OT: Electricity for Rural America: The Fight for the REA

“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.


In 1945 Budapest, the Hungarian capital city, my grandmother had gas lights, no electricity, and a coal kitchen range in her (lower? no servants?) middle class home. BTW, to heat the clothes iron she put embers from the kitchen range into the iron.

Back then bakers baked. Housewives would knead the bread at home and take it to the baker to bake. My grandmother kitchen range didn’t have an oven.

The Captain


Thank you for your “reader’s digest” reports! Love to read them.

My parents purchased a farm house and 24 acres of property in a very country-like town in Southeastern MA. The property had a 25’ deep hand dug well (rock lined thing of beauty, but went dry sometimes in August) a “two-holer” outhouse, chicken coop and falling down garage/barn structure. They purchased it for $3,400 in 1945.

I assume they had electricity at that house in 1945. But I do know that they had a coal stove for heating and cooking at first. Dad had a big scar on his arm from getting cut on a sharp cast iron edge from when he broke that big ol honking stove apart with a sledge hammer and dragged it out to the woods behind the house. I remember seeing the remnants of that stove out there when taking out the trash (into the woods) weekly as a kid.

You don’t have to go back too far to see a totally different world from where we live today.



The REA concept is a model for how we “might” bring solar and / or wind to individual houses to continue reducing reliance on fossil fuels for electricity. 30 years after the invention of electricity and 20-25 years after it was partially introduced in major cities, it was still too expensive for homeowners to get it installed. Similar to now for solar; if “we” want to move forward, there needs to be methods to take the upfront capital costs - unaffordable to all but the top 5% - off of households. Payback period is too long, beyond most peoples’ tenure in a house, even if they weren’t trying to save for retirement, college, and skyrocketing medical costs.


The reviews in the book report style are intended to tell enough about what is there to decide if you want to read the book.

They also remind me of what is there. Enough to refresh my memory. And decide if I need to order it from the library again to dig into the finer points.

No way a two page summary contains all the details in the book. But enough to know if it contains the answers you seek.

Glad you enjoy them. I have over 150 of them.