Flip it on. Plug it in. Power it up. Reliable electricity runs our lights, charges our phones, and powers our homes and water heaters.
Most of the time, we don’t give it a second thought. Less than 100 years ago, it was a different story.
While nearly 90% of Americans living in cities had access to electricity by the 1930s, it was still unavailable on most farms, ranches and other rural areas.
The Rural Electrification Act of 1936—part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal—provided federal loans to install systems to bring electricity to isolated rural areas of the U.S. Most of the funds were used by member-owned electric cooperatives that sprang up to create their own electricity distribution lines.
REA crews traveled around the country connecting the networks, bringing crews of electricians to wire houses and barns. Even so, it was years—sometimes decades—before remote areas of the country had electricity 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Three eyewitnesses share what life was like before and after the lights came on.
Their stories are part of a vanishing generation.
The Summer Everything Changed
Growing up in northern Bonner County, Idaho, in the 1940s and ’50s, Kari Clark lived with her parents and seven siblings in a two-story log house that her father built.
No one in their tiny rural community had a phone or electricity. The Clarks lit their home with kerosene lamps and heated it with a wood stove.
“It seemed like the normal thing,” says the 79-year-old who now lives in Sutherlin, Oregon. “We were used to it because everyone had them. We were like any kids who caroused, but we knew better than to do that in the house because of the kerosene lamps.”
By 1950, many city kids enjoyed watching “The Lone Ranger” and “Howdy Doody” on black-and-white TVs. Kari and her siblings studied in a one-room schoolhouse lit with a gas lamp in each corner.
“It all seemed very modern until you went into the city,” Kari says. “We’d go once or twice in the winter and see all the lights.”
The streetlights, neon signs and Christmas tree lights in Sandpoint, Idaho—about 20 miles from the Clark home—fascinated the young girl.
“We knew, of course, what we had wasn’t like what everyone else had,” she says. “We thought it was amazing.”
In the summer of 1951, everything changed in northern Bonner County.
Kari wrote about the experience in her story, “Electricity in Pack River Valley,” that she shared with Ruralite:
“In came a whole bunch of trucks and workers for the REA; there was talk we would actually get electric lights by fall. When a worker was climbing up a pole by the side of our kitchen garden—our pole for just us—Mom even took a picture of him with her Brownie (camera). By the end of the summer, Dad, with a little wiring instruction, had our house ready. By late fall, in almost every room there was a lightbulb on the ceiling and a string hanging from it to turn it on. We kids got in the habit of putting on rubber boots before ever pulling that string until Dad said it wasn’t necessary.”
Like many REA homes after World War II, the Clarks’ house was fitted with a ceiling-mounted lightbulb in each room and circuits for a range and refrigerator in the kitchen. Because appliances were still expensive and uncommon at the time, only one electrical outlet was installed in each room.
While the new power supply brought some immediate changes for the Clarks, others took place over time. The family continued to use a wood stove to cook and heat the house. A refrigerator and a stove didn’t seem like a necessity, Kari says. Items that needed to be kept cold were stored outside. In the summer, they kept a container of milk cold in the creek.
“We didn’t have the money to go out and buy a lot of stuff, but gradually my siblings left home to go to high school,” she says. “My older sisters would give my parents a percolator, a toaster or an electric clock.”
Her parents bought their first electric range nearly a decade after their first lightbulb.
“Electricity was one of the most important things in my entire life,” says Kari, “even more than when I first saw television.”
From With to Without
In 1943, 25-year-old Mildred Craber moved with her husband, Harold, and young daughter to Moro County, Oregon, to live with her in-laws.
Their home—22 miles outside of Heppner—had no running water, indoor plumbing or electricity. Living in those conditions after having been raised in The Dalles 130 miles to the west—with all the modern amenities—was a challenge, Mildred said.
She likened it to camping out, only worse, since she was pregnant and also had a toddler to chase after.
Mildred, 102 years old at the time she was interviewed for this story, recalled the cold mornings she loaded and lit the two wood stoves: one for heating the house and another for cooking. Water hauled from the nearby creek by her husband was warmed on the stove for washing dishes, laundry and family members.
Daughter Donnamae Grannemann was not quite 2 years old when the family made the move to Moro County.
“I remembered to stay close to Mommy,” she says. “I knew not to get near the wood stove because I could get burned, and to keep my toys away from there because it could cause a fire.”
Mildred would fix a big pot of beans or stew in the morning and let it cook on the stove until supper. Leftovers were few, but those that needed saving were kept cool in a small oak ice box, along with milk and eggs. A new block of ice was delivered every few days.
“In the evenings, I had to get things ready so we had lights before it got dark and get things ready for supper,” Mildred said.
She cleaned and filled the kerosene lamps each day and sewed clothes for her family on a treadle machine.
“I can’t imagine if you had a job with all that, too,” Donnamae says. “You couldn’t come home and take a shower with running water. You had to get that galvanized tub out. Everyone took a bath in the kitchen with water heated on the stove.”
While essential, kerosene lamps were also dangerous.
“We had company for supper, and I went in the kitchen and the flames were coming up the wall,” Mildred said. “We got the fire out right quick, but it scared me to death. It was something I hadn’t learned to watch. I learned to watch it after that.”
Mildred was relieved to move back to The Dalles area with her family a few months after her second child was born.
“I didn’t have to fill the lamps,” she said. “I could cook so much easier. I had a refrigerator. And no more chamber pots.”
Mildred died earlier this year after sharing what life was like without electricity. Her family is grateful her memories were captured.
The Power to Connect
Holly Bell was born and raised in Hooper Bay, Alaska, more than 500 miles from Anchorage on the Bering Sea coast.
As a young boy in the 1960s, 9 p.m. was lights out for him and his seven siblings. Literally. That’s when the electricity shut off in the family’s one-room camp house.
“Every night, the light would get dim,” Holly says. “My parents would say, ‘Oh, that’s Walter Naneng’s eyes looking for you. You better go to bed before the light goes off.’”
Walter Naneng operated the village’s tiny power plant that was housed in a 5-foot-by-5-foot shed.
Holly remembers winter temperatures as low as 80 degrees below zero when he was a boy. Each day at 7 a.m., he rolled out of bed and felt the icy chill as his bare feet hit the floor. Wrapped in his father’s parka, he lit the driftwood and coal in the wood stove, set his father’s coffee and his mother’s tea water to heat, and poured sourdough batter on the griddle—enough for six pancakes at a time.
“I loved it,” he says.
Not every building in Hooper Bay had access to the village power supply.
The school and store ran on their own generators. Some residents used a wind generator with wooden propellers mounted on their roofs or on poles to generate electricity. Holly says those units could be dangerous because the props sometimes flew off in high winds. He saw one cut into a house.
In 1968, Hooper Bay became one of the first Alaskan villages electrified by Alaska Village Electric Cooperative. The project brought electric service to all the houses and churches, the mission house, store and elementary school.
Holly, then 8 years old, was one of more than 150 people who witnessed lighting of the first community Christmas tree—and the entire village—on December 16, 1968. His father, dressed as Santa, passed out presents to the crowd under the tree’s twinkling lights.
With the addition of round-the-clock electricity in Hooper Bay, the local store began selling more appliances. While some families bought refrigerators and freezers, the Bell family didn’t have room for either in their home. Their first purchase was a toaster.
“A lot of people were glad electricity was coming and that their houses were connected,” says Holly, who still lives in Hooper Bay. “One person can’t live out here alone. People help each other a lot. Everybody needs help.”
Family Folklore and Oral History: Recording the Good Stuff
What did Grandma’s childhood kitchen look like? Why did Uncle Rick move across the country after the war? What was life like before cellphones and computers?
Here are some tips for collecting and recording oral histories and family folklore for future generations.
- Often the best interviews happen naturally during family dinners or reunions where storytelling occurs. Anticipate these opportunities and go prepared.
- If you don’t want to wait until the next family event, create one. Invite relatives who interact well together. One story—and one interpretation—leads to another.
- A one-on-one interview with a relative in familiar, relaxed surroundings may result in different stories or more personal details than those told in a group.
- Create a list of three to five topics you want to cover in your interview, such as family heritage, childhood, raising children, work, school or military service. It is helpful to have a list of open-ended questions, but don’t be afraid to let your subject go off on a tangent. Interesting stories can emerge. Story Corps offers sample questions at storycorps.org/participate/great-questions.
- Tape-Record conversations. This is easier than taking notes or relying on your memory. Most mobile devices can do both audio and video recordings. Ask your subject’s permission before recording, run a test to make sure all the voices can be heard, then set it and forget it.
- Use photos, letters, scrapbooks or other heirlooms to help spark memories.
- During conversations, listen for the names of other family members or nonrelatives you can also interview. Or ask directly, “Can you tell me who might know more about that?”
- Schedule your visit at a convenient time for your subject and end the interview when they start to become fatigued. You can always return for another conversation.
The Smithsonian Museum offers more detailed information for collecting family folklore at smithsonianeducation.org/migrations/seek2/begin.html.