The Friday Footnote for last week focused on the factual events surrounding rural electrification. We didn’t have space to examine the human reactions and experiences in bringing electricity to rural America. This week the Footnote will share the human experiences, some very humorous and some very moving, regarding the night the lights came on. Many (but not all) of the stories comes from the 1972 USDA publication Rural Lines.
A Diary Entry:
Jan. 7,  — Thursday — Eventful day! Our electric lights were turned on today.” From the diary of Miss Lula Weesner (Note: Miss Weesner taught for 23 years at a one room school in the Silver Hill Community and then for 23 more years at Gore High School in Georgia).
Lena Boyce, a farmer’s wife in North Carolina, who had her first meal by electric light discovered that her kitchen walls were dirty. “I just couldn’t believe it,” she said, “The lights were so bright, so much brighter than what we’d ever had in there before.”
Born to Soon:
One woman, over 100 years old, wrote REA to thank the Government. She had never felt that she had been born too soon, she said, until the night the lights came on. Now she regretted that she would see so little of the future.
A farmer speaking to a gathering in a small rural Tennessee church in the 1940s proclaimed, “Brothers and sisters: I want to tell you this. The greatest thing on Earth is to have the love of God in your heart. And the next greatest thing is to have electricity in your house.”
Afraid to Use the Electric Iron:
One woman in Kentucky kept a new electric iron for weeks before she dared use it.
Proper use of Pot Holders:
There are several stories about people using pot holders to turn on the electric switch or unplug appliances. They didn’t want the electricity to shock them.
Don’t Let the Electricity Leak Out: A lady in Kentucky kept something plugged into the electrical receptacles at all times to prevent the electricity from leaking out.
Turning off the light:
One housewife wrote the REA Administrator to find out how to turn off her bedroom light at night. Nobody had bothered to tell her that she had a switch.
“The day we got our radio,” wrote one farm wife, “we put it in the kitchen window, aimed it out at the fields, and turned it on full blast. During the first week, the men hated to be out of the sound of it.”
Figure 1. A farm family listening to the radio.
Moving the House:
One Georgia farmer, who tried to join his local cooperative for $5 was told that his home was too far from the electric line. If he wanted electricity, he would have to pay $165 for a line extension.
A week later he returned, still waving his $5.
“I moved my house,” he explained in triumph. It had cost him $50 to prepare a new foundation, roll his house across the fields, and set it up a few feet from the line.
A Life Saved:
Construction of the rural electrical lines had its dramatic moments. One rainy day in Indiana, a woman lay dying of pneumonia in her farmhouse. The doctor said that an oxygen tent might save her, but there was no electricity in the house to operate the fan in the tent. Working in the storm, three linemen built a 500-foot extension from the coop line in just 2 hours. The switch was turned on in time; the woman’s life was saved.
Using the Mule: One resourceful electrical line contractor found it impossible to drive his pole truck back into the muddy fields where the line was supposed to go. So he hitched a trailer to his truck and hauled a mule in it. When his crew hit mud, they unloaded the mule and let it drag the pole into position.
Let The Chain Go:
I’ll never forget that day – it was late in November afternoon, just before dark. All we had was wires hanging down from the ceiling in every room, with bare bulbs on the end. Dad turned on the one in the kitchen first, and he just stood there, holding onto the pull-chain. He said to me, Carl, come here and hang onto this so I can turn on the light in the sitting room.’
“I knew he didn’t have to do that and I told him to stop holding it, that it would stay on. He finally let go, and then looked kind of foolish.”
Turning on the Lights:
At a general store in Georgia, the storekeeper boasted of his new electric light for a month before discovering that it was only the night light over his cash register. When a co-op man showed him how to turn on the rest of his lights, he was speechless with amazement.
Burying the Kerosene Lantern:
At a crossroads in Texas, the night the lines were energized, ranchers filed past a newly dug “grave,” hurling their kerosene lamps into the pit as a sign of their deliverance.
The Refrigerator Light:
In a small farmhouse in Missouri, a woman ignored the lamps which suddenly burst into brilliance, and ran instead to the kitchen, where her new refrigerator had stood for a month awaiting current. When she saw that the little light inside really came on, she burst into tears of relief.
Electricity and Education:
“To my mind, the coming of electricity began a new kind of life for most of us,” explained a retired South Carolina schoolteacher. “It meant much more than gadgets and appliances. Tenant children used to quit school in the third grade. Now they go through high school, and many finish college. It all happened after the lines came through.”
One young man who had begun shaving while in the service got back to his farm before he recalled that he couldn’t use his electric razor in his unelectrified home.
Watering the Horses:
Sam Oswalt, a North Carolina farmer, remembers finally being able to water horses without bringing them to a nearby stream thanks to an electric water pump. “
Flushing the Toilet:
A farmer in Georgia was able to pump water into his house with the aid of electricity. This meant he could then install an indoor toilet. People would come from miles just to see the toilet flush. It was amazing.
Pearl Yates, a North Carolina farmer’s wife first got electricity in 1939. She was so amazed by her home’s new lights that she walked from room to room with her small children, taking it all in. “We’d stop and look and they were so pretty and we’d go look at another room and another room,”
A person (who grew up with electricity) recalls, “When I was in first grade, I went to spend the night with a friend who lived two miles west of Newtown. After playing outdoors, we were called for supper. I will never forget the surprise I got when she put something with a light in the middle of the table. I was told it was a kerosene lamp and that they had no electricity.
One lady recalls when her rural family got electricity, people from all over drove by to see the home with electricity.
The Famous Chicken Egg:
Inspired by her newly lighted chicken house, a hen in Kentucky laid an egg shaped like a miniature light bulb. The press was delighted; the egg was mentioned in a nationwide radio broadcast; months later, REA received clippings of stories about the egg from newspapers in Sweden and Spain. Still later, it wound up at the New York World’s Fair in 1939.
Figure 2: A news article about the light bulb shaped egg from the
Spokane Daily Chronicle Jan. 28, 1939.
Teachers and principals reported that pupils’ grades improved remarkably after lines were energized. Both better lighting and the influence of radio were credited with improving scholarship. Students were cleaner, too. At one school, they used five times as much liquid soap a year after running water was installed inside the schoolhouse.
Studying Agriculture in College:
To one farmer it meant that his sons possibly would make farming a career, something they had never considered before electricity. “Today,” he said, “the boys are talking about going to the agricultural college and making big plans for the farm. I would never have believed electricity could do that.”
A Boost to the Economy:
Electrification boosted the economy of towns in rural areas. It brought new appliance stores and equipment dealers to Main Street. It created new jobs for the young people from farms. The co-op’s pay roll made a difference to merchants, too, for the cooperative was often the biggest business in town. A banker in Preston, Minn., confessed that the largest check ever written on his bank was for $53,700 by the local cooperative to the contractor who built a portion of its lines. The $90,000 Government check deposited by the coop was the largest single deposit the bank had ever received.
Dave McCracken Remembers (Dr. McCracken is a retired Ohio State Ag Ed Professor):
I grew up in SE Iowa. The REA never came to our community. The electrical utility company extended electricity to our area in about 1944 (when I was about 5 years old). We had a diesel generator for about one year before getting the electrical hookup. Electricity fostered the development of agriculture in many ways.
On a side note, I can remember my grandparents (On my mother’s side) trying to avoid going over the minimum charge for electricity. They would burn only one light bulb at night in the living room and go to bed early so they wouldn’t use that much electricity.
MeeCee Baker Remembers (MeeCee was the first female president of the NVATA):
My Mom got electricity on their home farm in 1944. Before that she had to crank the batteries! She also had a lifelong concern that everything electrical would “Catch fire!” like the washer, dryer, dishwasher, and on and on. Even though we had a washer and dryer in our basement, she went to the laundromat and hung her clothes out to dry. We also had to pull the plugs on any unused appliance.
The Impact of a County Agent:
Howard Baker was the County Agent in Dade County, Georgia in 1936. He spent numerous hours in the field working on the formation of TVA and REA. He pointed out that while this was not technically a part of his job, he learned how important the need was for electricity. Baker became a director of the North Georgia Electric Membership Cooperative in 1949, was elected assistant secretary and treasury in 1971, and secretary -treasury in 1972. He was presented a “Pioneer Award” in 1984. He was one of 10 men to be so honored for his many years of service to rural electrification in Georgia. Upon his death, a yearly scholarship was awarded in his memory. It is still awarded today.
Coming of Age:
Terry Kay is an acclaimed writer with an international following. His debut novel was The Year the Lights Came On. It revolves around the electrification of rural northeast Georgia shortly after the end of World War II and is a classic coming-of-age story of a young boy. It is funny and explores the conflict between the “have nots” (those without electricity) and the “haves.” And the girl’s name in the story is Megan.
Figure 3. A novel about rural electrification and a young man’s coming of age.
As some of these stories illustrate, the coming of electricity to rural America changed lives in so many ways. The following poem (author unknown) gives a hint of how things did change when electricity reached rural America:
Electricity is a servant, make it work for you.
Then baking days won’t be so hot, or washdays be so blue.
Your cows will be contented, with a milker fine and bright.
The kids will like the music, from the radio at night.
Your feed will be ground easily, your baby chicks kept warm.
The whole family will be happy, with electricity on the farm.
Electricity changed lives. As educators, we also change lives. In this time and age, it is easy to lose sight of that fact. Let’s not forget that.
- A great 11-minute video about electricity in rural America, including some interesting and amusing tales, can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_hbB3v3WGY. The film comes out of Georgia, so there are some references to Georgia. One of the persons interviewed in the video is Terry Kay, the author mentioned a few paragraphs up.
- Have your students interview grandparents and other senior citizens who might have experienced the coming of electricity. What were their recollections?
- Have your students explore the “Bringing Electricity” tab on the Wessel’s Living History Farm web site and listen to some of the interviews about electricity on the farm. Have them report on what they learned.
United States Department of Agriculture. Rural Electrification Administration. (1972). Rural Lines: the Story of Cooperative Rural Electrification. Rev. Dec. 1972. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Rural Electrification Administration.