Few New York State farms had electric power in the 1920s. Even as late as 1930 ninety percent of farm families nationwide had no line-run electricity. On long winter evenings city dwellers could read and sew long past sunset, but farm families sat in near darkness and did chores, such as milking the cows, in the dim light of kerosene lanterns.
Some farmers used Delco-Light Plants made up of ranks of glass-jarred lead-storage batteries located in dirt-floored basements for electric power. As Delco’s slogan was, “Delco systems sell best by night,” Delco salesman cleverly arrived at dusk with small Delco systems to demonstrate to farmers how these DC-units, when sufficiently massed, could bring to the farm what folks in the cities enjoyed. But Delco systems were expensive, and the batteries had to be recharged with a generator powered by a gasoline engine.
The Battle of the Currents
Rural America needed line electricity. Thomas Edison (1847-1931), famous for the invention of the incandescent light bulb, developed an electric power transmission system based on low-voltage direct current (DC). The Edison Illuminating Company, established in the city of New York in 1882, supplied 110-volt power for incandescent lighting and small electric motors, a boon to customers who resided within a mile or so of a DC generating plant. But homes and businesses located more than a mile from a DC plant, were left in the dark, so to speak.
Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), a Serbian born engineer who came to the United States in 1884 and briefly worked for Thomas Edison, championed the alternating current (AC) system. Alternating Current generation and transmission systems could provide power over long distances. I am not an electrical engineer so will not attempt to demystify the differences between AC and DC power. In simple terms, electrons in DC current flow progressively forward in one direction, while in AC systems, those electrons switch back and forth, sometimes forward and sometimes backward. I think my life has been like an AC system.
Tesla, though a brilliant engineer and mathematician, did poorly in business. His Tesla Electric Light Company failed. It did not help that his detractors, many of them allies of Edison, blamed alternating current for scores of deaths because of its high voltage.
Some of his most unscrupulous enemies staged public events where they put cats, dogs, and even horses to death using alternating current. Edison himself conspired to have the electric chair used in the nation’s first public execution “powered” by an AC generator.
William Kemmler, convicted of killing his common-law wife, died an excruciating death on August 6, 1890, at the Auburn State Prison. The generator used to put Kemmler to death was one made by a company founded by George Westinghouse (1846-1914), a key combatant in the current wars.
Enter George Westinghouse
Born in 1846 at (Old) Central Bridge in Schoharie County, George Westinghouse (Jr.) loved to putter around in his father’s machine shop, but he fared poorly in school. He dropped out of Schenectady’s Union College and devoted his talents to inventions. Westinghouse made a fortune by designing a railroad braking system that used compressed air.
In 1884 he devised a direct current domestic lighting system to compete with that of Edison. Then Westinghouse took on the challenge of how to supply AC power over long distances safely. He did so by employing transformers that “stepped up” the voltage for long distance transfer and then transformers to “step down” the voltage for home and business use.
Westinghouse joined forces with Tesla to advance the use of AC power. They successfully bid on the contract for the first hydro-electric power plant constructed in 1895 at Niagara Falls that harnessed the power of the mighty cataract. The Adams Power Plant Transformer House stands today as a National Historic Landmark.
Westinghouse also won the bid to light up the 1893 Worlds Columbian Exposition. Thousands of visitors marveled at the brilliant “White City” that Westinghouse’s nearly 100,000 AC powered incandescent lamps created. Edison’s General Electric Company had lost the bid. One doubts that Edison came to Chicago to see Westinghouse’s handiwork.
FDR and the REA
Jared van Wagenen, Jr., a Schoharie farmer went to the Columbian Exposition. Like many other visitors from rural America, he was awed by what he saw, especially the exhibits in the large machinery hall. Van Wagenen had tried to provide electricity to his farm by damming up a small stream and using waterpower and a small turbine. But the stream flow was insufficient, especially at dry times of the year. Direct current coming out of a plant in Cobleskill was likewise disappointing.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a law to create the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) on May 20th, 1936. This was a boon to farmers nationwide. Squads of REA workers went about the countryside putting up poles and stringing lines. The electricians who accompanied the REA crews wired houses, barns, and other farm buildings. The work went slowly. Some New York State farmers found themselves literally “at the end of line” and had to wait while others who lived closer to the generating plants were “serviced” before them.
Initially the installations were not much to brag about by today’s standards. We live in an all-electric home here in rural Madison County and have 200-amp service. A typical farm installation done by REA teams in the 1930s was a 60-amp circuit.
And Then There Was Light
Some years ago, I gave an illustrated talk on the transition from heavy horse farming to tractor farming, focusing upon the impact of Henry Ford’s Fordson tractor. Afterwards I asked those present, mostly senior citizens, how many of them had grown up on farms. Nearly all of them had. Then I asked what the most significant change was they witnessed during their years on the farm—expecting that they would, given the content of my talk, say “the coming of the tractor.” An elderly gentleman who had farmed in Jefferson County, said, “The coming of electricity.” And he knew the exact date when electric power came to his farm, “March 13th, 1938.”
It was, my informant said, the dawn of a new day for the entire family. At first there was but a single 40-watt bulb hanging over the kitchen table in the house. The entire family stood in the kitchen to watch the switch being flipped and that light bulb come on. The barn got more electric power to make milking easier. As the years passed, his father benefited from electricity that pumped water, ground corn, and, wonder of wonders, powered a radio in the barn.
Eventually the gender inequity in access to electricity diminished, and his mother got an electric-powered vacuum cleaner and similar modern electric appliances.
Stories We Tell
When people my age get together (I am soon to be 80), they swap stories of historic blackouts. Do you remember the Great Northeast Blackout that began at dusk on November 9, 1965?
Millions of New Yorkers were plunged into darkness, some of them stuck in elevators and on subways. All of this because of the tripping of a 230-kilovolt transmission line near Ontario, Canada. A problem at the FirstEnergy Corporation, an Ohio Company, caused an enormous blackout on August 14, 2003.
There have been others of note, more localized perhaps, but still worth remembering, like a recent heavy and wet snow that brought down tree limbs onto power lines and caused the loss of power here in Central New York. We were spared, but television reporters interviewed a dairy farmer down in Cortland County who bemoaned the fact that he had eighty plus cows in need of milking and no electricity to run his modern milking apparatus.
My parent’s generation no doubt swapped stories of when the power came on. If you remember how and perhaps even when electricity first came to a family farm somewhere in New York State, I would like to hear your story.
How did having electricity on the farm change life on the farm? Hopefully your farm or the one that you recall was not “the last on the line.” You can post your stories by commenting on this article.
Illustrations, from above: Delco-Light Plant for the farm (delcolight.com); Kemmler execution (Wikimedia Commons); Thomas Edison in 1888 (Wikimedia Commons); Nikola Tesla in 1885 (Wikimedia Commons); George Westinghouse, 1884 (Wikimedia Commons); REA workers (Wikimedia Commons); Electricity on the farm, as envisioned by Science and Invention magazine.
Helen Nerska says
My father gave up farming in 1955 but prior to that there was electricity in every room of every barn. We had a wired cow barn, milk house, hay barn, shop and garage. It must have been a major installation in the day as the barns were quite old. And in every barn there was a radio he’d turn on when he entered. Nice memories.
MILTON SERNETT says
Hello Helen: Where was your family farm located? Thanks for the comment. Milt Sernett
Mary the Librarian says
Although my grandparents farmed in Minnesota, bringing electricity to the farm was part of the family history. My dad related that whether you got connected to the grid or not depended on how many cows you had. Grandpa was short one cow and refused to pay to be connected, so they were not. My aunt, who was the oldest of my father’s generation, was born on the farm in 1926. An oral history she left notes that although she doesn’t remember the year that they got their windmill for electricity, she did remember that (like the Delco system that you describe) there were batteries in the cellar. In the Midwest, windmills used to be seen on every farm.
MILTON SERNETT says
Thanks for your comment. It is good that you have the oral history. I wish more folks would keep these family stories alive. Mil Sernett