The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that Harry Sickmeyer, a visionary who worked hard to make rural electrification a reality, will be inducted into the 2023 class of honorees.
Harry Sickmeyer was born in the small town of Welge in Randolph County on September 25, 1892. He was the fourth of seven children of Heinrich Sickmeyer and his wife, Caroline Welge Sickmeyer, both of whom were the children of immigrants from Germany. He left school after finishing the eighth grade and went to work on his family’s farm. Life for the German-American farming community changed rapidly in the years that followed.
When Harry was 24, the United States entered World War I. He enlisted in the army in June 2018 and served as a corporal with the 20th Company of the 159th Depot Brigade. He was honorably discharged in April 2019 and returned to the family farm near Campbell Hill, but his time in the army had broadened his horizons. He became deeply interested in technological innovation, experimenting with new techniques like terracing his fields. In 1922, he married Pauline Huch in Wine Hill, and they settled down on their own farm together, raising four children in Shiloh Hill.
Harry never lost the desire to make farming life easier for himself and the other residents of the area. By the 1930s, a new avenue for improvement was becoming a reality: electrification. It is difficult to imagine how much harder farm life must have been before electricity. No lights, no machines, no tools that required power. Tasks that seem simple now, like keeping milk fresh on its way to the consumer, took immense effort. Residents of nearby towns like Steeleville and Chester were already enjoying the benefits of electrification, and Harry was keen for power stations and lines to be extended into the county’s rural areas as well.
In 1934, Harry joined a forward-thinking group that included his brother-in-law, Theodore Kueker, with the goal of bringing electricity to the rural parts of the county. Four years later, the organization officially became the Egyptian Electric Cooperative. Harry spearheaded the Randolph County membership drive that allowed the cooperative to secure an REA loan and begin construction on power lines and substations. He navigated challenges like cost concerns, language barriers, and arguments about property and easements as he successfully reached the cooperative’s goal.
The first rural substation was located on a plot near Bremen. There, in September 1939, Harry was one of the leaders at a large celebration marking the beginning of the project’s construction. Eight hundred people came from the surrounding area to watch the first power pole’s placement. After several complicated months of construction, with obstacles like salary disputes, bitterly cold weather, and the ongoing war, the cooperative was finally ready to electrify the lines.
As president of the cooperative, Harry was appointed to flip the switch that officially brought electricity to rural Randolph County in April 1940. Soon, more and more county residents were clamoring for electrification. Over the next several years, Harry and the cooperative worked to make it happen for them. “We had no idea our little cooperative would grow into one of the largest in the state and would be serving such a large variety of member-owners,” Harry remembered later.
For the rest of his life, Harry remained devoted to the cooperative and its vision for a connected, empowered population. He served in various roles on the board of directors, including terms as president, vice-president, and secretary-treasurer, every year from the cooperative’s formation in 1938 until his retirement in the spring of 1973. He stated that May that he was stepping down after “seeing the fulfillment of my early efforts and dreams.” By that time, the cooperative had grown to more than 8,000 members and 1,800 miles of power lines. He died four years later at the age of 82. Harry’s foresight, his leadership, and his dedication to the cause made it possible for rural Randolph County to enter the modern era with the flip of a switch.
Click here to read a more detailed biography of Harry Sickmeyer.