Sam Rayburn and the Development of Public Power
in the Southwest
D. CLAYTON BROWN*
THE LATE SAM RAYBURN WAS BEST KNOWN AS A POWERFUL SPEAKER
of the House of Representatives and an influential figure in the Demo-
cratic party. One of his persistent interests was resource management, and
he was chiefly responsible for the creation of the Southwestern Power Ad-
ministration (SPA), the federal power agency which serves the six-state
area of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and portions of
Kansas. The SPA was the focal point of a bitter and prolonged battle be-
tween public and private interests in the Southwest, and through his repre-
sentation of public interests in the evolution of the agency, Rayburn ulti-
mately shaped national power policy.
The initial steps toward the creation of the SPA were taken as far back
as the I920s, when local citizen groups consisting of town and country
merchants, chambers of commerce, farmers, and mayors started a campaign
to build flood control reservoirs with hydroelectric dams on the Red River
at Denison, Texas, and on the White River at Norfork, Arkansas. Flood
control was important to the sponsors of the projects, but their main pur-
pose was to generate electrical power for rural electrification. Fewer than
3 percent of the farms in the vicinity of the proposed reservoirs had elec-
tricity, and rural rates charged by the privately owned utility companies
operating in the area were too high to encourage farmers to electrify even
their homes. In some instances rural rates were nine to ten cents per kilo-
watt-hour while the cost of service in cities was about four to five cents.
Since electric companies considered the rural market unprofitable and had
no intention of serving farmers, the proponents of the dams regarded public
power as the solution to their problem. As a spokesman for the Denison
group told the federal House Committee on Flood Control in I930, "The
greatest benefit that comes out of impounded water is ... the 'juice' ... you
can light up that whole country and turn every barn into a factory by giv-
ing the farmers the power.... we will milk the cows, run the refrigerators,
rock the cradles, fry eggs, and bake the cakes with electricity."'
*Mr. Brown is an assistant professor of history at Texas Christian University. Portions
of this study were funded by The National Endowment for the Humanities.
xUnited States Congress, House Committee on Flood Control, Flood Control on the
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 78, July 1974 - April, 1975. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth117149/. Accessed February 12, 2016.