighbors played a large role in daily life.
Nelson recalled birthday parties held for four boys born in the same year, and Christmas parties, that brought a lot of joy to their lives.
"Nowadays, you don't have neighbors like you did then. They go for miles for entertainment now, but we had to entertain ourselves. It was such a pleasure to get together and have those birthdays. Now, you wouldn't know if your neighbors have birthdays," Nelson said.
"Your neighbors really meant a lot back then," she added.
Nelson recalled other changes that rural electricity brought, and emphasized the need for individuals to learn the history of where technology began.
"A lot of people don't know what it was like. When my grandchildren look at a kerosene lamp, they say, 'Did you really study by that?' They can't imagine it. I think it's a wonderful thing to teach people about the beginning of things," Nelson said.
"The changes have certainly made an impact. Road systems are better, and technology has revolutionized the whole world," she added.
The changes in her own lifetime seemed slow in coming, but gradually began to change the way she lived.
"We never had a refrigerator before rural electric came. When it came, you could do the things that they could do in cities. Before rural electric, we would make ice cream and set it in the snowbank to keep it cool. Then the neighbors would come, but a dog had come and ate up all the ice cream!" Nelson said.
"We also used to heat the place with coal, and we hauled coal from the mines up here (in Minot)," she added.
Nelson agreed to share many of her memories with National Information Solutions Cooperative. On video tape, she discussed articulately what it was like to live during the days before and after rural electric and telephone service were brought to rural America. The clips were shown during the NISC's annual Member Conference in St. Louis. More than 1,500 customers from across the country were captivated by Nelson and her stories.
Since the fall conference, Nelson's popularity has grown, with NISC customers across the U.S. asking for copies of the video clips to show at their own annual membership or employee meetings.
Nelson herself believes that she isn't better than everyone else, but that she was selected to tell the story because she is still able to. She's thankful that she still has her voice.
"I'm glad that God has given me the ability to talk. At my age, this is all I have left. There are others up here (at Edgewood Vista) that have been good workers in these co-ops. It wasn't only those of us who were interviewed who were instrumental," Nelson said.
Nelson continues to dream for the future. She has hopes of passing on her favorite poetry to her grandchildren, and she recites the poems she has memorized with a clear, expressive tone. She continues to work at remaining independent through her retirement, as after an accident, she suffered a twisted femur and has struggled to regain mobility.
"If I leave my walker, I'll fall, and never get up again. After the twisted femur, they said I'd never walk again, and I showed them I could. The more I work at it, I get stronger, and I get better," Nelson said.
"I didn't come into retirement to die, but to live. I still have dreams. I do a lot of planning when I'm lying awake at night. It's absolutely wonderful," she added.