When the Lights Came On

Document created by Gary E Moore on Jul 13, 2020
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If the electricity at your house went out, how would that affect you? Your Internet and desktop computer would probably stop working. The air conditioner would stop. If you get water from a well, the pump might not work – you would have no water (think about all the ramifications of that). Your electric stove and microwave oven would not function. The food in your refrigerator and freezer might go bad. And the list goes on.

We are very dependent upon electricity in our daily lives. When it goes out, we have a hard time coping. How would you like to live without electricity? If you lived in a rural area back in the 1930s, the odds are you would not have electricity. In 1934 only 11% of the farms in America had electricity. The existing power companies that served towns were not willing or able to run electricity over long distances to serve farmers because of the cost. However, that would soon change.

In this Friday Footnote, we are going to examine what happened in the 1930s that brought electricity to the farm. This had a profound impact on how farms operated. It also affected rural family life. And the widespread availability of electricity in rural America presented challenges and opportunities for agriculture teachers and extension agents. This Footnote is the second in a series examining how federal policies impacted rural America.

Federal Action Leading to Rural Electrification

During the dark days of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt and Congress took action to help America move forward. On May 11, 1935 President Roosevelt issue Executive Order 7037 and declared:

By virtue of and pursuant to the authority vested in me under the Emergency Relief Act of 1935… I hereby establish an agency within the Government to be known as the ‘Rural Electrification Administration’ and the head thereof to be known as the Administrator.

I hereby prescribe the following duties and functions of the said Rural Electrification Administration to be exercised and performed by the Administrator thereof to be hereafter appointed:

To initiate, formulate, administer, and supervise a program of approved projects with respect to the generation, transmission, and distribution of electric energy in rural areas.

A year later (May 20, 1936) Congress endorsed the President’s action by passing the Rural Electrification Act of 1936.

Figure 1. President Roosevelt signs the Rural Electrification Act flanked by two sponsors, Representative John Rankin (left, D- Mississippi) and Senator George Norris (right, R-Nebraska)

The Rural Electric Administration (REA) functioned somewhat like a bank. It provided loans to groups so they could take electricity to rural areas. The original idea was that existing power companies would want the loans so they could expand. However, the existing power companies were not interested and believed “…there are very few farms requiring electricity for major farm purposes that are not now served (USDA, 1972, p. 6).” Remember, 89% of all farms in the United States did not have electricity. There was no vision of what could be.

Because existing power companies showed little interest in taking electricity to rural America, the decision was made to give preference to nonprofit cooperative groups that were formed for the express purpose of electrifying rural America.

People in rural communities had to take the lead in forming the electric cooperatives. This was a daunting task for the farmers who had no experience in such a venture. In order to form a cooperative local groups had to incorporate, which entailed hiring a lawyer, then they had to elect directors and officers, and sign up members (not all farmers were in favor of bringing electricity to the farm). Loan applications to the REA had to be prepared. Then the system had to be designed by engineers. It was no small task to form and operate a rural electric cooperative.

The following narrative was published in Rural Lines: The Story of Cooperative Rural Electrification (USDA, 1972, p. 8-9) and describes the efforts to organize a rural electric co-op in a western state:

In 1939, 10 men met to see what could be done to get electricity to their ranches. As a starter, they ran an advertisement in the county paper inviting “all who want electricity” to a meeting the following week at the court house. They also wrote REA and asked that a Government representative be present at the meeting to answer questions.

So many people turned out for that first gathering that the organizers had to move to the local auditorium. The REA representative said that the first job was to sign up prospective members —at $5 per consumer. If the organizers could sign up as many as three members to the mile, REA was likely to approve a loan to build a distribution system.

The first meeting brought a stampede of applicants for electricity, but it was only the beginning. More meetings followed, sometimes one every night. Finally one winter evening, the 10 men gathered around a kitchen table, spread out county road maps and began to “plot in” the homes of the people who had already signed up. Then they drew lines where they thought the wires could be strung, picking up as many new members as possible. When they had a general idea of where they were going, they split into teams of two men each to call personally on those farmers along the way who had not yet joined the co-op.

Despite years of talk about rural electrification, rural people were not universal in their demand for electricity. Some still worried about “getting in debt to the Government.” A few were not sure that electricity was worth the expense. And in the thirties $5 was not a sum to be taken lightly. A South Carolinian who helped organize a cooperative in Williamsburg County remembers a time when it “was hard to get hold of $5 because $5 looked as big as a tabletop in 1939.” In his drive for members he sometimes had to take $2 cash and a note for the other $3.

The sign-up teams got wiser as they went along. They found out that it was better to have the farmer’s wife present when they talked about the benefits of electricity. They looked at her when they talked about lights to help the children study or when they described electric refrigeration. Often the housewife would pay the sign-up fee before the organizers had finished arguing with her husband.

When the sign-up campaign was completed preliminary plans and tabulations were sent to REA for consideration. With REA’s approval of the loan, an engineer was hired to begin construction plans.

Then the easement campaign began…cooperatives had to obtain thousands of easements across properties…Some idea of the size of the task is indicated by the fact that co-ops had collected more than one million separate easements by 1941.

Agriculture teachers and extension agents were involved in bringing electricity to rural areas. They helped establish local REAs and often conducted educational meetings to educate farmers about electricity.

In a 1936 document about relief activities in North Carolina, a survey about rural electrification was described. O’Berry writes (1936, p. 366) “Almost without exception, Farm and Home Demonstration Agents and Teachers of Vocational Agriculture gave liberally of their time to assisting field men in securing data for their counties. Community meetings were held and the purposes of the survey explained.“

In the booklet The People and the Profession veteran extension agents shared some of their most memorable experiences (Reeder, 1979, p. 44):

Marion Bunnell says his best memory of Washington State years was helping bring REA co-op power into the rural areas with the coal oil lamps. It was 1936 and a young wheat and cattle man helped Marion get farm leaders together. Nearby agents joined in, along with REA representatives and a committee of farmers. Sign-ups were $5 each. Then in 1940 the power was turned into 100 miles of line, to take the drudgery our of farm living.

Today there are more than 900 electric cooperatives in the United States bringing electricity to some 42 million Americans. It is next to impossible for people who have grown up with electric lights to image the deep emotion felt by families when their homes were first electrified. Along with births and wedding anniversaries another date that was often remembered in rural areas was “the night the lights came on.” Typically, the first electrical items purchased after electricity reached the farm was an iron and a radio.

An REA commemorative stamp was issued in 1985 exactly 50 years after President Roosevelt signed his Executive order creating the REA. About 1,500 people attended the First Day of Issue ceremony at the Madison, South Dakota post office.
At least 14 states (Pennsylvania, Alabama, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Texas, Georgia, South Dakota, Kansas, Florida, IndianaNew Hampshire, Ohio, Virginia) have historical markers commemorating rural electrification. The historical marker near Graceville, Florida is shown below.


Education and Electricity

One of the challenges faced by agriculture teachers and extension agents in bringing electricity to the farm was dispelling the myths and misconceptions about electricity. Some farmers erroneously believed that electricity would make their milk cows dry up and the hens would stop laying eggs. After these myths were dispelled the next task was to educate farmers and their families about the uses of electricity.

The REA organized a Demonstration Farm Equipment Tour, or “REA circus,” in 1938, and put on shows in 20 States. Under a tent seating 1.000 people, REA employees, county agents, and extension specialists of State agriculture colleges demonstrated the proper use of farm equipment and household appliances.

If one looks at state curriculum guides for agriculture over the years, it is common to see a unit on electricity or farm electrification added to the curriculum starting in the 1940s; especially in agricultural mechanics. However, it was first necessary to get the agriculture teachers up to speed regarding electricity and electrification.

In the summer of 1951 300 vocational agriculture teachers attended intensive workshops in rural electrification in Arkansas. The workshops included two 3-week long graduate courses at the University of Arkansas and eight workshops in strategically located and equipped high schools over the state. The workshops were to prepare teachers to teach electricity to high school students, young farmers, veterans, and adult farm classes (Wilkey, 1951).

Numerous magazines were published to help educate the farmer about electricity. The National Rural Electric Association started publishing the Rural Electric (RE) Magazine in 1942 and it is still published today. Some local REAs published their own magazines. At one time the Lorain-Medina (OH) Co-op published FLASH Magazine. Electricity on the Farm, which started publication in 1927 was a popular magazine for farmers. I can find issues of this magazine up until 1974 then it appears to have stopped publication.

The National FFA Organization started offering a proficiency award in Farm Electrification in the 1940s. The image below shows the national farm electrification proficiency award winners from 1949.

The national 4-H along with Westinghouse sponsored a Rural Electrification Program in the 1930s. The application form for 1937 is shown below.

A juvenile novel published in 1942 – Dynamo Farm – A 4-H Story revolved around 4-H and electricity. When 15-year-old Terry and his mother are forced to leave the city and work a run-down farm, rural life and people get Terry down, though he tries not to let it show. 4-H makes a difference as Terry gradually gets over his dislike of country living, makes the farm a success by installing electricity, and excels in the 4-H Electricity project competition.

In Rural Lines (USDA, 1972) we find the following:

Frequently, farm boys were quicker to apply electricity to new jobs than their fathers. They were not so used to doing things in a certain way. Many boys took on electrified farming experiments as 4-H or Future Farmers of America projects, and they kept books to prove how electricity could be used for greater production and profit. They learned to use power machinery in high school and they saw to it that similar tools were installed in the farm shop at home. They suspected that the success of a farmer would someday depend considerably on his ability to put machines to work for him.

Reddy Kilowatt and Willie Wiredhand

To help educate people about electricity and to promote the use electricity two cartoon characters have been used – Reddy Kilowatt and Willie Wiredhand (sometimes misspelled as Wirehand).

Willie Wiredhand

Reddy Kilowatt

Reddy Kilowatt was introduced in 1926 by the Alabama Power Company (who copyrighted him) and was used in print. Later, the use of Reddy Kilowatt was licensed for use by other electric companies who promised to always represent Reddy Kilowatt as “genial, likable, well-mannered [and] even-tempered” and to abide by “generally accepted standards of good taste.” In 1946 Reddy was converted to an animated cartoon character by Walter Lantz (the creator of Woody Woodpecker) and starred in a number of short films (that can be found on YouTube). One of the icon shorts promoting the use of electricity can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLcAzYCueAY.

Willie Wiredhand (note that Wiredhand rhymes with hired hand and that is by design) was introduced in 1951 by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Willie — with his light-socket head, wire body, and electrical plug for his bottom and legs — is now considered an icon among many in the pantheon of corporate advertising characters. He is used extensively by rural electric cooperatives.  There is 4-minute video of Willie singing about rural electrification (with a focus on Indiana) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SZ3idBGF1WQ.

Concluding Remarks

The replacement of the coal oil lamp by electricity changed rural education; in fact, it changed many facets of life in the rural community. Rural people were now offered, in one significant respect, equality of opportunity with city people. The 1935 executive order by President Roosevelt creating the Rural Electric Administration followed by the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 got the ball rolling on rural electrification. Agriculture teachers and extension agents kept that ball rolling and continue to do so today.

Teaching Suggestions

If you teach a unit on cooperatives or electricity, consider the following:

  1. Show the 3 ½ minute video “The Electric Cooperative Story” and discuss. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=207&v=vETdVpo8bGE&feature=emb_logo
  1. Show the 40-second video “Co-op Growth Over Time”. This is a map of the US with dots, dates, and names of Co-ops showing up on the map in rapid progression. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=8&v=_VzT-StxGB8&feature=emb_logo
  1. Have your students make a list of the five things they would miss the most if there was no electricity. Compare the lists. This should show the importance of electricity.
  1. If your community is served by an REA ask a representative to speak to your class or at an FFA meeting about the cooperative.
  1. Have your students research Willie Wiredhand and Reddy Kilowatt and conduct a debate as to which character they think is best for promoting electricity. You could also have them find promotional products of these two characters on sites such as eBay (at the time this Footnote was prepared there were 64 Willie items on eBay and 694 for Reddy).


O’Berry, T. (1936). Emergency Relief in North Carolina. Raleigh: Broughton Company.

Reeder, R. L. (ed.), (1979). The People and the Profession. Epsilon Sigma Phi.

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.

Wilkey, C. R. (1951, May). Workshops in Rural Electrification. The Agricultural Education Magazine. Vol. 23. No. 11.