Rural Electrification During the Great Depression

Electrical power spread slowly from the cities, driven by the demand there. In the countryside, few farms were electrified as the infrastructure costs made it unprofitable for power companies to send it there. By the 1930’s, most farms were still without power, doing things the old fashioned way. In the depths of the  Depression, president Roosevelt set about changing this “capitalist wrong” to make electricity available to the farmers and small towns in rural America.

The Rural Electrification Administration set out to make this a priority and facilitate efficient and productive farming techniques. It was placed under the control of Morris Llewellyn Cooke, an early proponent of rural electrification; Cooke was also placed in control of several other New Deal policies where his background in mechanical engineering would be useful – the Upstream Engineering Conference, the Great Plain Drought Area Committee, and the Mississippi Valley Committee. The REA purchased the necessary raw materials, poles, wire, insulators to conduct the project and then commenced convincing farming co-ops to go along with the plan. This entailed selling the idea to each farm in the area and loaning sums of money to newly established co-ops that farmers joined to establish the connection to nearby power plants. The co-ops grew as more and more farmers paid to join them; once the lights came on, farmers paid back their loans through the co-ops.

The REA brought electricity to rural America but it also established electricity as more than a mere commodity. It was now seen as a right, something that everyone was entitled to obtain and that it should not be limited only to those who would make it profitable. By the end of World War Two, over 50% of farms had been electrified; by the 1950’s hardly any were left without it.

“Rural Utilities Service.” Wikipedia. July 05, 2017. Accessed October 04, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org
/wiki/Rural_Utilities_Service#Rural_Electrification_Administration.
Winchester, Simon. “Lighting the Corn, Powering the Prairie.” In The Men Who United the States, 375-85. 1st ed. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2013.
Word count: 327

  1 comment for “Rural Electrification During the Great Depression

  1. blogrh
    October 8, 2017 at 2:53 pm

    Indeed, the wikipedia article and the Winchester chapter sure make it seem that the government did miraculous things for farmers. And quite frankly, it did, though there was a lot of nuance and complexity that are left out of the standard/conventional histories of rural electrification. You looked at some of the more traditional narratives–which is what I wanted. But I hope you also realize that these accounts missed a lot too. RH

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