Farming families in Buckingham County, Virginia crowded into the tent, peering eagerly at the spectacle in front of them. It wasn’t a political meeting, or a church revival—it was a turkey-cooking contest, and it riveted the crowd.
The turkeys weren’t the center of attention at the event—but the stove was. Powered by electricity, it must have fascinated attendees during the 1940 event. The wood-fired stoves they used in their kitchens depended on backbreaking physical labor and presented a real fire danger. In contrast, this stove could be turned on and off at will, required little pre-heating, and didn’t need a stick of wood. It cooked food more quickly and consistently, too.
The attendees were soon to get electricity of their own as part of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), a sweeping New Deal program designed to plug farmers in to the American economy. In 1935, ninety percent of rural homes in the United States didn’t have electricity, and the REA intended to change that.
To do so, it needed to help rural people understand electricity. The REA recruited a group of mostly female workers who crisscrossed the nation in what they called an “electric circus”—a series of traveling events designed to orient Americans to the life-changing possibilities of electrification. Workers included women like Louisan Mamer, an electrification agent who spent hours trying to convince wary farmers’ wives that they needed electric power in their kitchens and barns.
To do so, Mamer hosted cooking contests, showed off the labor-saving power of refrigerators, toasters and vacuums, and read the testimony of farm women who had already gone electric. “[Electricity] saves my food, my time, my energy, my money, and most of all my disposition,” read one of Mamer’s favorite testimonials.
For rural people who didn’t have electricity in their homes, electrification wasn’t just power lines or outlets. It meant the strange, often jaw-dropping experience of going from a home with outdated, hand-powered technology to one that seemed to do its own chores, light its own rooms, and allow for modern miracles like washing machines and radio.
Many people remembered the day the lights turned on for the rest of their lives, including Pearl Yates, a North Carolina farmer’s wife who first got electricity in 1939. She was so amazed by her home’s new lights that she walked from room to room with her small children, taking it all in. “We’d stop and look and they were so pretty and we’d go look at another room and another room,” she recalled in an oral history.
VIDEO: Artists of the New Deal: President Franklin Roosevelt creates a series of programs designed to help America cope with, and recover from the Great Depression.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration created the Rural Electrification Administration in 1935. It wasn’t just a bid to improve farmers’ lives—it was a crucial play for economic recovery in the midst of the Great Depression. Unemployment was high, and electricity companies didn’t see the point of creating power infrastructure in sparsely populated areas. As a result, rural Americans were effectively shut out of the American economy.
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Mamer and her colleagues understood the stakes for American farms—and as the program took off, they met thousands of families whose lives were transformed by electricity. “My mother had already mothered one family of seven brothers, and she operated on a big scale,” recalled Mamer, who grew up on a farm. “ We butchered; we churned; we canned; we baked bread; we had two acres of garden, fruit, chickens and a milk route. All this sans electricity, sans running water.”
Before electricity, farm life was not just difficult, but grueling. Tasks like milking cows had to be done by hand, usually by lamplight. Just keeping houses heated was backbreaking work, and farmers had to gather and cut firewood in addition to their work with animals and crops. Farm production was hampered by how difficult it was just to subsist, and the lack of electricity fueled a stark divide between rural and urban areas.
The REA, which was created by the Rural Electrification Act on May 20, 1936, was designed to spark electricity in rural areas. The federal government provided low-cost loans to groups of farmers who created cooperatives that installed and oversaw power lines. Farmers already participated in co-ops for grain and to buy farm equipment, so the system was a familiar one.
What wasn’t familiar was electricity itself. People who had spent their entire life using kerosene lamps and hand-pumped water didn’t know how to use modern appliances and often didn’t appreciate their potential for making farm life easier.
That’s where home electrification specialists like Mamer came in. A network of these workers crisscrossed rural America from the 1930s through the 1950s, teaching people how to use electric appliances. Farm equipment specialists demonstrated technology like automatic milkers, and a group of home economists and teachers showed women washing machines, refrigerators and other equipment.
Mamer and her colleagues called these multi-day demos “the electric circus.” They took place in tents and often attracted the entire town, bringing in consumers who were as amazed as they were curious. At the demos, which had names like “Meet Mr. Kilowatt,” attendees could apply for financing for home wiring and appliances. They could come by at night to see the marvels of home lighting. Or they could cheer in cook-offs that pitted locals against one another as they cooked using electric appliances.
These tactics worked: By 1939, there were over 400 co-ops and 25 percent of farms had electricity. Gross production per agricultural worker increased by 30 percent by the 1940s, helped in part by electrification, and in 1940 the act was made permanent. Though World War II slowed the availability of power lines and many farms didn’t get power until the 1950s, rural electrification continued to grow. By 1945, ninety percent of rural homes had electricity.
The REA grew, too: In 1949, it was expanded to include telephone lines. Eventually, that expanded to include initiatives for rural broadband and other modern telecommunications. Many rural co-ops still exist today.
Rural people welcomed electricity with awe and a sense they were joining the wider world. For Lena Boyce, a farmer’s wife in North Carolina, her first meal by electric light revealed that her kitchen walls were dirty. “I just couldn’t believe it,” she said in an oral history. “The lights were so bright, so much brighter than what we’d ever had in there before.”
Sam Oswalt, a North Carolina farmer, remembers finally being able to water horses without bringing them to a nearby stream thanks to an electric water pump. “There’s too many people that don’t realize what a time we had,” he said in an oral history. “To think of setting over here in the dark for years and trying to read by oil lamp.”