Harvey C. Couch was the astute Arkansas businessman who founded the precursor to Entergy, and helped to bring electricity and telephone services to Arkansas, Mississippi and other nearby southern states.
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Harvey Crowley Couch was born on August 21, 1877, in Calhoun, Arkansas to the farmer-turned-minister Tom Couch and Mamie Heard Couch. Like many other farmers’ children, he attended school in Calhoun for two months out of the year. When his father was no longer able to farm, the family moved to Magnolia. As a six-foot tall, bulky seventeen-year-old, Couch attended his first nine-month school term with twelve and thirteen-year-old classmates half his size. When he became discouraged and considered dropping out, his teacher Pat Neff, challenged him by telling him, “A winner never quits” and “Men like you have built empires.” These adages became a driving force in Couch’s future ambitious endeavors as he would indeed go on to build empires. Two years later, though, Couch left school to help support his five siblings.
At Couch’s first job at a local cotton gin, he earned fifty cents per day by ensuring the gin’s steam engine boiler was heated to the required pressure to separate the cotton from its seed. He soon became a drugstore clerk as he waited for word about his application to the Railway Mail Service (SLR). His diligence and hard work in this position gained the recognition of his boss, who assigned him additional tasks which included collecting overdue accounts.
At twenty-one, Couch became the mail clerk on the St. Louis–Texarkana route of St. Louis, Iron Mountain, and Southern Railway. He was promoted to head clerk and transferred to the St. Louis Southwestern Railway. While there, Couch noticed a construction crew raising a telephone pole as part of a long-distance telephone network. He questioned the linemen and quickly realized this was his chance to bring telephone service to rural towns like Magnolia. Eager to seize the opportunity, he paid a coworker fifty dollars (approximately $1,788 today) to exchange routes so he could clerk the Magnolia–north Louisiana route. Next, Couch began the North Louisiana Telephone Company (NLTC), hiring his brother Pete as a crew leader in charge of setting up telephone poles and partnering with a postmaster in Louisiana. After the telephone network expanded, Couch bought his partner’s share of the business. During this time, Couch visited Athens, Louisiana, where he met Jessie Johnson. They got married on October 4, 1904, and went on to have five children.
In 1911, Couch sold NLTC to the Southwestern Bell company for over one million dollars (over $2,179,207.05 today). By then, NLTC had expanded to include 1,500 miles of telephone lines and fifty exchange points in four states. With this large sum of money, Couch contemplated retirement but instead decided to build another company. In 1914, he purchased the only electric transmission line in Arkansas from Jack Wilson. The twenty-two-mile line ran from Malvern to Arkadelphia. This was the birth of the Arkansas Power & Light Company, with headquarters in Pine Bluff. Couch bought millions of dollars worth of electrical equipment on an open account. He constructed Remmel Dam on the Ouachita River to generate the first hydroelectric power in Arkansas.
Sixteen years later, after incorporating hydroelectric dams powered by the Ouachita River, AP&L had 3,000 miles of electrical lines, which serviced communities in sixty-three of Arkansas’ seventy-five counties, in addition to 3,000 farmers. Couch went on to acquire and connect other utility companies, including Mississippi Power and Light and Louisiana Power and Light. Alongside AP&L, these three companies went on to form what we now know as Entergy. Today Entergy serves 2.4 million customers in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.
During this time, Couch built the first modern natural gas-powered power plant near Monroe, Louisiana. He also obtained permits from Washington, DC to build Remmel and Carpenter dams in Garland County. In creating these dams, he also created Lake Hamilton and Lake Catherine, which he named after his daughter. Couch later built a rustic cabin on Lake Catherine for his family, which he called Couchwood. There he also entertained many influential people, including presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Nowadays, Couchwood can be rented for weddings, family reunions, and company retreats from September through May. From the Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day however, it is only available for use by the Couch family.
In 1927, Arkansas Governor John E. Martineau appointed Couch flood relief director and supervisor of the Red Cross rescue operations. After the drought of 1930 (Arkansas’s worst drought of the twentieth century), Couch was appointed state relief chairman. There he helped Arkansas senator Joe T. Robinson to obtain $20 million in federal loans for Arkansas farmers.
In 1931, President Hoover appointed Couch to the seven-member board of his newly formed emergency Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), whose mission was to “strengthen confidence, facilitate exports, protect and aid agriculture, make temporary advances to industries, and stimulate employment.” The RFC operated from 1931 to 1956. Couch moved to Washington DC for the three years he served as supervisor of the public works section, overseeing budgets and encouraging the building of water and sewage systems, bridges, and electric lines. He and Jesse Jones were the only two board members who served under both presidents Hoover and Roosevelt.
In 1937, Couch acquired stock in the Kansas City Southern Railroad (KCS) and a year later he assumed control. In 1939, he combined the KCS with the Louisiana and Arkansas Railway. This merger allowed him to extend the railroad system from New Orleans to Kansas City. He added the Louisiana Railroad and Navigational Company the following year. Later, he upgraded the aging system and received expedited government approval when he announced the development of an air-rail-motor transportation system that followed the KCS routes.
In 1934, Couch returned to Arkansas, where he worked on his last two business ventures. First, he devised a new electrical distribution system using an insulated wire paired with a grounded neutral. Not only was this system easier to get to farms, but it also cut the costs from $1,500 to $750 per mile. Instead of increasing his considerable wealth by patenting the system, he turned his discovery over to the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) for public use. Next he worked to develop Arkansas’ economy by building industries to process lumber, cotton, glass, and bauxite into usable products instead of just exporting these resources.
Couch died of heart disease at Couchwood on July 30, 1941. One of his special trains transported his body from Pine Bluff to Magnolia, where he was buried beside his father and mother.
Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard