Granny's Notes - the writing of Sue Gerard

Not all farmers wanted electric lights in the ’30s

Roll call for the women’s club was, "What do you want to do when you get to heaven?" I don’t recall the answers to that, but when it was, "What will be your punishment if you land in the other place?" Mary Wegener blurted right out, "I’ll be trimming the wicks on coal oil lamps!"

Wicks were long, woven cotton strips that absorbed oil from the lamp bowls and were lighted with a match. Glass chimneys were then quickly clamped in place around the flames for safety and to intensify the light given off by such a tiny flame. The burnt end of the wick had to be trimmed off, the bowl refilled with oil and the chimneys washed and polished. These crude lighting devices were standard equipment in farm homes. At an early age, I was fascinated by electric lights that came on at the flick of a switch at our grandparents’ home in Centralia.

Dad investigated the cost of bringing electricity from Columbia’s power plant to our farm, almost four miles east. No other rural people were interested in the high cost of switching to electricity. Our dairy sold milk for only 8 cents a quart, chilled and delivered to customers’ homes; therefore, the cost of an electric line from Columbia to our farm - $1,000 - was out of the question. Parts of the dairy farm are now Cedar Ridge School, a church, El Chaparral subdivision and several privately owned small properties on East Broadway. I still call it "Fulton Gravel Road."

Our parents and a few neighbors gave up hope on electricity and bought carbide gas lighting systems. Carbide gas provided great "open flame lighting" for our home, milk house and barn. The gas was produced from a combination of carbide granules and water. We had to buy carbide in 50-pound metal containers and "recharge" the system when it ran out, which was usually at the busiest times or when we had company. The carbide gas was distributed by pipes and sometimes by flexible tubing. We ironed with gas and also had a gas grill.

In the 1930s a rural couple heard, on their battery radio, that farm groups might form cooperatives for the purpose of borrowing government money to bring electricity to farms. The couple went to Washington, D.C., and got instructions on how to proceed. Dad rearranged his work schedule so he could enroll prospective users. In 1934 the ball was rolling, but many people weren’t interested in electricity on their farms. Eva Hinshaw knew the changes electricity could make in all of our lives; she and Dad worked tirelessly to enroll users.

Money was short on farms in the ’30s, and enrollment of three farms per mile of power line was required before the venture could be approved. The initial payment was less than $5! It wasn’t easy to bring electricity to Central Missouri! A cooperative was formed, money was borrowed and poles were on the ground waiting for holes to be dug early in 1937. Still, some farmers were skeptical and had all sorts of excuses for not wanting to join. Our district’s school board chairman said: "Carlisle School doesn’t need electricity; school is in the daytime!"

To be continued.

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