Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Let there be lights (and heat)

A friend who among other tasks coordinates outreach to schools for a rural electric co-op that serves big chunks of rural Oklahoma and north Texas is focusing student attention this winter on cold-weather farm and ranch life before the Rural Electrification Administration brought power to the Plains.

I'm thinking about that, too --- just trying to make myself feel better about the current situation by remembering the "good" old days. And the current situation isn't even that bad. The temperature here this morning is a moderate 12; we have snow, but not that much; and the roads in general are in good shape.

Even though it's kind of pretty, I'm still not liking much about winter. Despite the fact the furnace kicks in at regular intervals day and night to keep the house at an even temperature; bright lights are just a flick of the switch away; and going outside at inconvenient times is optional. No chores to do.

My first four years were spent, however, in a big drafty old farmhouse with neither insulation nor a furnace parked at the highest point on a hill, battered by cold winds from every direction.

I was maybe three when the RECs went to work in Lucas County, a new power line marched up that big hill and the late Quincy Robb arrived to wire the house. I may remember, then again maybe I don't, arrival of the oil stove equipped with an electric fan to circulate the heat that soon was installed in the dining room (only the dining room and kitchen were heated during the winter even after the oil stove arrived, unless company was coming).

A refrigerator was installed in the kitchen; then an electric stove arrived to supplement the old cook stove, still used for heat. The kerosene stove my mother had used for some of her cooking in pre-electric days was retired to the back kitchen and used to heat boilers of water for the electric washing machine that had replaced an earlier model, powered by a small gasoline engine.

Amazing stuff; but now --- along with much more --- taken for granted. But, seriously, thinking about how it was then makes me feel a little warmer now.


One of the curiosities of life is that rural areas now tend to be bastions of  what folks fancy is conservatism, where complaints about government spending and government programs (unless they involve farm subsidies) often are heard.

But the RECs that for the most part still power rural America were and remain government programs. Private utilities, back in the 1930s, refused to extend their lines into the country, arguing no potential for profit.

So Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, despite screams of protest from the private sector, launched the Rural Electrification Administration and issued loans to local cooperatives, dismissed as communist by some, which built the rural infrastructure and acquired (and in some cases generated) power for distribution. In 1934, fewer than 11 percent of U.S. farms had electricity; by 1952, nearly all did. No thanks whatsoever to the private sector.

Today, the Chariton Valley Rural Electric Cooperative (Albia) and the Clarke Rural Electric Cooperative (Osceola) continue to power most of rural Lucas County.

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