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  • Dale C. Maley

Rural electrification a big deal

By 1910, residents living in the City of Fairbury had telephones and electricity available for their homes.

It was economical for telephone and power companies to provide these utilities because there was a significant population living in a relatively small geographical area.

Farmers were relatively few in number, and their homes were scattered far apart in the country. Because of the expense of running power lines many miles, most large electrical power companies chose not to serve farmers. There were few options available to farmers for power. One option was to buy a gasoline-powered engine and use it to provide power for pumping water or hook it to a small electrical generator. Another option was to have a large bank of batteries in the basement, which had to be filled with water often. Kerosene lamps had to be used to provide lighting at night.

In October 1929, the U.S. stock market crashed, and many stocks declined to less than ten percent of their former value. The banking system failed, and many depositors lost their life savings. The nation faced an unemployment rate of 25%.

In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected the 32nd U.S. President. He initiated many New Deal government programs to put people back to work. An example was the WPA or Works Progress Administration to pay people to work on public projects.

In the 1930s, the U.S. lagged behind Europe in providing electricity to rural areas. In 1934, less than 11% of U.S. farms had electricity. That same year, nearly 90% of farms in France and Germany had electricity. In 1935, President Roosevelt issued an executive order establishing the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). This order was intended to extend electricity into rural areas.

Congress started to fund the REA in 1936. The REA provided federal low-interest loans for installing electrical distribution systems to serve rural areas of the United States.

Because existing large power companies wanted to avoid serving farmers, the REA gave loans that allowed farmers to form co-ops and establish their own power companies.

The October 1936 Blade reported that the PTA (Parent Teacher's Association) at the Carter country school had a guest speaker from Northern Illinois Public Service electric company who explained the different types of electric light bulbs.

In May of 1937, the Blade reported that the REA had allocated funds to construct rural electric lines that would serve 3,886 farms in Ford, Iroquois, Livingston, Vermilion, and McLean counties.

Also in May of 1937, the Streator Daily Times reported that a demonstration farm had been set up on the Lyle Pearson farm, six miles north of Pontiac. The Public Service Company of Northern Illinois set up the exhibit so Livingston County farmers could visit the farm. Farmers could see the impact that electricity could have on a typical farm.

Mr. Pearson said the most convenient feature of having electricity was the automatic pumping of water, not even requiring him to push a button. Before electrification, water had to be pumped using a windmill supplemented by a small gasoline engine. Every night in the summer, about the time to cool the milk from his dairy operation, the wind died down, the windmill no longer worked, and he had to crank up the gasoline engine.

In 1911, Mr. Pearson remodeled the farmhouse and installed an engine with a generator, but the power it produced needed to be increased. With electrification, Mr. Pearson had a portable five-horsepower electric motor that received power from the new overhead power lines. The electric motor was moved around the farm to grind feed, elevate grain to the crib, saw wood, and sharpen tools. The new electric milking machines took the drudgery out of hand milking.

The electric devices in Mr. Pearson's home included a stove, refrigerator, water heater, and iron. They also had a waffle iron, food mixer, sandwich toaster, and an electric coffee maker. Mr. Pearson used an electric razor. The family also had two vacuum cleaners and an electric sewing machine. Electric light bulbs replaced the kerosene lanterns for lighting.

In June of 1937, the Blade reported that the Eastern Illinois Power Co-op filed a $200,000 mortgage in Pontiac at the county clerk's office. The Co-op borrowed money from REA at a 2.77 percent annual interest rate. The Co-op wanted to use the funds to build a generating plant and to run power lines to serve the southeastern part of Livingston county. This Co-op was one of the hundreds of new co-ops created nationwide to provide electricity to farmers.

The January 1938 Pantagraph reported that rural electrification had started in Livingston County with a pole-setting ceremony at the Tambling farm east of Dwight. That same month, the Blade said the whole village of Cropsey was covered with wood poles for electrification. There were 13 train cars unloaded, each with 150 wood poles. Mr. W. W. Holloway, the cashier at the Citizens State Bank, who was mathematically minded, figured there were enough poles to carry 97.5 miles of wire.

In August of 1938, the Pantagraph reported that 378 farmers near Paxton had received electricity from the Eastern Illinois Power Co-op. One hundred and fourteen miles of new power lines now reached Melvin, Sibley, Fairbury, and Gibson City.

In December 1938, the Blade reported that separate meetings were held for Indian Grove and Avoca Townships. At these meetings, maps were made for customers who signed up to receive electricity, and a speaker was present to answer any questions.

The Blade reported in May of 1939 that Eastern Illinois Power Co-op received an additional $200,000 to add 122 miles and 333 customers in Livingston, Ford, McLean, Iroquois, and Vermilion counties. A few months later, the Blade reported that farms near Wing were receiving electricity. The REA said that in 1939 there were 288,000 farms receiving electricity from rural electric cooperatives. Most of these electric co-ops had applied for and received loans from the REA.

In early 1940, the J. N. Bach and Sons lumberyard tried to take advantage of the many farms receiving electricity. They ran an ad in the Blade promoting remodeling your farmhouse when you wired it to receive electricity. By 1942, nearly 50% of the farms in the U.S. had electricity. By 1952, almost all U.S. farms had electricity.

The REA was one of the most successful of Roosevelt's New Deal government programs. In less than two decades, all U.S. farms had electricity. All of the government loans were paid back in full. In retrospect, it was an excellent move for the country to have its farms electrified before World War II in 1941. The labor savings from electrifying farms helped the country better cope with the shortage of farmers who became soldiers during the war.

(This is one of many weekly history columns planned for Fairbury News readers courtesy of local historian Dale C. Maley and sponsored by Antiques & Uniques of Fairbury. No matter what the collector seeks, it's worth a trip to Antiques & Uniques!)

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