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When the lights came on
Now and Then
electricity new

The 20th Century rushed across the human scene with a cascade of miracles. The internal combustion engine was engineered to power airplanes, automobiles, tractors, trucks, bulldozers and tanks. Diseases were eradicated or brought under control with preventive inoculations and antibiotics. The atom was split then harnessed for good and for warfare or the threat thereof. Effective public education went from spotty to systemic K through 12 and college graduation became commonplace. And these are but a sample.

However, the advent of rural electrification probably did more to enhance the quality of life for most Georgians than any of the others. They rested better, enjoyed better food, felt much of the drudgery of everyday work lifted, were better informed and more connected with the wider world. Terry Kay, one of my favorite Georgia authors, captures the changes in a small town in, “The Year the Lights Came On.” He and I agree that something was lost in the midst of these changes. For instance, neighbors visiting on the front porch in rocking chairs that were used for more than decoration.

An outgrowth of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s flood control program of the 1930s, the Rural Electrification Administration fostered the development of local cooperatives (EMC or Electric Membership Cooperatives) to connect farm homes and rural businesses with electric power generating facilities.

Electrical outlets in these older homes were simple, a cord descending through the ceiling to a socket for one bulb. It sounds primitive but was a huge advance over oil burning lamps that were moved from room to room as necessary. No family had lamps for every room. It was too costly as was the kerosene to fuel them. Even a 60-watt bulb produced more light than an ordinary lamp. Recalling the first night after electricity came to his house, one of my friends said that his mother saw him staring at the bulb and warned him to stop. “It will hurt your eyes,” she said.

Wall outlets were rare. There were adapters that screwed into the overhead sockets to provide a place to plug in an electric iron or radio above the light bulb. Dangling cords had to be taken into account. For the lady of the house, the electric iron was a small miracle, replacing heavy flat irons heated at the fireplace or kitchen stove, bad enough in winter and stifling in summer. There had been battery-powered radios, but batteries were costly and those powered by electricity were cheaper and more compact.

Rest is important to hard-working farm folk putting in 10-hour days or longer. Some summer nights never got cool enough for comfortable sleep and even if outside temperatures dropped, the house stayed hot. Electric power led to fans, then exhaust fans mounted in windows and finally air conditioning. Families could sleep comfortably and be refreshed for the day’s work ahead.

With electricity came water — cool, clear water or hot water, for that matter. Water always was an issue. It was required for drinking, watering livestock, bathing people, washing dishes and washing clothes. It was a real plus for a farmstead if it had “a good well of water” and some of the shallow wells where I lived produced a skimpy volume. When “the REA came,” it became possible to get water in abundance. Since most of the typical wells could easily be pumped dry, well-drilling operations flourished.

It is difficult to communicate how important a plentiful water supply is for personal hygiene — without it, there is no lavatory, toilet, tub and shower. Without it, the choice was to wipe off using a basin and bath cloth, bring indoors a wash tub and water or bathe outdoors, also in a wash tub. The wash tub indoors involved a lot of effort, including heating water on the stove to offset the cold and removing everything after the bath. My father’s preference was outdoors even in water and air temperatures that were beyond endurance for me and my brother and unthinkable for my mother.

With abundant water and a water heater, housewives found wash days far easier. Weather was not so big a factor. Machines saved their hands from the cold outdoors and wringing heavy clothing. As the well drillers were finishing their work at my parents’ home, they left the well flowing overnight to create a basin at the end of the pick-up deep in the earth. Seeing the water flowing away, Mother remonstrated, “You are not going to waste that good water are you?”  For her, it was liquid diamonds.

Electrification had dramatic impact on how well country people ate. In most homes, the first new appliance was a refrigerator to replace the icebox. (For whatever reason, they called them “frigidaires,” regardless of brand.) For those too young to know, an icebox was a cabinet in the same configuration as a refrigerator with a top compartment for a block of ice and larger compartment below intended to keep food cold. Ice was chipped away for tea or other uses and obviously had to be replenished regularly either by purchase from “the ice man,” who visited with an insulated truck once or twice a week or by purchase from the ice house, where the ice was made in town. In hot weather or when the ice gave out, anything in the cooling section was in jeopardy.

Frigidaires kept contents cold. They made their own ice and often had small freezing compartments, nothing like the space in the freezer sections of modern appliances, but useful.

Farmers produced much of the food their families consumed from frontier days forward, but preserving it over time was a challenge. By the end of World War II, there were major innovations in refrigeration and freezing. In some towns, freezer locker businesses located in insulated buildings chilled to near 0 degrees F offered bins for rent to store food. Although inconvenient, they introduced long-term preservation for a variety of foods. They also paved the way for deep freezers, which became vital to everyday life in most farm families.

Fresh meats, including beef, in volume, could be taken from field and forest without concern for curing, drying or smoking. Garden vegetables were gathered in bulk in their normal seasons and processed to be used in the future. Pecans remained fresh for years in a freezer. Favorite recipes were prepared and frozen, ready to be thawed and given finishing touches later. Freezers revolutionized the way people ate.

Before the REA came, farm wives sometimes faced limited resources for feeding their families. The cured meat ran out or got “rank” (rancid). The biddies were way too small to fry. The sweet potato bank was about empty. Summer vegetables were weeks away. I have heard Mother say, “It is a dry time to cook.” But she never said that after she got her 21-foot freezer.

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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