The era of light that changed lives


“It was just this single bare old bulb, sticking out of a socket. Dozens of little beads made up the pull-string. It looked sort of ugly and rough. But when Mama pulled that chain for the first time and the room lit up, it was one pretty sight.”

— Lou Saunders in A Collection of Country

When I think of the single greatest life-changing medium of the past century, the idea of electricity first coming to rural America boggles the mind.

Prior to rural electrification, many folks have told me of a nighttime darkness that not a single one of us born after this time can even begin to comprehend.

My father had a keen memory of his mother walking him up the grand, open staircase, tucking him in to bed with a story, then walking away with the oil lantern in hand.

“It was suddenly so dark you couldn’t see your hand in front of you, unless there was a big moon and a clear night.”

I recently discovered a box of old reporter notebooks, my shorthand notes bringing back memories of some great people I’ve met over the years.

First lights

Back in 1989, I interviewed Rosemary Smith of Alliance on this topic. “In my family the round dining room table was our newspaper, radio and sounding board. Each night we’d take turns describing things we’d done or seen that day.

“I remember the night Dad said he and Mom wanted to be the last to tell of their day,” she described of a time right around 1920. “My four brothers and I knew something special was about to happen.”

Their parents stood together and asked, ‘How would you like to live in the first house on our road to have electricity?’ “We whooped and danced. Couldn’t wait to tell our friends,” Rosemary recalled.

She was on that day “going on 8” and as she told me the story, found herself “hugging 70.”

It seemed to take forever for the poles to be placed and wires strung, but Rosemary recalled the big night.

“We couldn’t wait until dark. At dusk we gathered around the dining room table and oohed and ahhed as Dad pulled the cord and four light bulbs came on, no fancy globes or chandelier.

“I remember Dad and our oldest brother holding my kid brother and me up so we could pull the cord. Neighbors came and all took turns turning lights on and off.”

New era

Rosemary’s older brothers had part-time work and saved half of their income to purchase an Atwater Kent console electric radio for the family’s Christmas present. Amos ‘n Andy, Gene and Glenn, and Green Hornet were some of their favorites.

Describing such a different era, her mother became the appointed neighborhood barber and hairdresser after her father traded produce for a pair of barber shearers and a pair of clippers.

She was paid with canned fruits, vegetables and old coats, clothing and linens which she would often take apart and make in to items her children needed.

Rosemary’s father would walk the nearly three miles to work each day in order to save the five-cent street car fare. He often traded bushels of produce and chickens for staples and shoe leather.

“Later, we bought a Voss electric washer and my Mom cried with happiness,” she recalled.

Rosemary painted a picture of an era when families didn’t need wealth in order to be happy; people took pride in creative survival to make ends meet. It was the era of the light that changed lives.

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