Rural electrification brought
rural America out of the darkness

This article written by Connie Williams.

Logo (Editor's note: For the next year, we will present a series of articles that examine the years around 1900. Our purpose is to provide a comparison of the beginning of the 20th Century to its upcoming end.

The author, Connie Williams, is doing graduate work in history at St. Cloud State University and has worked at the Paynesville Area Museum for several summers.

"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

Last week, a story of life in rural America before electricity was published. This is the second part of that story, describing when electricity comes to rural America.

Sen. George Norris of Nebraska was the man of the hour in 1936. He worked tirelessly for rural electrification for many years. He was the principal author of the legislation creating the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1933, a forerunner of rural electrification in America.

The Rural Electrification Administra-tion was created by executive order on May 11, 1935, but Norris was convinced that it would never work without REA receiving regular appropriations and full status as a government agency.

At first the bill received hostile reception in the Senate. Finally, it cleared the House of Representatives and the Senate on May 15, 1936. President Roosevelt signed the act on May 21, 1936.

Sen. Norris pursued a progressive agenda. He relentlessly fought for the needs of the American farmer. He is honored for his character and human qualities and is known today as the "father of rural electrification."

By 1937, things were really rolling. A brilliant REA staff worked on blueprints for cutting costs and extending service across the land. The engineers came up with a simple three-part design. The results were, well, electrifying.

1. They used high strength conductors. It permitted longer spans, often reducing the number of poles from 30 to 18 per mile.

2. Single phase lines were used with light and tough poles, minus the cross arms.

3. System-wide planning was used instead of a pole by pole approach, which put construction on an assembly-line basis.

Consequently, there was a reduced cost to the customer.

The co-op ideas
Rural Americans were used to cooperating with each other from barn raisings, threshing bees, quilting bees, and co-op creameries and grain elevators. But the idea of rural electrification through cooperatives met with some skepticism.

Once word got out that an REA co-op was being organized, farmers went from farm to farm to get everyone to join. The farmers organized, planned, and held standing-room-only meetings. It was the coming together of spirit of farmers all across the land and the "sign up" was their pledge.

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.

If a farmer who wanted electricity lived too far from the main line or lived where not enough neighbors had signed up, he wouldn't be included in the first construction phase. Pat O'Shea of Litchfield says this happened to him. He wanted electricity, but three of his neighbors didn't. Consequently, he had to wait until after World War II to get hooked up.

All in all the REAs became one of the dynamic forces which carried rural America out of darkness.

Poles going up This area is served by three rural electric cooperatives, Kandiyohi Power Coopera-tive, Meeker Cooperative Light and Power Association and Stearns Electric Association.The initial step leading to the organization of the Meeker Cooperative was held on the evening of June 28, 1935, while the Kandiyohi Cooperative organized in the fall of 1935, and Stearns first announced its organization at a Farm Bureau meeting in Cold Spring on Nov. 23, 1935.

Stearns Electric energized its first lines on Aug. 11, 1938, with 118 miles of line being activated and 115 meters functioning. Its advertised retail rates were $3.75 for the first 40 kilowatts and 4 for each additional 40 kilowatts. Schools were charged 5 per month.

The lines go up
The electric lines were hoisted in assembly-line fashion. According to The Next Greatest Thing by the National Rural Electrification Cooperative Association, two men measured for pole spacing, appraised local conditions, and left painted instructions on a stake.

The pole truck left poles, and the assembly truck left insulators and transformers according to the painted instructions. The holes were dug while the mechanics attached the hardware to the poles. The last gang of men set the poles in place.

Line crews were made up of unskilled workers looking for employment and volunteer farmers.

Wiring the homes
"Group wiring plans" at co-ops meant members joined together to get their places wired before the lines were energized, keeping the cost to $55.

A co-op advanced money for farmers to buy wire and fixtures. A "lighting package" would include nine modern fixtures and sold for about $18. Hundreds of homes were completely wired, with fixtures being hung and bulbs in place, ready for "zero hour" when the lines would be energized.

The lights came on
Light bulb When it came people cried. People actually stood frozen hanging on to the pull chain. They stared in awe. Some ran to the kitchen where their new refrigerator had stood for a month hooked up, and opened the door to see the little light inside, then burst into tears.

From the archives at Meeker County Cooperative, James Ostland tells of being a child not yet in his teens when on Christmas Eve 1936, the lights came on. He lived in Collinwood Township, near Dassel.

He had always enjoyed Christmas, but nothing could compare to the magic of that special Christmas. During the summer his family had remodeled their house and barn, and wired it for the event to come.

"On Christmas Eve, when the lights came on his mother clapped her hand over her mouth and let out a startled shout. They ran from room to room, upstairs and down, flipping switches and staring in wonder at bright bare bulbs."

The most poignant memory of all was the sight of his mother cupping her work gnarled hands around the chimney of the lamp and extinguishing it with a gentle gust, thus ending an era of semi-darkness.

Ostland says "I ran to the barn and surprised Pa by flipping on the light switch. He squinted while the cows stomped in agitation at the unaccustomed brightness."

They celebrated Christmas in light that evening. The next day one of his chores was eliminated. He no longer had to fuel the lamp and the lantern each day. His mother no longer had to trim the wicks or clean the fragile chimneys.

Electrical gadgets
Clara Borsheim, 99, grew up on a Kandiyohi County farm with four brothers and five sisters. She remembers that after the Great Depression people didn't have money to buy all the electric gadgets that came out, but they all bought a toaster. "That was good toast," she remembers. Before that they toasted bread on the range or held it over coal on a stick.

Over time people bought irons, radios, refrigerators, and stoves. After the advent of electricity on the farm, cooking classes were held. Short cuts in apple baking methods and fancy pastries were demonstrated.

Refrigerators replaced rock cellars in which "sealed" cans of food were put into well water. Many of these sealed cans leaked and some dropped into the well when supporting ropes broke. A wonderful part of the modern refrigerators was the accurate thermostatic controls which held the inside temperature of the box at any specific degree of cold desired regardless of outside weather conditions.

"Just imagine pushing a button and having the barn cleaned. Well, that happens every day on the Emil Hoeft farm near Paynesville since Emil had Humbert Implement from Freeport install a Jamesway Barn Cleaner this fall."
REA News, December 1949

Electricity did everything on the farm from keeping calves warm and cozy to curing hay. It kept milk cool. Unloading silage and cleaning out the barn by machine were now commonplace. Farmers could grind feed, milk cows, and pump water. A penny's worth could lift 200 bushels of grain into a bin. It could grind 240 pounds of dairy ration, a bushel a minute.

Electricity proved to be efficient. Every hour saved was important, and made the farm work easier.

The impact of electricity
By the time WWII was over, electricity was already taken for granted. During the war, REA had planned intensively for a post war boom and it was ready to meet it. They now brought power to sparsely settled rural areas which weren't done earlier. REA had the green light and they took full advantage of it. They advanced through mountain passes, bayou swamps, islands off the coast of Maine, Nevada deserts, and through the icy Alaskan tundra, bringing electricity to those who were still without power.

Electricity had changed rural America's lives forever. Because of electricity, farmers were able to increase productivity; millions of acres of marginal land could be irrigated; Americans could eat fresh food; small and large industries could be located in rural areas; and people had a real choice about where they wanted to live.

There are many stories about electricity coming to our area. Do you have a story about electricity coming to your home or farm? Write it down and send it to us. The Press will share excerpts of those stories in a later edition. Pictures can also be shared. Send the stories or pictures to: The Paynesville Press, PO Box 54, Paynesville, MN 56362. For more info, call 320-243-3772 or e-mail to

(The April Turn of the Century column will be on planting.)

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