Electricity becomes a farm convenience

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We got electricity on our Western Pennsylvania farm in 1938 when I was 5 years old, although I faintly recall a bank of large glass batteries and a Delco light plant chugging away in the dirt floored cellar prior to that.

One hundred years ago, very few farms had electricity of any kind and an article in the December 1917 issue of Gas Review magazine told of its benefits to the farmer.

Electric farms

The author begins by saying, “Almost all who have tried electricity on the farm declare that it is not only a great labor saver but that it gives exceptionally good service at a low cost.”

He then points out that electricity for the farm may be furnished by a private light plant, similar to the Delco outfit we had, or it may be purchased from a nearby village or city electric plant, which he said would be the “most convenient and usually the most economical.”

Of course, the farmer would probably have to pay for extending poles and wire from town to the farm.

The writer goes on to describe his recent visit to “a prominent farmer and banker in central Illinois,” that had city electricity, and his narrative follows.

“On this farm usually there are several car loads of cattle and hogs fattened for market during the year. During the months preceding the holiday season, there is on the farm as many as thirty-five thousand geese which he fattens for the eastern markets.

“In addition, there is the usual farm equipment that is required to run a farm of a few hundred acres.

Illuminated

“From the time one entered the house until he passed through the back door of the barn he is impressed with the convenience of electricity. In the hallway, downstairs in the store room and furnace room, upstairs and in the attic, there was light in an instant.

“All that was necessary was to push a button. There was no smoke, no odor, no filling of lamps, no blaze, just healthful, safe and convenient light.

“From the back porch, the path was lighted to the barn, granary, poultry house and machine sheds. Inside the door of these buildings was the button which when pressed would flood the entire building with light. Here again, there was safety, for there was no lantern to be upset in the haymow or kicked over by man or beast.

“It was possible to do the work as well at night as at noonday. But light was not all. The grain to feed all that livestock and poultry was ground on the farm by electricity. The supply tank which furnished water for house, barns and stock was filled by the use of electric power.

Convenient

“The farmer-banker was enthusiastic in stating that he believed ‘electricity the cheapest power on earth. It is convenient, for all that is necessary is to touch the button and it never stops till you turn it off and no one ever has to look after anything’.”

The author goes on, “The writer having been reared on a farm more than a quarter of a century ago, he fully understands the older methods of doing the many household duties. He knows the fatiguing tasks, for he was often called upon to run the washing machine, the wringer, use the broom and other household tools.

Housework

“Visiting an electrically equipped home was a revelation. The week’s washing was not a tedious and tiresome task when the power washer and wringer were used. The morning’s work was made much lighter by the use of the power cream separator.

“And the ironing became a delight, for there was not the dreaded heat of the coal range, for both the electric iron and electric fan could be used at the same time. By the use of an extension plug, the vacuum cleaner and sewing machine were run by electricity.

“All these machines made the work of the housewife much more pleasant.

“The occupants of the home visited are so well pleased with the results of electricity in the home that they expect to add other equipment. Much more of their work can then be more efficiently done by simply pushing the button.”

Our farm

I don’t remember what conveniences we had on our farm back in the Delco days. I know there were lights, and I think a radio.

I know water was carried until the early 1940s and Mom cooked on a coal range until probably ’49 or ’50, and always used a treadle-powered sewing machine.

At some point, she got an electric washing machine, refrigerator, vacuum and iron, although I have a dim memory of sad irons heating on the coal range.

In the granary, we ground feed for the chickens using a hammer mill driven by belt from the tractor, but had an electric motor on the corn sheller, and used electric battery brooders for our chicks.

Of course, not many farmers were also bankers, as was the electricity enthusiast in the 1917 article, and most couldn’t afford all that stuff.

Dad had one big advantage in that his brother-in-law was an electrician and wired most of the building for free.

The way it was

To us kids, it’s just the way things were and we didn’t mind at all.

Dad grew up on the same farm and was used to doing without power, but I’ve often wondered how my city born and raised mother coped with suddenly being thrust into living without all those conveniences.

But cope she did and we really had a happy childhood.

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Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules.

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