Years ago, when I got married, my grandparents, Dick and Vera Trevathan of Salem, gave my bride and I a present as we set up our first apartment in Indiana. It was a set of silverware that we had for 30-years. My grandmother won the knives, forks and spoons at the REA's (Rural Electric Association) annual membership meeting. That was the first time I remember hearing about the magical event where the electric company gives you free food, musical entertainment and a chance to win PRIZES!
Last week, I finally went to my first annual meeting of what is now called the North Arkansas Electric Cooperative. The first two years I lived here, I skipped the meetings because of the dreaded thought of several thousand people converging on the fairgrounds at once. I guess it gave me a flash back to big city traffic jams I've been trapped in.
Even though I was there this year as a reporter - taking pictures and talking to people - I got an understanding of why this is a unique local event that most people around here wouldn't dream of missing.
North Arkansas Electric's Leah Burch told me the first guests arrived at 12:30 for a party that didn't actually begin until 4:30. Like me, I guess they were trying to avoid traffic gridlock. But, surprisingly, the team of people directing traffic kept things moving and seemed to find a place for everyone to park.
By the time I arrived about 4:30, the Hillbenders, a great group from Springfield, were playing, and could be heard all over the fairgrounds thanks to a professional sound system. That helped people standing in a long, long line pass the time as they waited for the chance to obtain a plate full of great barbecue and side dishes. The tents where the food was dished out were crowded but the lines moved along in what I'd call orderly chaos.
Diners then went out to the spot where they had placed their chairs to either hear the concert, hang with friends or watch the world go by. Many were sitting in bright red "chairs in a bag" with the NAEC logo, which had been given out for signing in as voting members at the annual business meeting.
Kids were playing on and in inflatable fun houses, some people ambled over to the fairgrounds exhibit building to look at displays showing off the latest ways to save energy and cut electric bills. Four wheelers zoomed around taking people who had trouble walking to where they wanted to go, while others helped carry meals out to those unable to stand in line or carry their food. It was a regular three ring circus!
While citizens wouldn't dream of missing the annual meeting, North Arkansas Electric employees don't really have a choice. The co-op's employees, about 120 people, all pitch in to direct the traffic, sign members in, serve the food, clean up and perform all the other jobs it takes to keep a large crowd happy. Some looked a little tired or a little stressed, but they all had a smile, as things got done like clockwork.
1,601 co-op members signed in. Because most had a spouse and/or kids, North Arkansas Electric estimates about 4,000 people showed up - perhaps a record crowd. A nice cool evening and the nationally known band "Little Texas" may have helped swell the crowd, but most seemed to be there because...well, just because. It's the place to be every early June. Is there any other event in Fulton County that draws this many people to one place at one time?
The question is, how much longer will the party continue? While about all electric co-ops used to offer annual meetings for their members, North Arkansas Electric is just one of two left in Arkansas who are carrying on the tradition. It's cheaper and easier to pick a board and deliver the annual financial report by sending out ballots to members. But local members will tell you, North Arkansas Electric's method of conducting required business is a whole lot more fun.