Bringing Electricity

dark room with lampIf you lived in town in the 1930s, your house had probably electricity. In town, families started using electric stoves, coffee makers, waffle irons, hot plates, electric roasters, and Waring Blenders during the 1930s. But if you lived in a farmhouse in the country, you did not have electricity.

Before the government hooked up farmhouses to electricity, farm life was very different and much more work. There were no electric lights, radios, air conditioners, washers and dryers, electric irons. Of course, there were no computers, televisions, microwave ovens, or video games. In farmhouses and barns, light came from kerosene lamps that were so dim “you almost had to use a flashlight to see if they were on,” says Stan Jensen.

jensenStan Jensen (right) says battery-powered radios helped to end some of the isolation rural families felt. But radio batteries could go dead at the worst possible time – for example, during the final rounds of the decade’s most important boxing match.

Hollis Miller’s boyhood home didn’t have electricity. He says children did their homework by kerosene lamp. At milking time, they hung kerosene lanterns in the barn so they could see from one cow to the other and so they wouldn’t “get kicked too bad.”

hoffmanElroy Hoffman (left) says he had to carry “a dang old kerosene lantern. You had to light a match to see if it was burning.”

On the farm, men and women, boys and girls did work by hand: hauling water, milking cows, pitching hay, picking corn, and cranking the cream separator or corn shelling machines by hand. Farmwomen cooked meals on a stove that burned wood or corncobs. Families heated water on the stove to take baths and wash clothes. Before electric irons, women pressed clothes with a wedge of iron heated on the stove. The family’s bathroom was outdoors, an unheated shack over a deep pit.

Before the REA strung electric lines to connect rural homes, a few farmers bought battery systems to run lights, crude appliances and, most important, a radio. And to get lights before electric lines were connected, some houses had a carbide gas light system with a buried tank of water and pellets to create gas to burn. Kenneth Jackson (right) remembers the electric systems that were used before electricity reached the farm.

Written by Claudia Reinhardt and Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.

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