REA In The Field & Barn

electricity linesIn 1950, the Edison Electric Institute published a 225-page Farm Electrical Equipment Handbook intended to promote the latest high tech tools for the modern farm. In less than 15 years after the passage of the Rural Electrification Act (REA), the authors claimed that 91 percent of “our farms” had electric service available. But, some farmers in Nebraska and other sparsely populated areas point out they didn’t get service until well into the 50s.

In that decade and a half, manufacturers had come up with an even 100 different classes of machines that electricity could power on the farm. Some of these machines were adapted from hand-powered predecessors. Others were brand new inventions. Here are some of the general categories and types of machines that were cutting edge technology by the end of the 1940s.

  • Lighting, of course, was the most obvious and important electrical appliance introduced by the REA. Adequate illumination, both inside the house and in the farmyard and barn, opened up the night like never before. The Handbook also noted that ultra-violet lights could kill germs and infrared lights could warm young livestock.
  • Electric motors were adapted to do a myriad of tasks including pumping water for livestock, irrigation and drainage.
  • Refrigeration replaced the root cellars and extended the life of foodstuffs.
  • Dairy farm equipment included the milking machine, coolers for the milk, water heaters for cleaning equipment, and ventilators and heaters for the milk house itself. Electricity completely changed the important job of separating the cream from the skim milk. For the first time, the farmer could go do some other work while the milk was running through the separator. Most Midwestern farmers relied on the cream and egg money for weekly expenses.
  • Livestock equipment included stock tank heaters, pig and lamb brooders, calf dehorners, electric fences and even a “bull exerciser” that led bulls around in a circle.
  • Poultry equipment included incubators and brooders, coolers and cleaners, scalders and debeakers. In an ironic turn of phrase, 15 different companies were offering electric “candlers.” Concentrated beams of light were directed through the eggs to determine their quality.
  • The horticultural category included machines for fruit and vegetable farmers. Sprayers distributed pesticides. Heaters sterilized soil mixtures and kept hotbeds and greenhouses warm. Bagging machines and conveyers helped farmers market their products. And at least one manufacturer was offering a sweet potato heater to cure yams at 85° for 10 days.
  • The farm shop could now take advantage of all of the tools the construction industry already enjoyed. Grinders and drills and saws and sprayers and mixers all appeared on farm shop benches. The electric arc welder in most farmers’ shops made the town blacksmith obsolete.

geery Don Geery saw firsthand how important it was for farmers to get electricity hooked up. He worked for Consumer’s Public Power district, and when his crews quit at 5:00 p.m., the local farmers asked that the shovels and spades be left behind. “They proceeded to dig holes until dark,” Don says. “So, when we came back the next day, that just meant that they would have their electrical service sooner.”

The authors of the Handbook boldly asserted, “American Agriculture now depends upon machinery instead of muscles for its power, and farmers are unable to compete in the present economy without the use of mechanically operated equipment… The use of electrical equipment often results in a greater farm income and consequently a higher standard of living.”

In this case, the words are accurate, not just marketing exaggeration.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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