March 31, 2023
My bookcase is filled with paperbacks and hardcovers I’ve picked up during past decades, thinking that ‘someday’ I’d like to read them. But I’ve never had the time until now, when I’m nearly retired. So, I decided to start reading them. One of the first ones I grabbed was Marquis Childs’ 1952 history of the electrification of rural America, The Farmer Takes a Hand.
The topic likely sounds dry to many people, but what a story it tells about how Americans powered our nation in just two decades. Spanning the time from the Great Depression through the Korean War, the story details the inner workings—and politics—of the struggle between farmers and commercial utility companies, and how it changed the lives of ordinary citizens forever.
When prices hit bottom in 1932, desperation led farmers into a grass roots rebellion. People burned corn for fuel instead of coal, and milk ran in roadside ditches because dumping it was cheaper than bringing it to market. One out of every four farms sold for debts and taxes.
Only ten percent of farm homes had electricity in 1935, compared to seventy percent of homes in the nation’s cities and towns. The electric power industry told farmers that it was too expensive to run electricity into rural areas, and that farms really didn’t need power anyway. Most farmers did not take this well. They watched their fortunate, electrified counterparts who lived on the edges of towns increase their productivity tenfold, just from using innovations such as electric irrigation pumps and milking machines. Rural demand for electricity skyrocketed, and so did farmers’ frustration at not being able to get it.
Since most private utilities were unable or unwilling to extend lines beyond municipal limits, farmers looked to government for help. They first approached municipalities, because some larger cities, such as Los Angeles, had been furnishing farmers electricity for years at a city rate. But most townspeople were against expanding municipal electricity because they were fearful it would cause their own rates to rise. Backing up that fear, in 1935, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that municipalities could not extend their electric lines beyond their corporate limits.
Against this backdrop, early advocates of public power paved the way for the Tennessee Valley Authority and other public power programs that eventually transformed the rural south and the Pacific Northwest. The REA (Rural Electrification Administration) helped drive down rates and made it possible to extend power on a large scale to rural homes across America at a rate farmers could afford to pay. By the end of 1936, nearly 100 cooperatives in 26 states had signed loan contracts with the REA.
As farmers began to establish local rural electric cooperatives, commercial power companies continued to run their lines from town to town, only occasionally leaving the main road to pick up a very large electric customer such as a quarry or sawmill, and ignoring the smaller farms. These companies saw the increasing success of the REA as a threat to their own growth and profitability, and took action to thwart it. They instituted a rural line-building practice that did considerable harm to rural electrification as a whole. The companies extended their lines only to selected rural areas that were easily accessible or contained the largest and most profitable farms. They ignored the principle of ‘area coverage’ that would benefit small and less-accessible farms. This practice cut the heart out of many proposed cooperative districts and prevented some farms from receiving electricity for many years. Farmers denounced these spur lines of the electric companies as ‘spite lines.’
Farmers were convinced that the private power companies built these spite lines in undeveloped territory to skim the cream off what would otherwise have been cooperative districts. Wherever spite lines were built, they produced hatred and resentment that plagued the private utilities for many years after. The political drama that ensued makes for interesting reading. The REA eventually won the war, and over the next twenty years electricity reached many of the most remote parts of the nation.
Lest this become simply a book review, I’ll add a few thoughts that came to mind as I read it. It seems as if the basic human trait of greed doesn’t change. Throughout recorded history (and likely prior to that, I’d guess), humans seem to be primarily motived by power and money. The rich and powerful have a steady track record of running roughshod over the powerless and poor. From time to time, the underdogs decide they’ve had enough, and they fight back. Sometimes they win, as the farmers did in America’s battle for rural electrification. I applaud those rare wins as I look ahead toward the next battle that is brewing. I wonder if we still have what it takes?