Not many workers are still on the job when they turn 67, but Willie Wiredhand isn’t your ordinary employee. Willie is the long-time mascot of America’s rural Electric Cooperatives, and he’s been working hard for us since 1950. To celebrate Willie’s service, we’re going to look back at his birth, his life, and some highlights of his time with our national, state and local Cooperatives over the last 67 years.
1950: A Mascot is Born
The nation’s first Electric Cooperatives were established in 1936: the same year that the Rural Electrification Authority (REA) began offering rural Electric Cooperative loans. In just a short few years, there were dozens of rural Cooperatives in Missouri and hundreds of us across the United States. By the 1950s, our Cooperatives were networked together through the well-established National Rural Electric Association (NRECA).
NRECA decided that Cooperatives needed a mascot: someone to be the face of rural electricity. In 1950, Willie Wiredhand was created by freelance artist Andrew “Drew” McLay to fill that role. He was born on October 30th, 1950, and by 1951 he was selected by NRECA’s membership to be the official mascot of Cooperatives nationwide.
A New Symbol of Cooperative Culture
Everything about Willie was symbolic of rural electricity. He was small and wiry; a hard-working, friendly icon with a big, determined smile. One magazine story describes Willie as, “the friendly and inspirational golden boy who symbolizes dependable, local, consumer-owned electricity (source).”
His bottom and legs were an electrical plug, and his body was made of wires. His head was a light socket, and his nose was a push button. Even Willie’s name was symbolic — a confident nod to Cooperative history.
NRECA says Willie was given the last name “Wiredhand” because the electricity that was brought to rural America by Cooperatives in the 1930s and 1940s was “the never-tiring, always available hired hand to help the nation’s farmers.”
Image Credit: Horry Electric Cooperative, Inc.
Willie Stayed Busy in the 1950s
Willie’s work ethic didn’t disappoint: He quickly became a household name. His face appeared on lightbulbs, he represented Member-Owners in Washington, D.C., and he even stood on stage with Senator John F. Kennedy.
The Willie Wiredhand incandescent lightbulb was created in a partnership between NRECA and the Sylvania Electric Products Lighting Division. The bulbs were etched with Willie’s image and packed in cardboard sleeves that had a special Willie design. They were then sold by Cooperatives and given away at 4-H events, state fairs, and other local demonstrations (source).
Willie’s work in the didn’t stop there. He dressed up as a Colonial Minuteman for a campaign called “Minutemen for Rural Electrification” that leveraged volunteers to engage with lawmakers on legislation that impacted rural Cooperatives. Volunteers wore the “Minutemen for Rural Electrification” lapel pin bearing Willie’s Minuteman image.
Photo Credit: Wisconsin REC News via ElectricConsumer.org
That same campaign put Willie on stage in 1959 with then Senator John F. Kennedy at an NRECA gathering in Washington, D.C. As Senator Kennedy spoke, a large banner of Willie the Minuteman stood towering behind him.
Willie Wiredhand from the 1960s to Today
During the 1960s and 70s, Willie promoted electric heat in rural homes, and he was featured in two comic books: Cousin Johnny Discovers Power in Rural America and It’s Annual Meeting Time for the Davis Family.”
Photo Credit: Electric Consumer
In 1974, the Morgan County REMC (now South Central Indiana REMC) in Indiana even produced a Willie Wiredhand Cookbook. Unfortunately, though, by the end of the 1970s, many spokes-characters — Willie included — waned in public popularity. For the rest of the 1970s and into the mid-1980s, Willie was seen less frequently in Cooperative marketing and publications.
By the mid-1980s, though, Baby Boomers were ready to bring back the spokes-characters they remembered from childhood. Willie gradually regained traction with Cooperatives, and by the early 2000s, his presence was strong again.
Photo Credit: Willie Wiredhand Facebook Page
Red Hot Willie hot sauces, which promoted Electric Cooperatives in Arkansas, used Willie’s image, and for several years Willie got his very own Christmas ornaments. He was even made into a bobblehead doll! The dolls, which stood 7.5” tall, were created by NRECA. They sold out so quickly that they’re now a collector’s item.
Today, Electric Cooperatives use Willie’s image on marketing materials, on products, and even in safety publications and videos. It’s rumored that Willie will make another big comeback in 2017, so keep an eye out for him here and on other Cooperative publications.
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