by Darcy Dougherty Maulsby
Imagine your daily life without electricity – a reality that was common on most Iowa farms as late as the 1930s and 1940s. It was a truth that struck me time and time again as I wrote my “Culinary History of Iowa” book, which details the evolution of Iowa’s delectable, distinctly Midwest cuisine. Many of these stories reflect the sobering realities of farm life before rural electrification.
Instead of turning a knob on your electric stove to cook a meal, you’d face the endless task of ensuring enough corncobs and wood to fire the cookstove. With no electric refrigerator, you’d be busy much of the summer and early fall canning and pickling foods to preserve them.
Rather than turn on the faucet to get all the water you need for cooking, cleaning and drinking, you may have to pump water by hand outdoors. If you were using water for bathing or laundry, then you’d be carrying heavy pails of water and heating it on the stove, since you’d have no electric water heater, either.
Want ice cream to cool off on a hot day? Better make it yourself and eat it right away, since there were no electric freezers.
Forget turning on the electric air conditioning or an electric fan after a hard day’s work in the garden, the fields or the barn. In the winter, you’d have to bundle up and stay close to the wood or coal stoves that were likely in the kitchen or living area, since there was no electric heat.
The physical requirements of housekeeping might help keep you warm, since cleaning a dirty floor required a broom or scrub brush – a far cry from a quick sweep with an electric vacuum. If by some miracle you had a little leisure time, you couldn’t just turn on a lamp to read a book. A dim and dirty kerosene lamp would have to do.
Many historians acknowledge that farm women bore the heaviest burden of daily life without electricity. “We are told to be more sociable,” said an anonymous Iowa farm woman quoted in a 1915 U.S. Department of Agriculture bulletin called “Economic Needs of Farm Women.”
“Why, we can hardly find time to visit a neighbor and are too tired on Sunday for church. A good rest would be a more cheerful prospect than any picnic.”
The electric circus comes to Iowa
As late as the mid-1930s, nine out of 10 rural homes in America had no electric service, according to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA). There were literally two Americas, due to a divide that had been growing for decades.
U.S. cities and towns began connecting to the electric grid in the late 1880s and early 1890s. Residents in most rural towns in Iowa began had municipal electrical service by the early 1900s.
The drudgery of farm life in those pre-electricity years no doubt played a role in younger people leaving the farm for the towns and cities. In the depths of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order No. 7037 in 1935 establishing the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). By 1936, the Rural Electrification Act was passed and sparked a whole new era of locally owned rural electric cooperatives.
To help farm families learn about electricity and how to use it safely, REA hired advisors like Louisan Mamer, a home electrification specialist who had grown up on a farm in southern Illinois. Starting in 1937, Mamer and her colleagues traveled across Iowa and around the nation with their “electric circus.”
Marner’s first electric circus was at an electric cooperative in Iowa. “Having set up the tents [two large circus tents], on Monday night we would demonstrate lighting equipment,” Mamer recalled in a 1975 interview. “The next morning, we had a laundry equipment demonstration at about 10 a.m., and in the afternoon, we demonstrated small appliances. The last evening, the home electrification specialist conducted a big cooking duel between two local men. That was a highlight of the whole program.”
By 1953, more than 90 percent of U.S. farms had electricity, according to the NRECA. While this changed farm life forever, I often wonder if women gained the most. Nebraska Senator George Norris, the legislative “father” of the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, seemed to think so.
“I could close my eyes and recall the innumerable scenes of … the unending punishing tasks performed by hundreds of thousands of women, growing old prematurely; dying before their time; conscious of the great gap between their lives and the lives of those whom the accident of birth or choice placed in the towns and cities,” Norris wrote in his autobiography. “Why shouldn’t I have been interested in the emancipation of hundreds of thousands of farm women?”
Proud to be a co-op member-owner
I’m grateful that rural electrification continues to pay dividends for millions of rural residents. As a member-owner of Calhoun County Rural Electric Co-op (REC), I benefit every day from reliable electricity to power everything from my washing machine to my refrigerator to my smartphone charger and computer. I value their personalized service and their skilled line crew’s ability to get the electricity back on as quickly as possible after a storm knocks out the power.
It’s also interesting to see how my REC is investing in solar energy technology locally to find new ways to provide safe, renewable electricity. It’s a new chapter in the history of rural electrification, which continues to evolve to meet the needs of rural Iowa.
Darcy Dougherty Maulsby lives on a farm near Lake City and is the author of several non-fiction Iowa history books. Learn more at www.darcymaulsby.com.