By the time the great depression hit, America’s towns and cities had been electrified for 30 years. The vast majority of rural people (who were mostly farmers) didn’t have it at all, and were basically living a century behind the rest of the country.
Today, with all our convenience, we have a romantic idea of the hard work farming took, but farmers lacked a lot more than convenience. It was practically the dark ages.
Food was cooked over open fires, or wood stoves for those who could afford them. Fires had to stay lit, even in the summer heat. Canning was an all-day job, standing over these stoves, and canning season lasted from summer into fall. The food often spoiled. They relied heavily on grains that could be stored easily, and by the end of winter, might be eating the same food for every meal.
Families spent an average of 10 hours a week simply hauling water from wells and springs. They rarely got all their work done within daylight hours, so they used lamps fueled by things like whale oil, tallow or coal oil.
Maybe you could imagine, but sanitation and nutrition were huge health problems.
“I had seen firsthand the grim drudgery and grind which had been the common lot of eight generations of American farm women. I had seen the tallow candle in my own home, followed by the coal-oil lamp. I knew what it was to take care of the farm chores by the flickering, undependable light of the lantern in the mud and cold rains of the fall, and the snow and icy winds of winter.”
-George W. Norris, Nebraska Senator Co-sponsor of the Rural Electrification Act
So, why didn’t they have electricity?
By the turn of the 20th century, 10 companies had monopolized the electric power business, controlling the power plants and the lines. After all, no company was going to build parallel lines to compete. This let them corner markets and eat up other companies. The monopolies could charge any rates they wanted.
States created laws to stop this, but the power barons restructured, creating pyramids of holding companies, obscuring official ownership and responsibility.
Well, it was these companies that had decided it wasn’t worth their time to run power into rural areas. They were looking for profit, and running lines cost money. Of course, farmers could pay for the company to build lines (which it would then own), but only the biggest industrial farms could afford that. They would have been the ones already running a lot of things off gasoline engines.
The U.S. was behind. France, Denmark, Czechoslovakia, New Zealand and half dozen other countries had programs for rural electricity. Ontario, Canada had its own program, which was inspiring Americans. Before the Depression, North Carolina, South Carolina and Washington State had all started working on their own programs. The Grange (a national organization of farm families) passed resolutions as far back as 1919, calling for a system that would “deliver power to the people… at the lowest possible cost.” The Farm Bureau started to pressure the federal government, too
Under pressure, and after some experiments in the South, President FDR rolled out the Rural Electric Administration (REA) in 1935. A Pennsylvanian named Morris Cooke was put in charge. It was first set up as a relief organization, but Cooke saw that there wasn’t enough money to put a dent in the problem that way. He turned it, instead, into a lending agency.
Now, Cooke needed a game plan and partners to work with. He first spent months meeting with the electrical monopolies, but they didn’t show much interest. From their point of view, farms big enough to need electricity already had it. They didn’t see the profit or the point (though some got on board later, when the tides turned). It was a bad time to ally with monopolies, anyway. FDR had begun a campaign to break them up, in order to lower electric rates across the country. In his 1935 State of the Union address, FDR called the monopolies “evil.”
With that path shot, Cooke met with municipalities, but they most were apathetic. Municipalities, after all, already had electric, and didn’t want to use their resources to extend service to rural people.
That left only one group for the REA to work with— the farmers themselves.
Rural Americans were pretty familiar with cooperatives. They regularly pulled resources in barn-raisings, creameries, grain elevators, threshing bees, quilting bees and marketing agencies. There were even some electrical co-ops, already established & successful, as far back as 1913.
So the REA offered its loans and technical assistance to farmers who would form cooperatives. Farmers had to self-organization and raise a bit of money to prove they were reliable. Then, the REA would offer them loans to build lines. The loans had standard government interest but could be paid back over 25 years. This helped spread out the prohibitive cost over time.
There was a requirement of three members to the mile that we had to meet. And it took hard work, pretty much persuasion because so many of them were not interested at all. I used to work in the fields hard all day. Then after supper walk to the neighbors’—a mile sometimes—to try to secure enough people to make the requirement of three customers to the mile. I did that night after night over a long period of time.
Naturally, when we got the lines we were just thrilled to death; we were being rewarded for all our efforts. It created a lot of excitement. Children in the neighborhood came to watch the construction of the lines. Their dads were glad to help out in any way. In one particular instance I recall I took my own team of horses and pulled lines through the Lumbee River swamp because the cooperative did not have equipment at that time to go over these rough places. And when we got to the river with the lines then the neighbors got together with the construction crew and pulled the lines by hand across the river, swam the river and pulled the lines across.
-Hubert Prevatte, from Robeson County, North Carolina
Some people, however, were not anxious to sign up to have electricity. They were afraid of being in debt to the government. It cost $5 to sign up, which was a lot of money then. They were afraid they were taking a risk that wasn’t worth it.
The sign-up team got wiser as they went along. They found it was better to have the farmer’s wife present when they talked about the benefits of electricity. They addressed the conversation to her when talking about lights to help the children study or describing electric refrigeration. Often the wife paid the sign-up fee before the organizers finished arguing with the husband.
The process wasn’t all peaceful, though. The Power companies, who hadn’t wanted to touch farms before, began building “Spite Lines.” Some companies, when they got wind of a cooperative forming, would quickly put up a single line through the countryside, hitting the densest spots or biggest farms. It divided the would-be cooperative, leaving out the poorer and most rural.
Luckily, the REA could move fast. In one case, they heard the company was sending out linemen to run a spite line Sunday, at midnight. So the REA sent out its linemen at midnight, Saturday.
Light up the Night
Electrification brought farmers into a new age, a modern world. It aided farm production, created jobs and stimulated manufacturing.Running electricity to your house didn’t mean much if you had nothing to hook it up to. Aside from running line, co-ops also went in on group wiring plans, bringing down the cost of materials and installation. A lighting package of nine fixtures and wiring cost $18.
For many families, the first appliances they bought were lights, radios, irons, toasters and water pumps. Indoor water was now possible!
Larger appliances, though, were as out of their price range as electricity had been in the first place. To fix that, the New Deal set up the Electric Home and Farm Authority (EHFA). It mirrored the REA, offering loans to buy appliances. It was only available to those getting their electric from REA suppliers, or electric companies in compliance with REA standards (which wasn’t that many). The government’s goal was to increasing electric consumption (thus lowering rates), increasing production and efficiency on farms, and benefit the REA system.
It helped farmers buy range stoves, water heaters and washing machines for their homes. For the farm, they got milking machines and walk-in refrigerators, often shared by multiple farms. Now, farmers could store meat & milk. They could do complicated work after dark. Food could be delivered, still fresh, to urban America. Of course, by today’s standards, almost all of these appliances are primitive, and it didn’t stem the tide of young people leaving for the cities, looking for better lives.
By 1939, the REA had helped to establish 417 rural electric cooperatives, serving 288,000 rural households. Many of these co-ops still exist (including 13 in Pennsylvania). Rural electrification was put on hold by World War 2 and picked up again after. It wouldn’t be until the 1950’s that most farms had electricity. By the 70’s, 98% did. The REA has since been turned into the Rural Utilities Service, a department of the USDA.
More reading on Rural Electricity:
- Electricity for Rural America: The Fight for the REA
- Rural Electrification
- Electrifying the countryside
- Rural Life Was Very Hard Before Electricity
- Electricity’s Impact on Rural Life
- Part Two: The Electric Home and Farm Authority
- New Deal Timeline
- Rural Electrification Brought Rural America Out of the Darkness
- Public vs. Private Power: from FDR to Today