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Hugh Libby - Co-op Father

Hugh M. Libby: A Handful of Stories

Life is a handful of short stories pretending to be a novel

Hugh M. Libby has been a friend of electric cooperatives for at least sixty years, having been influential in bringing electricity to Amity and Cary in the 1940's. He is living a life of quiet, steady accomplishment and good influence.

Farmer's Grandson, Farmer's Son, Farmer

Hugh was born the son of an Amity potato farmer on July 12, 1917. His grandfather Daniel Libby, a native of Charleston, had purchased land in Cary in the 1800's. The family quickly outgrew that parcel and purchased three hundred acres in Amity, where Hugh's house now sits. Much of the land has been sold since Hugh and his family gave up farming.

"I farmed probably half my life," Libby says. "At one time I also had quite a herd of cattle."

Libby remembers those times fondly, though the work was hard. One year he got a call from Mickey Collins of Houlton saying he had a couple of extra bins of certified seed that was starting to sprout, and asking if Hugh would plant it in his fields and split the profit. Hugh was going to be too busy with what he already had in the ground, but "the wife" and his son Bill took on the new planting.

"That was a big lift for us, that time," Libby says. "I remember Bill went right down to Barry and Ben's (car dealership) with his profit and bought himself a new car."

Husband, Father

An ever-present part of Hugh's life and his successes was Marion, his wife of 65 years. How did they meet? He doesn't remember.

"She was here in town; I always knew her. I went to this school," he says, pointing to the old red schoolhouse across his yard, "and we had another school in South Amity, and she went to school there."

Responsibilities came early to people in the 1930's. Hugh married Marion when he was nineteen. They had two children, Bill and Patricia (Calnan). His father died when he was twenty-two, and the survival of the farm fell on his shoulders. "You got to take over," his father told him from his deathbed.

Marion was always there to back him up. Years later, for instance, she would ensure their livelihood while Hugh was on the road one fall as an electric co-op director. "I had to go to Augusta with (EMEC General Manager) Bob Clark and (Director) Bob Wheaton," he says. The potatoes had been harvested, and 4,434 barrels of them had been put in cold storage. There had been no time to sell them, and if they sprouted and spoiled, the family's income would be hit hard.

"'Wife,' I said, 'Keep an eye on those potatoes.'" She did better than that. By the time he got back, Marion had sold the potatoes, paid the bills and Social Security taxes, and deposited the rest of the profit in savings.

"She did as much as I did for that (electric) co-op, too," he says. Marion passed away on April 1, 2001.

Road-Builder, Lifesaver

One fall, near the end of the harvest, Hugh and Marion watched as a truck from the highway department pulled into the yard. The highway department needed help for the winter patrolling the roads to see if they were safe. Hugh hired on and quickly became a foreman. "

It was a good job," he said. "It was around the time I-95 was being built."His career in the highway department became his main focus after that. Bill Libby would run the farm for a few more years, but eventually the farm shut down.

Hugh's alertness on the highway job led to more than one saved life over the 15 years or so that he worked for the department. One winter night, for instance, as he was driving from Oakfield toward Island Falls, he glanced down and saw a guardrail sticking up where it had been level before. A tractor-trailer had gone over the rail and down an embankment. The cab of the truck was buried underneath the twisted trailer.

Climbing down the hill, Hugh heard the driver calling out in desperation. Wheat from the trailer was pouring into the cab, and if it didn't stop, he would soon smother.

"I took a shovel and started digging at the trailer," Hugh says. "It stopped going into the cab and started flowing out just like water beside the truck." The driver was saved for the moment, but was still trapped. "I called Ed Campbell and Dick Sanford, and they put a chain on the guardrail and used it to haul the trailer off of him."

Electrical Pioneer

In the early 1940's, Hugh and some friends read in the newspaper about the Rural Electrification Administration and its ability to provide low-interest loans to rural areas building electric utilities. "We made a few trips over to Patten," he says. Patten was the headquarters of Farm-Home Electric Co-op, which later merged with Eastern Maine Electric. John Elliot and Phyllis Birmingham at Farm-Home were helpful to the new group's efforts. They helped the group hold an organizational meeting.

"We were doing fine at the meeting until one fellow showed up," Hugh says. "He said he was with the Town of Houlton, and that Houlton Water Company had a franchise on this whole area, and that we were just wasting our time and money."

The man had been involved with Houlton Water Company (HWC) at one time, but he had lost touch with the municipal utility, and he did not realize HWC supported the Co-op's efforts.

"The Houlton Water Co. was actually a very good friend of ours (after the Co-op built lines in Amity)" Libby says.

Still, the unfounded claim that HWC opposed the development threw cold water on the group's early efforts, slowing momentum for about a year. Hugh and Marion didn't give up, though. They and others continued signing up new members and collecting their five-dollar membership fees. They needed a certain number of members in order to make the Amity-Cary construction possible, but residents of the area found five dollars hard to come by.

"You'd hear people say, 'When I see the power coming up over the hill out here, you'll get my five dollars.' That was the attitude. You know, back in them days: five dollars was like a hundred dollars now." Marion worked at JC Penneys in Houlton at the time, and when customers would come in from Amity or Cary, she would ask about their interest in signing up for power.

Houlton banker George Roach was especially helpful, perhaps in part because he wanted power at his Sunset Park camp. Driving into the Libby yard one day with local businessman Linney McNair and Dr. Ellis of Houlton, he asked Hugh and Marion, "How many more petitions do you need?"

"Fifty or so more," Marion answered.

Roach took fifty sets of paperwork with him as he left, saying, "When you come into Houlton to work at the mall, you come see me, and I'll have these ready for you." He was as good as his word.

"That did it," says Libby. The paperwork was completed, loans were taken out, and soon, the construction began. "Some of the boys from Washington was up here working on it and spent their nights right here in this house," he says. "We had an automobile that was a Nash Rambler.... We made it up and some of the workers stayed right here and slept right in the car."

Not too long afterwards, the co-op members in Amity and Cary received electric power for the first time. There was one ironic exception, though. Hugh Libby's lights didn't come on.

"I was the first one (in Amity) to call in an outage," he says. There was a problem with the transformer serving the Libby home.

Sixteen-year-old co-op employee Bud Dunphy answered the call. "We can replace that transformer in no time and get your lights on," he told Libby, who preferred to wait. Bud's father Bill was the experienced lineman in the family, but he was out of town. While Hugh was sure that the hardy young man was capable of the work, it seemed best to wait. "'I've been without power my whole life,' I told him. ‘Another three days isn't going to make a difference.'"

Hugh remains active, spending his winters in Florida now. He still manages to be back in time for Co-op zone meetings and Annual Meetings. Eastern Maine Electric remains grateful for the hard work and dedication of steady, loyal friends like Hugh and Marion Libby.


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