CANYON, Texas — Decades’ worth of material charting the history of one of the region’s most prominent industries have been preserved, thanks to the efforts of two West Texas A&M University student interns and WT’s Center for the Study of the American West.

In a collaboration established by Wes Reeves of Xcel Energy and Alex Hunt, director of CSAW, the interns preserved and established an important collection of materials for the archives of Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum.

The significance of the Xcel Energy materials was driven home in February during the unprecedented cold snap and ERCOT failure.  

“Within these records is the story of how it came to be that most of the Panhandle is not on the Texas grid,” Hunt said.

Beginning in Fall 2019, CSAW interns Sierra Villarreal, a December 2020 history graduate from Amarillo, and Daisa Brown, an environmental science graduate student from Fort Worth, worked to sort and catalog 35 large boxes of archival material documenting the history of Xcel Energy and its predecessor company, Southwestern Public Service Co., in the Texas Panhandle region.  

“I’m thrilled that CSAW could facilitate this project. It helped Xcel Energy preserve materials which may otherwise have been lost,” Hunt said. “It also provided PPHM a significant new collection for its archive. And most importantly, it provided some WT students an interesting job through which they learned about our regional history and the importance of archival preservation work.”

The documents, provided on behalf of Xcel Energy by Reeves, Xcel Energy’s regional media relations representative, include internal company communications, marketing materials, newsletters, photographs, maps, and related materials from Xcel Energy’s predecessor companies from the early 20th century into the 21st century. Collectively, the materials tell the story of consolidation from independently operated civic power generation to a more centralized system, connecting numerous communities to a common grid.  

“This isn’t a dead and dusty archive – it’s a valuable source of information that we call upon often,” said Reeves, who has been caretaker of the company archive for more than 20 years. “As people come and go, we tend to lose institutional knowledge about our system and our communities, but the archive always remembers. And as we move into a new energy future, it’s vital to have an understanding of how we got here.”  

The project was slowed by Covid-19 restrictions, necessitating the use of Zoom meetings to coordinate workflow, but the students learned valuable lessons throughout the process.  

“I gained a better understanding of how complex power companies can be and what goes into how we get our electricity, which we tend to take for granted,” Villarreal said. “I learned a great deal about the work of archiving materials. This is the best thing I have done in my undergraduate career at WT. If you want to understand history, you have to understand how that history gets made thanks to what documents are saved, and how they’re saved.”

As a graduate student in environmental science, Brown said she found it interesting to learn about the energy production business in its early days.

“In one photo of a carbon black camp, you can see the ash plume, which helped me in becoming aware of how that impacted the environment back then, but also how it’s still affecting us now,” Brown said.

Warren Stricker, director of the PPHM Research Center, said the Xcel Energy records will provide valuable source material on the development of public utilities and the provision of electrical power to the Panhandle-Plains region, subjects that are often overlooked.  

“I think the records could be used in many ways, such as a study of technology, represented by the facilities and equipment used in delivering electricity; for an examination of design, as seen in the buildings and other structures built by the utility; for a history of corporate structure as it evolved over the last century; and, of course, as a source for the history of utilities in general and Xcel Energy and its predecessor companies in particular,” Stricker said.

Hunt said CSAW continues to seek additional partnerships with corporations, non-profits and other entities that are relevant to the American West and can benefit WT students.

Such research and regional responsiveness are key tenets of the University’s long-term plan, WT 125: From the Panhandle to the World.

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