Electrifying Rural America

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Electrifying Rural America

For many Americans in the 1930s one of the most memorable experiences of a lifetime was the day electric power came to their home. Often with great anticipation homes were readied for "zero hour," the moment the lines were energized. Homes were wired, bulbs were hung, a radio was in place, and, if the family could afford them, appliances such as electric ranges and refrigerators were installed and ready.

The push to bring electricity to all corners of America—including isolated rural farms—began with the presidential campaign of 1932. The Democratic candidate, Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945), promoted the goal of rural electrification, and in November he won the presidency by a landslide. Americans caught in the depths of the Great Depression (1929–41), the worst economic crisis in U.S. history, had pinned all their hopes on the new president.

Few electrified farms

Electric power began to serve American industry, businesses, and homes in the cities by the 1880s. However, for many years electrification was regarded as a luxury. But by the 1920s electric power was becoming an essential part of modern life. More than half of all urban homes had electric lights, and many of those homes had electric appliances. Despite these advances in cities, few farm families had electricity. By 1930 more than 90 percent of rural homes still used kerosene lamps for lighting; and running water and indoor bathrooms were impossible without powered pumping systems.

President Herbert Hoover (1874–1964; served 1929–33) took a hands-off approach in dealing with such problems. Hoover was solidly in favor of electrification and wanted to improve the lives and productivity of all Americans, including farmers. However, he also believed that private enterprise (a business belonging to an individual or group of people with the expectation of making a profit) should, and eventually would, accomplish this objective of electrifying the nation. But at the time, private utility companies were primarily focused on electric power for industry. They believed that the cost of delivering power to the countryside would be too high and that farmers could not afford to pay at rates that would be profitable for the utility companies.

Electrification as a campaign issue

The Democratic Party nominated New York governor Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) for president in July 1932. During a campaign swing through the South in the summer of 1932, Roosevelt was struck by the poverty and related sanitation problems in rural areas. He was convinced that bringing electricity to such areas would be a major step toward modernization. Electricity would make running water possible in homes, and it could power refrigerators to keep food from spoiling. But the power would have to be inexpensive so that people could afford it.

Roosevelt's national electric power priorities sharply contrasted with Hoover's and with the interests of the private utility industry. Private utilities wanted to focus on better serving the 20 percent of Americans who were already consumers of electricity; Roosevelt was concerned with the 80 percent of households that did not have electric power.

To achieve the goal of rural electrification Roosevelt promoted broad governmental planning at the national level; planning decisions would then be carried out in various regions of the nation. During his campaign, Roosevelt promoted large power projects in every region of the country, promising an ample supply of cheap electricity. He pointed to opportunities on the St. Lawrence River in the Northeast, the Tennessee River in the Southeast, the Columbia River in the Northwest, and the Colorado River in the Southwest. The voting public, desperate for a new approach to solving the economic problems of the Great Depression, elected Roosevelt in a landslide victory over President Hoover. Upon taking office in March 1933, Roosevelt launched his plans to end the Depression, introducing special legislation—called the New Deal—that would create relief agencies and programs to help all Americans. Electrifying America was a top priority in the New Deal plan.

The New Deal electrification programs

New Deal legislators looked primarily to the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) to guide development of the proposed large electrification projects. The BOR, established under the Federal Reclamation Act of 1902, was the primary agency concerned with irrigation in the West. At the start of the New Deal the BOR had twenty-six construction projects under way, involving over $335 million. The COE, established in 1804, was primarily concerned with ship navigation and flood control.

To create jobs for the unemployed, Roosevelt established the Public Works Administration (PWA) on June 16, 1933, under the authority of the National Industrial Recovery Act, which was signed into law that same day. Through the remainder of the Depression, funding for electrification projects would come through the PWA. The projects would provide tens of thousands of jobs.

The New Deal electrification projects were massive efforts. Many were not completed until the 1940s or even later. A few of the more ambitious projects are described in the following paragraphs.

Southwest: The Colorado River

The first major New Deal hydroelectric power (electricity generated from water power) project was actually one started during Hoover's administration (1929–33). For many years certain interest groups had wanted a dam built on the Colorado River to serve the water and power needs of Los Angeles, California, and surrounding regions. The project finally gained the approval of Congress in 1928. In late 1930 President Hoover authorized the construction of Hoover Dam. The BOR assigned the work to private construction companies. An engineer himself, Hoover saw the massive construction project as a way to create thousands of jobs and strengthen the public's faith in the U.S. economic system.

At the peak of construction in the early 1930s, fifty-two hundred men worked on Hoover Dam around the clock, seven days a week. Because of the size of the job, several large construction companies joined together to form a giant business partnership known as Six Companies. Hoover Dam was the first occasion on which multiple construction companies worked together on a federal government project. These companies would later tackle other large New Deal projects both individually and in various combinations. Some would become the leading construction companies in the world. Marriner Eccles (1890–1977), head of one of the construction companies, became a leading industry spokesman for large public works projects. He would become a key figure in the New Deal, serving as the assistant secretary of the treasury for Roosevelt.

The Hoover Dam workers enjoyed the relative stability of long-term employment during the peak years of the Great Depression. However, the work was hard and dangerous, and pay was not high. Fifty workers died during the construction of the dam. Unskilled workers made fifty cents an hour, and skilled workers such as carpenters made seventy-five cents an hour. Before construction of the dam could begin, the Colorado River had to be diverted through four giant tunnels dug through solid rock formations. Five million tons of dirt and rock would be removed from the future dam site. Finally, by the spring of 1933, as Roosevelt was taking office, construction of the dam itself began. Twelve million tons of sand and gravel were needed for the concrete mix. Roosevelt's secretary of the interior, Harold Ickes (1874–1952), changed the name of the dam to Boulder Dam because Hoover had become quite unpopular with the public. Congress restored the name Hoover Dam in 1947.

The Public Works Administration (PWA) provided $38 million in 1934 for the construction of Hoover Dam; the total construction cost was $114 million. The dam is 726 feet high, similar to a fifty-story building, and 660 feet thick at its base. It was the world's largest dam at the time. The dam began storing water on February 1, 1935, and in September 1935 President Roosevelt traveled to the project to make a dedication address. The dam began producing electricity in September 1936. Besides irrigating over 2.5 million acres of farmland, it provided Los Angeles, California, with domestic water (through a 260-mile-long aqueduct) and hydroelectric power.

Further upstream, at the source of the Colorado River, was another massive project—the Big Thompson Project. Canals and tunnels, including one tunnel thirteen miles long, would divert Colorado River water from southwest Colorado through the Rocky Mountains to the dry farming region of southeast Colorado. Congress authorized funding for the project in 1937 through the BOR. The PWA provided additional funds to begin construction. The job also included five dams and power plants that would generate hydroelectric power for several regions of Colorado. The entire project would take twenty years to complete.

Southeast: The Tennessee River valley

The Tennessee River, one of the largest in the United States, flows for 652 miles and drains an area of almost 41,000 square miles. Included in this area are parts of seven states: Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Kentucky. During the 1920s the Tennessee River valley was one of the most impoverished regions of the United States. Largely bypassed by the industrial growth taking place in the U.S. in the early twentieth century, it was home to millions of poor subsistence farmers (farmers who only grew enough crops to live on, not sell for profit) who had little opportunity to improve their lives. The region's future looked bleak, yet its rivers, though not well suited to navigation or agriculture, held the potential to produce huge amounts of hydroelectric power.

In 1931 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) issued a final report of a comprehensive survey of the Tennessee River and its tributaries. This report made it clear that cheap electric power, flood control, and improved navigation and health conditions could be achieved through a carefully coordinated development of the river system. After assuming office on March 4, 1933, President Roosevelt followed the COE suggestions, calling for a coordinated program for the entire Tennessee River valley; the program would involve flood control, restoration of land subject to flooding, power development, navigation improvements, and promotion of new industry. Congress enacted the Roosevelt program, and Roosevelt signed the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Act into law on May 17, 1933. The act called for a governing board of three directors, one of whom would be chairman, to guide the program. The TVA would be a government corporation not connected to other federal departments and answerable only to the president. Roosevelt selected Arthur E. Morgan as the TVA chairman.

The TVA act authorized the government to distribute publicly generated power throughout the Tennessee River valley and adjacent areas, primarily to public agencies such as municipal utilities and cooperatives. (A cooperative is a private, nonprofit enterprise, locally owned and managed by those it serves and incorporated under state law.) The act also explicitly stated that the TVA should not compete with existing private power facilities. Because private companies already were in place, the companies and the TVA had to establish boundaries between public and private service territories. In order for the TVA to establish a service area, some areas had to be given up by the private power companies. Naturally the private companies were reluctant to do this, and legal battles ensued between the private power companies in the region and the federal government. Ultimately, after August 1939, the TVA held exclusive electricity markets in most of Tennessee and in large parts of northern Alabama and northeastern Mississippi. The TVA confined itself to this territory for the remainder of the twentieth century.

Dam construction was the most visible TVA program. By June 1935 the TVA employed over sixteen thousand workers, mostly in dam construction. By 1936 five dams were under way. Wilson Dam at Alabama's Muscle Shoals had already been completed in 1925. Once the TVA was established, dams were built in rapid succession on the Tennessee River and its tributaries, according to the COE's recommendations. The first was Norris Dam, begun in October 1933 and named after Senator George Norris (1861–1944; served 1913–43) of Nebraska, who had long argued for development of the Tennessee River valley. The dam was finished in 1936. Construction on Wheeler Dam began one month after the start of Norris Dam. These dams were popular tourist destinations during the Depression: One thousand people visited Wilson, Wheeler, and Norris Dams each day. By the time the system was completed in 1944, the TVA had built sixteen dams.

The TVA also set up an experimental cooperative to distribute electricity. This was the Alcorn County Electric

Publicizing Electrification

The New Deal utility programs proved to be highly popular with the public. This was due in large part to the extra efforts that were made in publicizing the programs' services and benefits. William L. Sturdevant ran the highly successful Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) publicity campaign through the TVA Information Office. The office was well funded and employed a full-time staff of twelve. The staff even included a motion picture director.

The TVA Information Office produced articles for professional journals and popular magazines, movies, pamphlets, speeches, traveling exhibits, and photographs. Writers for the publicity office specialized in covering various aspects of the TVA, including power generation, farming improvements, and engineering achievements. TVA employees published numerous articles about the program and gave many speeches. In addition to articles written by the TVA staff, more than two thousand magazine articles about the TVA were produced by other writers during the 1930s. The publicity office responded personally to approximately one hundred thousand letters received from the public between 1933 and 1940. Trained guides led over four million visitors to the dams during that same period. Visitors who were writers or students received special attention and were encouraged to study and write about the TVA's achievements.

TVA photographers busily documented all parts of the projects. Some of their pictures are highly regarded today as works of art. These photographs were used in TVA exhibits at conventions, meetings, schools, and colleges around the country. (The TVA exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair in New York City drew over three million visitors.) The photographs also appeared in fifteen pamphlets published by the TVA Information Office, some of which won awards and became models for school writing classes. The TVA's films included TVA at Work, Norris Dam, and Electricity on the Farm. These films and others were used in hundreds of schools and seen by nearly one million people by 1940. The special effort to inform the public paid off in immense popular support for the TVA, which protected the agency from political efforts by Congress or others to transfer it to private ownership.

The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) took a more novel approach for some of its publicity. To spur public support of the Columbia River dams, the BPA hired unemployed songwriter Woody Guthrie (1912–1967) in May 1941 to travel the Northwest for thirty days. He was to write a song a day about the New Deal electrification program in that region, and he would be paid $267. Guthrie ended up writing twenty-six songs, including the American folk classics "Grand Coulee Dam," "Roll On Columbia," "Jackhammer Blues," and "Pastures of Plenty."

Cooperative in northeastern Mississippi, an economically depressed region with many tenant farmers. In addition Congress established the Electric Home and Farm Authority (EHFA) in December 1933. The EHFA was designed to help private manufacturers market electric appliances in the TVA service area. For this economically struggling area the manufacturers made special models to sell at lower prices than normal.

In the 1930s the TVA endured many battles—both internally among its directors and externally with the private power companies—before finally realizing Roosevelt's dream of revitalizing the region. The new series of hydroelectric dams generated massive amounts of new electricity, driving down electric rates and stimulating the modernization of industries and homes in the cities and countryside. Navigation locks (a chamber that can contain a ship and raise or lower water to allow it to pass by a dam) alongside the dams finally established a practical shipping channel into eastern Tennessee, lowering shipping costs and improving the profitability of local businesses.

By 1941 the TVA was the largest producer of electric power in the United States. It was also instrumental in World War II (1939–45), providing electricity for the production of aluminum (for aircraft) and nitrates (for munitions). The TVA continues to serve the Tennessee River valley in the twenty-first century. A government corporation funded by its own revenues from selling electricity rather than regular government appropriations, the TVA produces more electricity than any other utility in the United States. The TVA is part of the social and economic fabric of life in the Tennessee River valley and is one of the crowning achievements of the New Deal.

Northwest: The Columbia River

The comprehensive nationwide study by the COE that detailed the potential of the Tennessee River valley also included a plan for a system of ten dams on the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. Recognized as a vast unharnessed power source, the Columbia River was thought to hold 40 percent of the nation's hydroelectric power potential. President Roosevelt saw the proposed Columbia River projects as a great opportunity to provide work relief (new jobs) on public projects while furthering his goal of electrifying America. The Northwest was a good candidate: In 1933, for example, 70 percent of Oregon farms were not yet electrified.

The Bonneville Dam, located about forty miles east of Portland, Oregon, was the first Columbia River project. The dam would make the Columbia River navigable for oceangoing vessels for an additional forty-eight miles upstream. It would also provide abundant cheap power for the region. The Bonneville Dam presented a major engineering challenge, requiring the obstruction of a river flow ten times that of the Colorado River at Hoover Dam. Work began in October 1933. The total cost of the project was $80 million, with the Public Works Administration (PWA) contributing $42 million.

As work on the Bonneville Dam began, interest increased in a proposed giant project—the Grand Coulee Dam—upstream in northern Washington. Planners hoped to irrigate one million acres in the dry central Washington region to boost the region's agricultural potential. The state of Washington had committed $377,000 to begin the Grand Coulee Dam project in 1933. Roosevelt provided $14 million through the PWA in late 1933 and placed the project under the responsibility of the BOR. Excavation at the dam site began that December.

On August 30, 1935, in the River and Harbor Act, Congress approved funding for the dam. Grand Coulee would become the largest dam in the world. Roosevelt, who visited the construction site in 1937, regarded the dam as the New Deal's model project for showcasing the potential of dams in regional economic development. By 1942 a total of $69 million had been provided and the dam was completed. Construction of the powerhouses and pumping plant was still under way. The Grand Coulee Dam first generated power on March 22, 1941. The project had employed six thousand workers laboring day and night.

In 1937, with power soon to be produced by Bonneville Dam, Roosevelt sought a means to sell the electricity directly to the public. The Bonneville Power Act created the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA). Patterned partly after the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the BPA would sell and distribute to the public electricity generated by Bonneville Dam (and later by other Columbia River public dams, including Grand Coulee). The BPA, using PWA funds and in some cases workers from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), constructed transmission lines and substations around the region. The BPA became the primary provider of electricity in the Pacific Northwest.

The Rural Electrification Administration (REA)

Noting the TVA's early successes in establishing cooperatives to distribute electricity, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes (1874–1952) proposed in February 1934 an ambitious nationwide plan: to involve cooperatives using low-interest, long-term federal loans to construct power lines in areas not already served by private electric companies. To achieve this goal, President Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) on May 11, 1935. The REA was set up as a lending agency rather than a relief agency; it would provide loans to organizations building rural power projects. The new agency would also provide low-cost federal loans to consumers for wiring houses and buying home appliances (this was similar to the role of the Electric Home and Farm Authority in the TVA region). The goal of such lending was to encourage electricity consumption and thereby bring electric rates down.

Farmers were already well experienced at forming and running cooperatives for marketing their farm products. However, that job did not require the high levels of technical expertise that electrical cooperatives would. To overcome this obstacle the REA offered to provide services that the farmers lacked, including designing appropriate electrical transmission systems to meet their needs. The terms of REA loans were favorable to cooperatives, featuring low-interest rates and a repayment period of twenty years. The cooperatives would buy their power from a private power company, a municipal utility, or the federal government. President Roosevelt signed the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 into law on May 21, making the REA a permanent agency, and appointed Morris Cooke as REA administrator.

To become eligible for an REA loan, cooperatives had to convince the REA that their project would be properly managed and that they would be able to pay back the loan. They had to hire lawyers, elect officers, recruit members, hire engineers to help design transmission line systems, arrange to buy electric power at wholesale rates, maintain proper records, and work with state power commissions. Few states had laws specifically permitting electric cooperatives, so in 1937 the REA staff drew up a model law that states could follow to describe how co-ops could be legally formed and regulated.

Because of the high unemployment rate during the Great Depression, the REA was able to choose its staff from a large pool of people. As a result, the agency hired very skilled and experienced professionals. The REA staff instructed farmers on all the aspects of organizing and operating a successful electric co-op. The REA even showed people how to use electricity. For example, home economists showed women how to operate new electric appliances, and engineers showed farmers how electric motors could help with farmwork. From 1938 until 1942 the REA conducted a traveling show, known as the Demonstration Farm Equipment Tour, to show the proper uses for electrical household and farm equipment. Thousands of people in twenty states saw this exhibition.

To bring down expenses the REA standardized poles, hardware, power transformers, and electrical wires. Another cost-savings measure was having construction crews use assembly-line methods in building transmission lines, with specialized crews following one another along the route. In this way the REA was able to reduce construction costs: Before the REA program transmission lines cost up to $2,000 per mile. By the end of 1936 the cost was $941 per mile, and by 1939 it was $825 per mile. This cost reduction made rural electrification more affordable for the co-ops. Farmers who had no money were allowed to work on REA crews in exchange for obtaining electric service in their homes.

The dedication of the REA and the rural cooperatives, along with the improved efficiencies in construction, greatly accelerated electrification of rural areas. From 1936 to 1939 the number of rural electricity consumers increased from 700 to 268,000. REA loans climbed from $13.9 million in 1935 to $227.2 million in 1939.

Electrification legacy

A great deal of funding was provided for electrification during the Great Depression years. The Public Works Administration spent over $3 billion for water and power developments, and the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) provided an average of $52 million a year. (Before the Depression it averaged less than $9 million a year.) The Corps of Engineers added millions more. By 1940 the BOR had twenty-three power plants in operation throughout the West and fifteen more still under construction. Though demoralized by the Great Depression, Americans felt some encouragement as they watched the federal government and private business develop these projects.

Though nationwide in scope, the electrification projects of the New Deal would exert particular influence on future economic development of the western United States. The projects would contribute to increased food and pasture-land for livestock; extensive crops of vegetables, fruits, and grains; construction of food processing and aluminum plants and other industry; and electricity for cities and farming communities.

The dams fulfilled Roosevelt's vision of cheap electricity and modernization for rural America. Modernization profoundly changed the lives of farmers. Their standard of living rose dramatically, and farm production vastly increased. The United States became a world leader in agriculture. The availability of electricity also allowed new industries to spring up in rural areas, providing a wide range of economic enterprises in areas away from the traditional urban industrial centers. In the end the New Deal electrification programs contributed to prosperity in the United States to an extent far beyond Roosevelt's dreams.

For More Information


brown, d. clayton. electricity for rural america: the fight for the rea. westport, ct: greenwood press, 1980.

cullen, allan h. rivers in harness: the story of dams. new york, ny: chilton books, 1962.

dunar, andrew j., and dennis mcbride. building hoover dam: an oral history of the great depression. new york, ny: twayne publishers, 1993.

hubbard, preston j. origins of the tva: the muscle shoals controversy, 1920–1932. new york, ny: w. w. norton, 1961.

lilienthal, david e. the journals of david lilienthal: the tva years, 1939–1945. new york, ny: harper & row, 1964.

lowitt, richard. the new deal and the west. norman, ok: university of oklahoma press, 1993.

nye, david e. electrifying america: social meanings of a new technology, 1880–1940. cambridge, ma: mit press, 1990.

tobey, ronald c. technology as freedom: the new deal and the electrical modernization of the home. berkeley, ca: university of california press, 1996.

wolf, donald e. big dams and other dreams: the six companies story. norman, ok: university of oklahoma press, 1996.

Web Sites

tennessee valley authority.http://www.tva.gov (accessed on august 15, 2002).

"tva: electricity for all." new deal network.http://newdeal.feri.org/tva/index.htm (accessed on august 15, 2002).

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