Rural Electrification (Part 1)

Life in the Permian Basin Before Rural Electrification

This is the first segment of continuing article about life without electrical power in the Permian Basin of West Texas. The writer welcomes comments and stories from those who lived in the basin before electrification.  Future articles will deal with other experiences in earlier years.

As late as the 1930s, most farms, ranches, and small communities in the Permian Basin, in Texas, and in all of the United States operated without a dependable energy source. Dark nights were pierced only by the dim glow of a kerosene lamp, which was the same light source that was used by rural people for the previous seventy years. Food was preserved without refrigeration by boiling glass jars in pressure canners on a wood-stove top. Laundry was done in iron pots or zinc washtubs with clothes transferred from one boiling-water pot or tub to another on the end of a punching stick, a wooden tool that began life as a broom or mop handle. For ironing clothes, the housewife used heavy sad irons, heated on the same wood stove where she canned food and prepared family meals in an oven with no heat controls. Some farm and ranch women used gasoline irons and many rural cemeteries hold the memory of at least one woman or young girl who was ironing when one exploded. Rural homes, churches, and schools were built with high ceilings and large windows to allow ventilation in the summer heat. With no electric power, there were no fans or air-conditioning. Rural life was always hard, but without electric power it was more difficult than necessary.

Before 1935, when large urban areas of the nation had been almost universally electrified in both industry and homes for nearly fifty years, only about ten per cent of farms and ranches in the United States were connected to central-station electric service, even though ninety-five per cent of farms in France and ninety per cent in Japan had electric service. In Texas during the early 1930s, only about two per cent of rural areas had electricity. Throughout the 1930s, more Texans lived in the rural areas than in towns and cities, meaning that the majority of Texans had no electricity in that decade and all earlier ones.

Texas farms, ranches, and small rural communities had no electric power because private electric companies that owned and controlled over ninety per cent of the industry did not need rural customers in Texas or any other state. Electric companies reasoned that the rural market would be less profitable than the urban one because of the cost of stringing lines to scattered farms, ranches, and small communities. Those companies determined also that electric power would not appeal to every rural resident since lighting might be the only use made of it on farms and ranches and in community buildings. Those companies were wrong in their assumptions about the wants and needs of rural communities because those residents had been actively urging power companies to build lines to their farms, ranches, schools, churches, community centers, and lodge halls since 1909. However, private companies — with or without interest in the rural market — were the only means of bringing electricity to the countryside until 1935.

By 1935, it had become evident that private electric companies would not bring electricity to rural America on their own. Both the Mississppi Valley Committee and the National Resources Board, two government entities interested in bringing electricity to rural America, reported the fact that the federal government rather than private power companies was needed to accomplish this massive project. It was pointed out that many less-advanced nations had managed to bring electricity to their farms only by government aid. In 1935 the United States government came to the aid of its rural families when the Rural Electrification Administration was established.

Julia Cauble Smith

Sources:
Writer’s experience in the 1940s when her family’s rural home and those of her grandparents in Fisher County, Texas, had no electric service. Writer’s mother and grandmothers washed clothes outside by boiling them in an iron pot over a wood fire and ironed the clothes with sad or gasoline irons. One gasoline iron exploded while the writer’s cousin was ironing, killing her.   See also Robert T. Beall, Rural Electrification, in Farmers in a Changing World: The Yearbook of Agriculture, 1940 (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1940), 790-809;
United States Department of Agriculture, A History of American Agriculture, 1776-1990, online , accessed 1/13/2003; Carole Keeton Strayhorn, Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, Big Texas Events of the 20th Century, in Window on State Government, Fiscal Notes, December 1999, online , accessed 1/13/2003.