It’s hard to imagine not having switches to turn on lights, cool the
refrigerator, pump water for cattle, grind feed, light the way for guests to
find their cars at night or even to power a simple radio. But electric lines
stopped at the city limits in the 1930s. Coal oil lamps and lanterns were a
lot of trouble for a little bit of light.
A few rural families owned Delco light plants, which were private generators
powered by gasoline engines. However, they were far from trouble-free. Dad and
mom chose a different solution: carbide gas lights.
This involved a huge tank, mostly below ground level, in the side yard near
the house. The tank had a floating compartment that contained gas. We bought
granular carbide in 50-pound drums and poured that into one compartment. This
sprinkled down into water to cause gas. The gas was collected in a large
float, which occasionally triggered the release of more carbide into water,
thus forming more gas.
The gas was carried to light fixtures through galvanized iron pipes. Instead
of a wall switch, each light fixture had a valve to turn to release the gas
and a striker to make a spark to ignite the gas. I had to stretch up to open
the valve and twist the striker. It was an expensive system to install because
gas had to be piped to the milk house and barn, which were a few hundred yards
from the carbide tank.
This was far better than coal oil lamps and lanterns. No more filling and
spilling that stinky kerosene. There were no smoky chimneys to wash and
polish. And it was great to have light that spread out over the entire room.
But the carbide system had its drawbacks.
The day the tubes and fixtures were in place and the carbide had formed its
gas in the big outdoor tank, it was necessary to vent the tubes before the gas
could be ignited. As instructed, we opened doors and windows and turned on the
valves to let out the air. Only after all three canaries died did we realize
that carbide gas wasn’t the best for human beings either. That taught us to
turn-and-strike quickly so no gas would escape into the room.
Our main problem was that the carbide ran out when we least expected. If that
happened during late evening milking, the oil lanterns came out, kerosene
lamps were dusted off and pressed into service. Of course there was a way to
determine when a refill was necessary, but to do that we had to open the big
tank and look in, and sometimes we’d forget to do that.
There was a spigot where Mom would attach the flexible tube to a spigot for
her gas iron. She would open the iron, turn on the gas and wait for the tube
to fill with gas. Then she’d light the match, ignite the gas and close the
iron. Soon she was ironing, but I was thinking of those three dead canaries!
When the idea of a farmer-owned cooperative was presented and the Rural
Electric Administration was set in motion, Dad was one of the volunteers who
promoted the idea. His is one of the names on the plaque at the left side of
the main entrance to Boone Electric Cooperative, 1411 Range Line St., in
Columbia. Our home and dairy received electrical service 57 years ago.