“Electricity for Rural America: The Fight for the REA,” by D. Clayton Brown, Greenwood Press, Westport, CT, 1980. This 178-page hardback tells the story of the federal government’s Rural Electrification Administration. After invention of the light bulb, electric power became the norm in urban areas by about 1900. But service to America’s 6MM farms was slow to arrive.
Utilities believed it cost $2000/mile to wire a community (later estimates reduced the number to $300 to $1500/mi). Most areas had three to five farms per mile. Often the utility charged a $500 sign-on fee to recover their costs. And farms had to wire their homes and purchase appliances. They thought rural lines unprofitable. Exceptions were made for larger farms and those with higher demand such as irrigation or dairy farms. Electrification rates were higher in the west, and especially low in the south. In 1930, 13% of farms in the North Central States had service; and 3% in the South.
Without electricity farm families lived in different world. Pumping water was a major activity. Lack of refrigeration required canning, smoking, and salt preservation of foods. Icehouses and springhouses helped preserve foods, but not as well as refrigeration. Dysentery was a cause of infant mortality. Many still had outhouses. They contributed to diseases especially hookworm. In the south lack of refrigeration led to a deficient diet of salted fatback, cornmeal, and molasses. In the 1920 census, 7.5% of farms had electric lights; 10.7% had running water.
In the 1920s, farm organizations, especially the Farm Bureau lobbied for rural electrification. CREA (Committee on Relation of Electricity to Agriculture) ran demonstration trials. Alabama Power, Alabama Polytechnic, and Alabama Farm Bureau had a three year trial serving 1880 customers. Housekeeping benefitted most–from freedom from carrying water and cleaning kerosene lamps. Families had more time for reading and could listen to radio. Cotton farms benefitted little in that most work depended on animals, tractors or hand labor. Single crop farms did not use enough to make service profitable. By 1930 prospects for rural electrification were doubtful.
A handful of co-ops were formed for electrification before World War I. They kept costs low using their own manpower. Membership fees were typically $100 to $200, with $25 required to join and the rest paid by installment. Rates were around 0.03/kwhr vs 0.08 to 0.12 for public utilities. Most purchased power at wholesale rates from a public utility. They were vulnerable to pricing charged by the utility.
The Hydroelectric Commission of Ontario founded in 1908 showed what was possible. The province covered half the cost of distribution lines making rates affordable–averaging $0.03-0.04/kwhr. They also offered small loans for the purchase of appliances. In southern Ontario, 27% of farms had service.
The Muscle Shoals project on the Tennessee River was a possible source of hydropower. It began as a lock, dam, and hydro project to supply nitrates for munitions in World War I. (A Haber process plant failed but a cyanamide process succeeded.) Construction stopped when the war ended; Congress debated what to do with the project. Henry Ford offered to buy it. Congress agreed to complete construction of Wilson Dam for its locks to assist navigation past the rapids in 1924. And they created Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to run it in 1933. TVA set up the Alcorn County Electric Cooperative to distribute its power in June, 1934, at discounted rates. Rural customers were eager to participate. They signed on and soon bought appliances. The co-op was profitable and repaid its loans in 5.25 yr rather than 12 to 14 years expected.
Electrical Home and Farm Authority was created by FDR in December, 1933. It worked with manufacturers to create suitable appliances–ranges, water heaters, and refrigerators. They were sold by co-ops and power companies on installments with the electric bill. REA was officially created by FDR by Executive Order on May 11, 1935. Congress made it official on May 11, 1936. REA became a permanent agency.
REA was controversial from the beginning. Public utilities fought it at every opportunity. They argued that government should not compete with private utilities. REA had been created as a relief agency and was required to hire the unemployed. Skilled electrical workers were needed. An exception was made. They encountered resistance from unions. They did not join unions but agreed to pay prevailing wage.
REA hoped to work with public utilities to extend service to rural areas, but utilities refused. They decided to use co-ops. Once co-ops were formed they submitted an application for government loans. Those with a reasonable business and powerline plan were approved. To control costs, low cost 600 VA transformers were developed for minimum use customers. Prefabricated pole top assemblies were used. Special meters allowed customers to read their own meter and mail in a check. Customers usually started with lights, an iron and a radio. Refrigerators were more popular in the south. Running water and indoor plumbing came later. Customers could pay their bills by working on the REA crew.
Whether co-ops should generate power was controversial and strongly opposed. Many hydroelectric dams were authorized by Congress to supply power in rural areas. The first two were the Red River Dam at Denison, TX and the White River Dam at Norfolk, AR. In 1943, Congress authorized eight more hydro projects in Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. Bonneville Power (created 1937) in the Pacific Northwest is mentioned as an REA system, but the book provides no details. In 1950, seven dams were authorized in South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and Florida. An additional 15 were already under construction.
Until the Supreme Court stopped it, utilities harassed the co-ops with lawsuits. They also ran spite lines to largest users to make profits more difficult for co-ops. Numerous methods were used to defeat REA in Congress. That included paying academics to testify against the REA in hearings.
During World War II, REA construction was delayed due to material and manpower shortages Priority was given to defense projects. Efforts continued as electrification on the farm was the best solution to manpower shortages. Full electrification was not completed until 1953.
The program succeeded beyond expectations, but it was not all smooth sailing. Internal politics boiled over when REA was moved to USDA, where managers had their own ideas on how things should be run. The conflicts simmered until 1944.
Later a poll found that 7233 respondents thought running water the best improvement. It relieved much drudgery. They also liked electric washing machines. Cold storage made home gardens less essential. Radio consistently ranked as one of the most popular new devices. Fractional horsepower motors also made possible an electric grinding wheel, drill press, saw, fan and other small equipment.
The author omits the story of interurbans. Especially in the east these were high speed electric streetcars that ran on their own tracks between cities from about 1900 to about 1925. They often supplied electricity to rural customers near their lines. Most were financially unstable and failed by 1930.
This is a detailed description of what it took to bring electricity to rural America. The intense political conflict in Washington is described. Index. References.