Summer Reading Series: Harvey Couch: An Entrepreneur Brings Electricity to Arkansas

IMG_20130725_100049_933In past columns featuring information on the Flood of 1927, Harvey Couch’s name came up as the director of flood relief programs in the state. Known for bringing electricity to the state and founding Arkansas Power and Light, Couch was one of the key leaders of industrialization in Arkansas. He brought telephone lines to the state, created radio stations, and electrified both rural and urban areas. He also started electric companies in Louisiana and Mississippi. So how did he wind up overseeing relief efforts during one of Arkansas worst natural disasters?

In the days after the Mississippi River jumped its banks and covered the south in feet of water, Herbert Hoover, then Secretary of Commerce, visited Arkansas to take stock of the extensive flooding. According to the research of Stephen Wilson as documented in his book Harvey Couch: An Entrepreneur Brings Electricity to Arkansas, Hoover’s assessment of the extensive flooding read as follows: “I suggest three things to bring about the relief: first, organization, second, organization; third, organization. The organization in each state should attack the problem thoroughly and diligently, first determining the amount of relief needed, and then supplying the need.”

Hoover asked Governor John E. Martineau to find someone who could bring this kind of extensive organization to the relief efforts.  Martineau knew Harvey Couch had power lines and connections throughout the state (and in Mississippi and Louisiana, too) and was working toward building a statewide interconnected system of power lines. Martineau felt he was the only man equipped for the job. According to Stephen Wilson, “Couch’s dream and purpose of providing Arkansas with an interconnected system was proving itself in a most drastic way.”

This new job left Couch with “two disaster-related chores,” writes Wilson, “relieving the flood woes of the people of Arkansas and providing power to the three states in his system hit hard by the flood.” According to Wilson’s research, Couch formed a one million dollar reconstruction corporation fund, which was funded by a variety of organization involved in the regional business community. Additionally AP&L, Mississippi Power and Light, Louisiana Power and Light, and Electric Bond and Share brought on additional subscribers to create a fund that totaled 2.5 million. The reconstruction fund gave out loans to farmers who had lost everything. “The victims who had received the money, once they were reestablished,” writes Wilson, “quickly turned around and repaid their loans.” Couch then repaid the subscribers and dissolved the organization.

Wilson’s look at Harvey Couch’s life begins with his boyhood in Magnolia and his early days as a railroad worker with big dreams to build, as Wilson says, “an empire.” Much has been written about Couch, including multiple biographies in addition to the one featured in today’s column. More on Couch and his work and life in Arkansas will be featured in upcoming columns. Are you familiar with the stories of Harvey Couch? Do you recall his reconstruction fund? Was it effective in this area? I’d love to hear your stories. Click on the Seed and the Story link to read past columns about the Flood of 1927 and other entries in the ongoing Summer Reading series. If you know of other topics that I should be covering here, please let me know. I love learning from readers. Thanks so much for reading!

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The Seed and the Story is a partnership with theCourier and Post Dispatch newspapers in Pope and Yell County, Arkansas. This weekly column explores folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. Columns are often written in partnership with the McElroy House: Organization for Folklife, Oral History, and Community Action and humbly attempt to bridge intergenerational themes in the region.

Comments

  1. […] Last week’s column focused on Harvey Couch and the role he played in relief efforts during the Flood of 1927. Founder of Arkansas Power and Light Company, Couch was one of the state’s first industrial entrepreneurs. Whereas last week’s column explored his later life, this week we’ll go backwards a bit and explore his early days. In Stephen Wilson’s book Harvey Couch: An Entrepreneur Brings Electricity to Arkansas, he begins with a look at Couch’s childhood as a farm boy in Calhoun, Arkansas. Born in 1877, he was an outcast in the Magnolia school until a teacher named Pat Neff took great interest in him, suggesting he was the kind of man who could “build empires.” […]