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Let There Be Light on the Farm!

Author Photo
By Sam Moore | Feb 16, 2021

Read this fictional account of what it might have been like for turn-of-the-century, Midwestern farms to get electricity.

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Detail from a Delco ad in the April, 1930 issue of Farm Mechanics magazine.

The following events might have occurred on a mid-western farm in the years 1912 or 1915, although it’s doubtful that it was common.

Clyde McFarland had grown up on a farm and still remembered that you harnessed a horse from the left side, milked a cow on the right, that wagon nuts tighten the way the wheel turns, and that a fresh egg doesn’t float.

When young, Clyde had moved to the city, started a successful business, and become somewhat wealthy. He had a daughter married and a boy soon to graduate from college; and both he and his wife were country raised. They had some savings and wanted to retire from business and get “back to the land.” Therefore, he leased the business and bought a farm that would grow enough clover to feed the average dairy herd, with a nice barn, tolerable outbuildings, and a good comfortable house.  

They moved in one fall, and began to get acquainted with the area. This hilly country was still partially wooded, and creeks and streams ran through every valley. Once, water-powered grist mills and sawmills were plentiful along these streams, and a few could still be found in different stages of decay. The railroad had come through, making it easy to haul coal to make steam, and mills began to be concentrated around population centers. Soon the little backwoods mills became unprofitable and were abandoned.

Clyde spent a day with his next door neighbor, Ezra Hawkins, who had given him a tour of the neighborhood and they got in late. The two men stumbled around in the dark, putting the buggy away and getting the horse fed and watered with only the light of a kerosene lantern. They went inside and ate supper by the uncertain light of an oil lamp.

Next day Ezra was grinding cider at his ramshackle water mill, part of a long ago sawmill, and Clyde went to help. When they had finished, he asked, “How much power have you got here?”

“Thirty or forty horsepower, I guess.”

“What do you do with it, besides making cider?”

“Nothing much. Oh, there’s an old sawmill in there that would probably work, but it hasn’t been run since I built my barn seven or eight years ago.”

“Do you use it thirty days a year?”

“Shoot, no; not half that.”

“What are you gonna do with it this winter?”

“Nothing, although I’ll let the wheel turn so it won’t freeze. I won’t be here as I’m taking the family to Texas to visit my wife’s folks for about three months.”

“Will you rent me the mill while you’re gone?”

“Sure! You can have it for nothing, if you’ll watch the ice.”

“All right; let me know when you come back and I’ll drive into town and bring you home.”

Three months later Clyde received a letter and one February day he drove to town to bring his neighbor home. It was dark when they got back and as Clyde opened the door of Ezra’s house he reached over and clicked something.

Instantly light was everywhere, in the barn-yard, and shining from the barn windows, while it was the same in the house. Clyde led the amazed family from room to room and in every one he clicked a button and the room became as light as day. He opened the cellar door and “click,” every corner of that formerly dark hole was illuminated.

“How the deuce did you do that?” squeaked Ezra.

“I put your idle water wheel to work,” said Clyde; and then, satisfied with his exhibition, he put them back in the sleigh and drove to his house, where his wife had supper waiting.

While the men were putting up the team in Clyde’s well-lighted barn, Mrs. Hawkins went into the kitchen. Her hostess was cooking supper on an electric stove; an electric hot-water tank stood in the corner and hot water was to be had at any hour simply by turning a faucet. In the laundry there was an electric pump that kept the tank in the attic filled automatically by means of a switch operated by a float in the tank. A motor, about the size of a medium pumpkin, operated a washing machine and wringer on wash days, and was also used to turn the cream separator, spin the sewing machine, and work the vacuum cleaner.

Over the dining room table hung the same old shade, but it now contained a 100-watt tungsten lamp whose rays made the white table cloth fairly glisten. In the sitting room, a cluster of electric bulbs glowed from a fancy wicker basket that Mrs. McFarland had fashioned into a good-looking lamp shade.

When supper was over and the men had lighted their pipes, Ezra hesitantly asked, “What’s all this going to cost me?”

“Nothing,” said Clyde. “You furnish the water-power with your wheel, and I furnish the electric installation. I’ve taken the liberty of wiring your house and your barn and your barn-yard. Altogether, you have about thirty lights about the place, and if you were in town, those lights would cost you about twelve cents an hour of use—say sixty cents a day or eighteen dollars a month. That isn’t a very big electric bill for some people I know in town—and your wheel is running all winter anyway to keep it from freezing so it might just as well be spinning the dynamo.

“If you think this eighteen dollars’ worth of light you have on tap every month is worth it,” continued Clyde, “we’ll say the account is settled, provided you let me use of half the electricity that your wheel is grinding out with my dynamo. Next spring I’m going to stock this place, and for my dairy I’ll have an electric milking machine. Electricity will also fill my silo, turn my grindstone, saw my wood, and keep water running in my barn. You might want to do the same.

“And just think how it helps the women! When my wife wants a hot stove she presses a button. That’s all— no shoveling dirty coal, no carrying out ashes. Ironing and washing are much easier, and there are no oil lamps to fill, no wicks to trim, no chimneys to wash, no lantern to kick over and start a fire. And best of all, no carrying heavy buckets of water from the well!”

Ezra was convinced, the two men shook hands and, just like in the fairy tale, they lived happily ever after, bathed in light—and they prospered mightily.

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