The lineman: A co-op icon

Article from the March issue of Highline Notes

Bits and pieces of a recent conversation at the Kindred service center may have left a passerby wondering what they’d just heard. Terms such as “missile sites” and ” belts and hooks,” peppered with Scandinavian names and nicknames, flew freely. It was a reunion of sorts and included two former linemen who recalled how things used to be, witnessed by a current lineman who listened intently and interjected his own comments on the changes in technology and equipment.

Times have changed since Jarl Maasjo and Arlen Blumer were first lineworkers. When members would lose power, in those days in the late 1940s, they’d simply send in a postcard that said something to the effect of “Our power is out, please turn it back on when you get a chance.”

Arlen Blumer, CCEC employee 1958-1992

Now answering to a busy, modern control center, Cass County Electric lineworkers are alerted to power outages moments after they occur.

Cass County Electric Cooperative has seen many changes throughout the years, especially in the years since Maasjo and Blumer began employment as lineworkers, in 1948 and 1958, respectively. Not only has the membership grown drastically since then, but innovation and invention have revolutionized the industry.

 

Jarl Maasjo, CCEC employee 1948-1983

When Maasjo and Blumer were lineworkers, especially in the early days, they did everything by hand. “We dug holes with a punch digger and set poles with a pickup. We’d take the pole and push it up by hand, then you’d back it in and tip the pole into the hole. In the winter time you’d use the frost bar to bust frost,” remembered Maasjo. “When I started, everything was done by hand. If you wanted to get up a pole, you used your belt and hooks.”

“The only protection we had on lines were fuses. There were no oil breakers circuit of any kind,” remembered Blumer. “Transformers were all hooked directly to the line, so if an animal would get on the transformer or a transformer would burn out, it took the whole line out. It was a long process of locating trouble. Then Cass went on the program of installing lightening arrestors and cut-outs for individuals and breakers came into operation.”

Both linemen recalled the first digger truck that was at the Valley City outpost. It was homemade, to say the least. It had a differential from a vehicle and they’d put a long drive shaft on it and then guys would hold on to the boom to keep it steady. Equipment and safety has come a long ways since those days, but they were innovative – doing what they could with what they had.

Selling electricity

Not only were linemen called upon to bring and restore electricity, but they were also supposed to sell it. Linemen would hook up temporary service to people’s homes and install washers and dryers for them to use for about a week.

“We used to put washer and dryers temporarily in homes – for demonstrating purposes. We’d have to crawl under the house to put cable in and then when we took it away we’d remove the cable. In those days they [CCEC] were trying to sell power,” Maasjo remembered. He also recalls the Valley City warehouse being heavily stocked with electric frying pans that they’d sell to members.

Maasjo also remembered having meetings at the schools to promote electricity.

“They’d have a film with Abbott and Costello that they’d show at the end of these little meetings they had,” he said.

The linemen not only were relied on to help bring electricity and sell it, but they also would go to great lengths to provide quality electricity for events. “If a church was going to have a big supper, they’d need more power, so we’d take out their smaller transformer and replace it with a bigger one. Then when the supper was over, we’d remove the big one and put the small one back in. This was all done with a pick-up. It had a winch and we’d use hand-line,” recalled Blumer.

Innovation

Maasjo and Blumer saw big innovations throughout the years including the first underground line that supplied power to the Catholic convent, which is now Riverview. They also saw the process and completion of West Acres and much growth in that area.

Restoring power to homes and farms was one thing. Crews would go out and they had access to where they needed to go to get the work done. Restoring power to the missile sites scattered throughout the northern part of Cass County Electric’s service territory, well, that was a challenge. Lineworkers needed to gain clearance from armed military personnel in order to gain access to restore power. At one time, Cass County Electric served 11 missile sites.

Maasjo recalled helping other cooperatives build their system, such as when the cooperative in Carrington needed help. He also remembered traveling to help out after an ice storm.

“They once sent us up to Carrington one year, the line was down from Carrington to Woodworth. We had to rebuild the whole thing.”

“The co-op is a pioneer and to be a pioneer you’ve got to be dreamers and I really believe that we were really, really fortunate to have a lot of dreamers. These guys were the framework of Cass County Electric. I had the privilege of knowing them and working with them,” said Blumer.

Byron Stoffel, line crew foreman at the Kindred service center, also remembered doing most tasks by hand when he started in 1977.

“All of the stuff we’ve done by hand is all automated now. When I started every hole we drilled was by hand. Now every tool is battery operated or hydraulic. Things we used to do manually in the field are done in the office through automation. We have computers and GPS in all the trucks,” said Stoffel.

Arlen Blumer, Jarl Maasjo and Byron Stoffel

He is the last lineworker hired at CCEC without any lineworker experience or education. All of his education was on the job. He was hired as an apprentice lineworker and went through the full four year apprenticeship and took a four year academic course with it. Training has changed throughout the years. Now all lineworkers at CCEC, many starting as temporary summer help, have attended a lineworker program.

All three linemen consider CCEC to be an innovative company. Blumer recalled helping place a huge IBM computer in the office and how CCEC was the first cooperative in the nation to have such a machine. Maasjo remembered traveling for training on underground cable so that CCEC could start its own underground projects. Today, Stoffel can look at his smart phone to find information from CCEC’s power control center.

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