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Power: A family tradition

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Power lines run in the Koranda blood line.

In 1947, during the early days of rural electrification, Don Koranda went to work for Todd-Wadena Electric Cooperative, building some of the first power lines in the central Minnesota countryside.

“They dug the holes and set (poles) by hand then,” his son Jim Koranda said. “There was no such thing as digger trucks. Everything was done by hand.”

Using the most up-to-date equipment, Jim, his son Shawn and both of their wives carry on the family tradition nearly six decades later at the family contracting business, Legacy Power Lines, which builds, repairs and maintains lines for rural electric cooperatives. Jim and Shawn are both graduates of the M State Wadena electrical line worker program and serve on its advisory board. The company counts many alumni among its ranks.

For 33 years, Jim worked for Runestone, an electric cooperative that serves the Alexandria area, climbing his way up the organization’s management pole, fostering relationships with people in the industry and learning what it takes to win contracts with cooperatives. The job also led him to his wife, Annie Koranda, who now handles bidding for Legacy.

In 2008, with a career’s worth of skills and rented equipment, Jim started his own overhead power line contracting business out of a rented shop in Sauk Centre. His son Shawn, who worked for a cooperative in Melrose at the time, joined him.

“This is something I always wanted to do,” Jim said. “We just went for it.”

By winter of 2009, work had become scarce and the future looked bleak.

Then a Christmas Eve ice storm hit Iowa, where the Korandas had made contacts, and a rural cooperative enlisted Legacy to repair the devastated power lines. Gladly forgoing the holiday, they hopped in their trucks, taking backroads the whole way because the storm had closed the interstates.

The work allowed Legacy to get its own “lights back on,” Annie said. “It was kind of our saving grace.”

During the 17 months of work from that project, Legacy gained a reputation for quality - “we do good work” - and it soon began to rapidly expand, she said.  

In April 2011, on the 54th anniversary of Don’s first day on the job, Legacy broke ground on a headquarters just east of Wadena. Jim said he chose the location - on land formerly owned by Todd-Wadena Electric Cooperative - to give back to the community and to carry on his late father’s tradition.

Nowadays, the company works on rural power distribution networks throughout Minnesota, Iowa and the Dakotas. This summer’s projects include replacing 30 miles of outdated lines between Brookings and Sioux Falls.

Although Jim and Annie live in the Twin Cities suburbs, Shawn and his family make their home near Bluffton. Jim’s mom, Ave, lives in Wadena. Back in the pre-digital era, she answered the “trouble phone,” which alerted line workers to power outages.

Legacy employs an average of 50 to 60 employees. Many live in the Wadena area, but they’re scattered throughout the state, from the Twin Cities to Duluth.

After working for the company for awhile, some employees go to work for rural electric cooperatives, where they can be home with their families each night instead of spending so much time on the road.

“We try really hard to help people get these jobs,” Jim said. “We’re kind of a feeder system. We’re a good source for employees with some experience.”  

Amid an ongoing power line construction boom, Legacy plans to hire 10 more line workers this summer.

“I think we’re seeing a need to grow again,” Jim said.

It’s a cyclical industry, he said. The first boom built the network. The second boom in the 1970s expanded and maintained it. Now, as more and more lines deteriorate beyond repair, Jim said, “that stuff’s gotta be replaced.”

On Monday at M State Wadena’s 90-acre training area on the south edge of town, Levi Bailey prepared for a career in the industry, building part of a mile-long power line with a team of classmates to demonstrate the skills they’ve learned since the fall.

“By now they should know how to do it,” said Wayne Dykhoff, one of three line worker instructors at the largest of Minnesota’s three programs.

Bailey is currently interning at Legacy. “We’ll see where that takes me,” he said.

He said many of the campus’s 52 line worker students have applied for the job openings at the company.

Dykhoff, a graduate of the program himself, said his students hope to land positions in the flush job market either at Legacy or at a electric cooperatives in their hometowns. At Runestone, Jim was Dykhoff’s first boss, and the instructor’s wife now works in the Legacy office.

The company’s presence in Wadena has been great for M State, said lab assistant Doug Schmidt. “They’ve supported this class more than anyone by far.”