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Radio Sets Brought News Faster Than Ever To Rural America

Author Photo
By Clell G. Ballard

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The author’s 1929 Zenith tabletop radio receives AM and shortwave signals.
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The radio helped ease isolation in remote, rural areas.
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A typical console radio from the early era with a fantastic cabinet. Note the price.
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Wind-charging systems were used to charge storage batteries that ran the radios. Elaborate ones also provided electric lights.
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After the fire: Only one original wooden knob on the old Zenith survived the blaze.

In a world where instant
communication is expected, it is hard to believe that not too long ago much of
rural America
was basically isolated from events of the day. Those who live in densely
populated areas have difficulty visualizing vast areas where there are no
trappings of civilization at all. In the wide expanses of Middle
America, the farther one goes west, the more distance there is
between farmsteads and rural towns. Where ranching is the main form of economic
activity, it is not unusual to travel several hours to visit the closest
neighbor.

Wireless revolution

Henry Ford’s Model T is
credited with putting America
on wheels. An equally important fact is often overlooked: Since the Model T was
inexpensive enough that even small farmers could buy one (or at least a used
one), it became the means of spreading information in rural areas. Neighborly
visits and occasional forays into the nearest town were suddenly faster and
easier, giving access to supplies and the latest news.

Then, with the advent of
radio transmission, a wireless revolution took place. In the 1920s, radio
programming was limited and radio sets were extremely expensive. A
top-of-the-line model could cost almost as much as a Model T Ford, which at one
time could be bought new for just $290 ($3,300 today). Even if rural families
wanted a radio, the purchase price was too high and most farms lacked the
electricity necessary to run them. However, that didn’t stop people from making
an attempt to share in the excitement that radio provided.

Since some source of
electricity was necessary, it became common for rural sets to be run on
batteries. The small, square 6-volt battery that was also used in large
flashlight-type lamps of the day became a power source. Battery
technology was in its infancy and battery longevity was quite short.
Replacement batteries were costly, so radios were used only for a short time
each day.

The 6-volt automobile
battery offered an alternative. Although extremely heavy and bulky to the point
that having one in the house was unsightly and inconvenient, car batteries were
used a lot. They had two advantages: Their capacity was much greater than the
small batteries, and they could be recharged. The recharging mechanism almost
always consisted of a wind-driven generator mounted on a rooftop pole where air
currents flowed unrestricted. In the Plains states there was never a shortage
of wind.

Making it affordable

Early on, the cost of a
complete radio setup, a viable power source and a recharging apparatus was
prohibitive for all but the most affluent. Even if programs could be obtained
with the simple antennas of the day, radio sets were out of reach of most farm
folk.

It didn’t take long before
American ingenuity came into play. Handy individuals discovered that the radio
mechanism itself could be purchased without an elaborate case. In those days,
radio cabinets were built with the same quality as pianos are today. Phenomenal
craftsmanship contributed to the prohibitive cost. Many bought the “chassis”
and built their own cabinets. The finished product, which worked just as well
as a commercially produced radio, provided the news and entertainment that was
so eagerly sought. The homemade product may have looked a little crude, but who
cared?

Tabletop convenience

By the late 1920s,
enterprising companies began producing tabletop models in addition to the
common consoles. Although still quite large, the tabletop radio didn’t take up
any floor space in the relatively small homes of the day. This author owns a
1929 Zenith tabletop model that receives both AM and international shortwave
signals. A switch on the back is used to select 110-volt household current or
6-volt operation. It has a regular cord plus two fairly long cables with
alligator clamps that fasten to a storage battery.

Multiple tube-type radio sets have a reputation for mellow sound and our old Zenith is no exception. The
fairly large speaker provides soothing music and even makes voices more
pleasant to listen to. We have always used it on household current. Our
external antenna, which consists of a special braided copper wire extending
several hundred feet from the house, makes it possible to receive the closest
station, which is 75 miles away.

When we were raising our
five children during the 1970s and ’80s we chose not to have a television; the
old radio  was our source of news and entertainment for almost two decades.
Guess it was kind of quaint that the family gathered around the radio every
Sunday night to listen to CBS Radio Mystery Theater, a broadcast staple in
those years.

Repairs a vexing challenge

The vacuum tubes that make a
radio work have a limited life span. When one of them ceases to work, the radio
does too. In more than four decades of regular use, the Zenith has needed a new
tube only three times. That is pretty amazing since most of its tubes are 1920
models. When it did need repair, it became increasingly difficult to find
someone who knew how to fix tube radios.

One day in 1990 when the
Zenith was turned on, all it produced was static. Since it obviously needed a
new tube, I searched for someone to repair it. I finally found a guy quite some
distance away who offered to fix it. I left the radio at his shop with the
understanding we would have to be without it for several weeks.

I didn’t hear anything for
an extended period of time, so I drove to the town to talk to the repairman.
When I pulled up, I was shocked. The building housing the repair shop had
ceased to exist: It had burned to the ground in a middle-of-the-night fire. I
was sick at heart. Although the building was insured, the contents were not.
Even if an insurance claim had been available, it would never replace the old
radio that was every bit a part of our family.

The phoenix radio

A couple of weeks later, the
thought came to me that maybe I could find some small part of the radio in what
was left of the building. Saving something would be better than nothing.
I returned to the site and walked through the ashes. Absolutely nothing was
identifiable. For some reason, I stooped to lift a hunk of something that
hadn’t burned completely. You can’t imagine the joy I felt when I discovered
our old radio sitting on the floor. Apparently the repairman had taken the
radio chassis out of its case and set both pieces on the floor. During the
fire, a piece of debris fell over it, protecting it from the heat. Although
badly water-damaged, it was basically all there.

I excitedly scooped it up
and took it home. The radio mechanism was taken to a repair shop in a larger
community that specialized in old radios. It was returned to working order with
only minor repairs. Meanwhile, I spent a lot of time attempting to restore the
wooden case back to its original appearance. I could not find information on
resurrecting a quality piece of furniture that had been soaked in water, so I
was on my own. I’m pleased to report that my efforts were almost 100 percent
successful. A photo accompanying this article (on the Image Gallery) shows how the
restoration turned out.

By 1991, the Zenith had
returned to daily service. Today, almost a century after it was manufactured,
the old Zenith continues to provide its mellow sounds in our home. Knobs on the
front of the unit offer the only clue to the nearly disastrous fire. Careful
examination shows that three are reproductions. Our little corner of rural America is more
pleasant because of a radio that is an amazing survivor. FC 

Read about one man’s interesting solution for the high cost of early radios in Radio Chassis Housed In Dynamite Box.
 

A retired high school history teacher, Clell Ballard
has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent
working on his uncle’s dry land hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of
World War II-era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313
(and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Standard Time) or by email
at cballard@northrim.net.

 

Farm Collector Magazine

Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment