A visionary with a stubborn belief that the farming communities of rural Randolph County could be modernized, Harry Sickmeyer worked hard to make rural electrification a reality—and flipped the switch that brought the project to life.
Harry August Conrad 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. Harry grew up with his brother, sisters, and cousins in the close-knit German Lutheran farming community that spanned along the far southern reaches of rural Randolph and Jackson Counties, with residents calling home tiny hamlets like Wine Hill, Shiloh Hill, Mill Creek, Mt. Summit, Leanderville, West Point, and Campbell Hill.
As a young boy, Harry was a student in the county’s rural one-room schoolhouses in Bremen and Shiloh Hill. In his later years, he recalled carving his initials in a desk in the Shiloh College building during its tenure as an elementary school. 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 he was 24, the United States entered World War I, transforming any extended family still in Germany into the enemy. Anti-German sentiment was prevalent, with the nearby towns of Steeleville and Campbell Hill both making it illegal to speak German in public.
After the Selective Service Act passed in 1917, Harry was one of the thousands of young men who answered the call and registered for the draft. But his registration card demonstrates that he was perhaps not initially eager to serve. As a self-employed farmer, he noted on the form that his mother and father depended on him solely for support—a statement that was a bit of an exaggeration, as he had a brother, sisters, and brothers-in-law also living at home or nearby. The local registrar in Campbell Hill cast doubt on Harry’s claim, calling the support statement “undoubtedly incorrect.” In June 1918, Harry was called up. He enlisted and was assigned to the 20th Company of the 159th Depot Brigade. His work on the farm, including knowledge about horses, was valuable, as his time in the army included cavalry service. He rose to the rank of corporal and was honorably discharged in April 1919.
Harry returned to the farm, 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 to prevent the destruction of crops from soil washing. As he grew more independent in his thinking about his profession, he also entered into a new kind of partnership. On Thanksgiving Day in November 1922, he married Pauline Huch at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Wine Hill. The couple had known each other for years, as his older sister, Emma, had married Pauline’s brother, Harry, in 1915.
Harry and Pauline settled into married life together on a farm in Shiloh Hill. Over the next six years, they expanded their family to include two daughters, Opal and Mildred, and twin sons, Vernon and Irvin. The family’s life on the farm fell into the familiar patterns from Harry’s childhood, with his sons helping him with farmwork as they grew older. But 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’s 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. Electricity would allow farmers access to refrigeration, to pumps and motors and lights. The risk of fires in barns, caused by the flames from kerosene lamps igniting hay and wood, was significantly mitigated with the availability of electric lighting. 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, even before President Roosevelt signed the Rural Electrification Act, Harry and his brother-in-law, Theodore Kueker, began holding meetings at Shiloh College to encourage their neighbors to endorse the idea of rural electrification. “Like a lot of other farm families, we wanted central-station electricity,” Harry recalled later. “It seemed logical to expect the power companies to help us. They had the electricity to serve us and the crews to build lines out to our farms.” The Shiloh College meetings were held at the request of an existing electric company. “Since REA didn’t exist back in 1934, we had to call on the power company manager at Sparta. He suggested learning how many neighbors wanted electric service. Well, that suggestion made sense to us. We know that if the company would only consent to build a line about a mile in length in our neighborhood, it would get plenty of customers.”
Nearly 40 farmers from the area indicated their support for the concept, even at the steep prices quoted by the power company. But when the manager from the Sparta company failed to show up to speak with the farmers, Harry knew a different avenue would be required to make the idea a reality. The passage of the REA ultimately offered them the pathway they needed, and the early steps to create an electricity cooperative were taken. Even so, there was resistance from those who clung to the old, traditional ways. “That old coal oil lamp was good enough for my father so I think it will be good enough for me,” some farmers said when asked to sign up as cooperative members.
To make it easier to secure the required REA loan money, the group from Randolph County decided to merge with the burgeoning cooperative from Jackson County. The resulting organization, the Egyptian Electric Cooperative, was officially formed on August 25, 1938. Harry was named as one of the Randolph County representatives on the board of directors. The next task was growing the cooperative’s membership numbers. “We had a goal of 500 members in the two counties,” Harry recalled. “We needed to sign up these many people to get a 195-mile line built. Once we had achieved that objective, we could apply for a construction loan.”
Harry headed up the membership drive in Randolph County, requesting an initial five-dollar investment from each new member to provide the cooperative with much-needed capital. It wasn’t an easy task. “We had to call on farmers and ask them to take out a $5 membership in a cooperative that existed only on paper. Now, in these affluent times that doesn’t seem like much of an undertaking, but it was a different story then. In 1938, you remember, people didn’t have too much spare cash. The country was just beginning to work its way out of the depression.” Overall, the number of those who opposed electrification was relatively small, mostly consisting of those who were indeed concerned about costs.
Occasionally a language barrier was also an issue. Harry’s German-American heritage helped him to overcome that hurdle. He recalled, “One time I went to a meeting west of Sparta. It was held in a farm home, and it was really jammed with farm people. The farmer introduced me to the crowd in the living room and said, ‘Don’t try to make a fool of him by talking between yourselves in German. He understands it, too.’ Well, I explained the project, speaking only in German. When I went home that night, I had 15 applications for membership in my pocket.” The promises of the incredible benefits of electricity were enough to sway the vast majority of local farmers. It took only five months for the cooperative to reach its membership goal, and by February 1939, they had secured a $500,000 loan from the REA to begin the project.
The cooperative quickly landed on a site for the first rural substation, purchasing a plot of land from Charles Hartman on his farm near Bremen. Construction on the power poles and lines officially began there in September 1939, and a huge celebration was held on the site at Winkelman’s Grove. Local schools cancelled classes, and a remarkable 800 people showed up for the event. A slate of speakers extolled the virtues of electricity and paid ironic farewell tributes to the appliances of the past—ice boxes, flatirons, washboards, and brooms. Locals consumed 300 pounds of barbecued meats, and, as the first power pole was officially put in place, the Steeleville band played “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
It was still some time before the rural residents of Randolph County could reap the benefits of electrification. The REA required 75% of the houses in the area to be connected to power lines before they could be energized. Obstacle after obstacle confronted Harry and the other cooperative directors as the project continued. For one, the nation was once again at war. Harry dutifully registered once again for the selective service, qualifying this time for the so-called “old man’s draft.” By this time, he was in his late forties, and although his work for the cooperative was taking up a great deal of his time, he still listed his occupation as “farmer.” Indeed, Egyptian Electric called him away from the family farm so often that it caused some hard feelings within the Sickmeyer family. His teenaged sons, Vernon and Irvin, were increasingly required to take on bigger and bigger workloads during their father’s absences with the cooperative. Tragically, when the boys were 17, Irvin was killed in an accident while putting up hay in the barn. Vernon was left alone to grieve for his twin and to shoulder the farm work, and he had to put aside his dream of joining the Air Force to continue to support the family.
Family and community discord challenged the electrification project in many ways. Arguments over land easements for power lines were sometimes nearly insurmountable. “In some areas it was quite difficult to get easements because of family quarrels dating back many years,” Harry remembered. “We would find it almost impossible to get clearance for right-of-way construction because of grudges and neighborhood feuds. Some were of such long standing that the original cause of the argument had been forgotten.” Harry and his associates cleverly recruited trusted community leaders to help them secure the needed permissions. In one area near St. Leo’s Hill, the local priest, Father Armbruster, was a crucial partner. He very much wanted electricity for the church and school, and he was able to convince the members of his flock to sign on to the project with a remarkably quick turnaround.
Workmen had only been working on constructing the lines for about two weeks when union officials stopped all work following a salary dispute. It was the middle of December before the strike was settled and construction work resumed. And then, the elements turned against the project. Bitterly cold weather during the winter of 1939-1940 made the construction of rural lines especially difficult. It was so cold, in fact, that several workmen froze their feet working on the right-of-way clearance project. Harry remembered offering shelter and coffee to the workers constructing the lines near his house in Shiloh Hill. At one point, while out on cooperative business, Harry’s car got stuck in a snowbank near Schuline. He had to enlist his young sons to drive the 20 miles from Shiloh to Schuline in the family’s tractor in the freezing cold to pull him out.
Through it all, the project continued, and by March 30, 1940, it was time to officially electrify the first section of rural Randolph County. Though it was now spring, the weather was still chilly as Harry, now president of the cooperative, approached the switch at the substation in Bremen. As he threw the switch, electricity flowed through 95 miles of power lines, bringing power to 313 rural customers. Electric lights at the nearby Hartman farm were the first to illuminate. “The people on the section from the Bremen substation to a point south of Shiloh Hill were so surprised and overjoyed the night the lights were turned on that it still lingers in my memory,” Harry said much later. “The neighbors went from house to house along the 10-mile section, checking to see if the lights really were shining in each home.” Back at the substation, a photographer from the Sparta News-Plaindealer asked Harry to recreate the switch-throwing moment for his press camera. The photograph, showing Harry looking at the transformer as he threw the switch, was printed on the front page of the paper’s April 5th issue. Several other cooperative officials, including Harry’s brother-in-law, Theodore Kueker, are also featured in the image.
Soon, more and more county residents were clamoring for electrification. Over the next several months, Harry and the cooperative worked to make it happen for them. He remembered that “people in adjoining areas began exclaiming: ‘When do we get electricity?’ We decided to energize the next section north of the substation as quickly as possible. Then we went south and north until all lines were energized.” The cooperative grew at lightning speed. By the end of April 1940, the cooperative board hired an experienced manager, T. F. Fieker of Taylorville, as superintendent. “We thought only in terms of supplying farmers with power for electric lights and a few electric appliances back in 1938,” Harry recalled. “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.”
But as war raged on in both Europe and the Pacific, there were challenges for the cooperative’s expansion. Only 12 employees were tasked with overseeing the growing grid, and there were increasing shortages of materials due to wartime limitations. They were unable to secure new trucks or effectively repair their existing ones. Supplies became so limited that the construction of new lines had to be stopped completely for a time.
After the war, though, business swiftly rebounded. Under the leadership of Harry and his fellow directors, the cooperative continued to flourish over the next several decades. By 1948, power lines had been extended as far into the county as Kaskaskia Island. Two years later, in 1950, the cooperative moved into new headquarters in Steeleville, where they would remain for more than half a century. A modern two-way radio system allowed linemen working in remote parts of the area to communicate with the central office. At the same time, the board of directors increased the cooperative’s negotiating power by partnering with similar organizations, forming the Southern Illinois Power Cooperative. Today, the cooperative continues to innovate, offering grants for the installation of alternative energy solutions.
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 the time of his retirement, the cooperative had grown to more than 8,000 members and 1,800 miles of power lines. General manager R.S. Holt paid tribute to Harry’s long service to the cooperative and its members. “Harry Sickmeyer had faith in the people of the area and had a firm belief in the benefits of electricity on the farm,” Holt said. “He has seen the fulfillment of his early struggles to make his dream come true.” Even after Harry’s retirement, the Sickmeyer family has remained strongly linked to Egyptian Electric. Today, three of Harry’s grandsons and two of his great-grandsons are members of the cooperative.
Harry Sickmeyer died in Murphysboro four years later, in July 1977, after a long illness. He was 82 years old. The world had become a completely different place over the course of his lifetime. The quiet farming communities, where families ate by candlelight and toiled to work the land, were now illuminated, having had a whole host of new opportunities made available to them through the power of electrification. 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.
Harry Sickmeyer was inducted into The Randolph Society in 2023.