It was early Saturday morning, before daybreak. I was still in bed, but I heard a beep and a click. I looked at my digital bedside clock, and I knew the power had bleeped off. The clock was dead. The overhead fan had stopped. In a couple of seconds, the power came back on and stayed on. All was well. That brief incident reminded me of electric power’s role in our daily lives out on the ranch.
We take it for granted. We assume that when we flip a switch, a light will come on. But there is a lot that goes into meeting our electrical needs. Out here in the country, electric cooperatives are vital in providing such power. Rural electrification was very important in western history, and in the history of our nation.
Benjamin Franklin was interested in the possibilities for electricity two centuries ago. In 1752, he tied a metal key to a kite and flew it in a thunderstorm, thereby collecting electric current in a jar. (Kids, don’t try this at home. The results could be, um, shocking.)
Thomas Edison invented or perfected hundreds of devices using electric power, such as the incandescent light. He and his engineers also studied how to generate and transmit electricity. In 1882, Edison helped form the first company which provided power for lights in downtown New York City. (Today, New York’s power is provided by a company named Con Edison, so the business still bears his name.)
Similar power systems sprang up in cities across the nation. Where there were houses and buildings standing next to each other, it was a simple matter to run a power line down the street. But out in farm country where there was a long distance between farmsteads, the cost of providing such service was prohibitive. Big companies chose to invest in urban areas instead. Farm country was left behind.
In 1936 – 85 years ago this year – the Rural Electrification Act was enacted by Congress. The Rural Electrification Administration (now part of the Rural Utilities Service within USDA) provided low interest financing for cooperatives to provide rural electric service. Farm families, including my ancestors, banded together to form rural electric co-ops. It was absolutely transformational when electricity reached the rural home.
Imagine life without electricity. For lighting, a family would need candles or gaslight or lanterns. Instead of a refrigerator, there was an icebox. Laundry was done with a washboard and a clothesline. Fireplaces and wood stoves were used for heating and cooking. Milking was done by hand. Water was hand-pumped from a well. No television, no computers, no Internet, no Google!
It is unthinkable today – but that was the life experienced by my parents when they were kids. We are only a few generations removed from life without electric power.
Everything changed when affordable electricity reached the home. Electric-powered devices freed men and women from so many tasks. It made a difference in people’s lives.
Fast forward to today. There are still challenges in providing electric service efficiently, due to growing demand and variations in weather. According to USDA, today’s rural electric cooperatives provide electricity to over 5.5 million rural customers.
Thanks for keeping the power on.
Article reprinted with permission from Grass & Grain.
In 2003 then Kansas Gov. Bill Graves officially proclaimed Ron Wilson to be a Poet Lariat (not laureate) in Kansas, the same year he won first place at the Kansas Cowboy Symposium in Dodge City. Wilson also serves as director of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development at Kansas State University.