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Video Commentary on Life on the Farm Before the Coming of Rural Electrification
Video Commentary on Some Alternatives to Central Station Power Before Rural Electrification
Video Commentary on the History and Significance of Rural Electrification

By Dr. D. Clayton Brown, Professor of History, Texas Christian University

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Until the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) went into operation in 1935, responsibility for extending electricity into rural areas rested with privately owned power companies because providing electrical service was considered a prerogative of private enterprise. They avoided the rural market because it was not profitable, a condition wrought by the sparse population there. On a per square mile basis, the use of electricity was too low to entice private investment. In cities where population density was greater, the revenue justified the capital investment. Only farmers living near a power line, such as alongside a road, could get service. By the 1930s the technical and engineering barriers had been surmounted, but the question of funding the construction and operation of rural lines remained. It was this question that Morris L. Cooke of Pennsylvania determined to resolve.

Known as the 'father of rural electrification," Cooke had devoted much of his professional career to solving the puzzle of rural electric costs. In 1933 he became President Franklin D. Roosevelt's advisor on issues pertaining to public power, and in 1935 when the President created the REA by executive order, he made Cooke the Director. Cooke went to work on establishing a system for dispersing REA funds to the local level via specially created farmer cooperatives. This plan of action was underway when in 1936 Congress gave the REA statutory authority with regular funding. The number of electric cooperatives then increased rapidly as rural inhabitants eagerly sought to get electricity into their home. By the end of 1941, thanks mostly to the REA, the percentage of farms with service had climbed to 30 percent of the U. S. total. World War II slowed down the construction of lines as the resources were needed for war mobilization. At the end of the war, however, Congress launched a construction program for the REA, sometimes appropriating more funding than the agency requested. Construction zoomed forward.

New Appliances
As electric lines traveled down the roadsides and across fields and prairies, farmers and ranchers moved quickly to acquire appliances. Typically, families installed incandescent lighting first, then bought an electric iron and radio. Refrigerators were the next popular item, followed by an electric cook stove. Usually an indoor bathroom and running water came last, owing to larger costs, but once those conveniences went into the house, further steps came more slowly. Washing machines, however, ranked high on the list.

A Fuller Life

When it first came into use radio provided badly needed entertainment, but over time it had a broader effect. It broadened the general knowledge of listeners not only in respect to popular shows they could share with others, but educational programs for farmers and housekeepers became available as more rural stations went on the air. The cultural and social impact of radio could not be measured, but its impact was nonetheless real. News events reached into the remote areas of the United States and enabled the people there to keep abreast of current events. Youth would no longer be shunned at school by their urban friends for not being aware of trends and fads. Thanks to radio, and the electrification of the home, the cultural gap between rural and urban America began to fade. One farm wife represented the feelings of many when she stated, 'I am enjoying life more because I have more time to spend visiting my friends, studying and reading, and doing the things that make life richer and fuller."

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