The Rural Electrification Administration is a dull phrase for a program that revolutionized farm life. How this groundbreaking program was pushed through the political process is a story that involved the new president and an independent U.S. Senator from Nebraska.
In the 1930s, there was a huge gap between people in town and people on the farms. Only about 10 percent of U.S. farm families had central station electricity in the mid-30s. Nebraska’s average in 1929 was even lower – only 5.9 percent of farmers had electricity. Almost all urban people had power.
George Norris was Nebraska’s independent Senator from McCook. He knew first hand from growing up on a farm what it was like to live without power. Throughout the 20s, Norris had tried to push through the Tennessee Valley Authority that would build a series of dams on the Tennessee River to provide, among other things, cheap electricity to the rural people of that region. He finally succeeded in 1933. Then he turned his attention to rural residents across the nation.
President Roosevelt was also sympathetic to the need for power on the farm. In 1936, FDR created the Rural Electrification Administration by executive order. To pay for the program, he took $100 million of work relief funds and set them aside for the REA.
Within days, Sen. George Norris introduced a bill in the Senate to make the program permanent. Under both plans, REA operated by making federally sponsored, low-interest loans to rural areas that organized into cooperatives. The co-ops used the money to build power lines to the farms. Farmers then paid a monthly bill for the power they used.
Norris’ bill had surprisingly smooth sailing through both the Senate and the House. But the House changed some key provisions – they put in a higher interest rate provision and made REA employees political appointees rather than civil service employees. When the two versions of the bill reached a Conference Committee to resolve the differences, Norris fought tooth and nail to keep both provisions, at one time threatening to call off negotiations and to take the issue before the people in the upcoming Congressional election. He won on both issues, and the bill was signed by FDR.
Then the political wrangling shifted from the national to the local level. Carla Due’s husband Bernard was one of thousands of local rural residents who had to work closely with their neighbors to convince them to participate in the cooperative and to sign up for electrical service. When Carla was growing up in Denmark, all of the farms had electricity, in part because they were much closer together. In Nebraska and most parts of the West, electric lines had to be strung for miles and miles, and it was hard to get everyone to sign up. The process Bernard went through was essentially a political process. He went door to door, convincing neighbors that the idea was a good one and it was worth the money.
There is a cliché that says, “All politics are local.” That was never more true than with the process of setting up rural electric coops.
Written by Bill Ganzel of the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.