Andrew Pregnall: Reflections on “The Sad Irons”

For this Thursday’s class I read “The Sad Irons” which is an excerpt from Robert A Caro’s book The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power. “The Sad Irons” was an interesting chapter to read because it did not necessarily contain an overt argument about the electrification of rural America. Instead, the chapter traced the implementation and effects of electricity in Hill Country – part of Lyndon Johnson’s congressional district – which was notably ‘behind the times’ when it came to the implementation of electricity. For instance, farmer’s in Hill Country, unlike their more contemporary counterparts, could not use an electric cow milkers, refrigerators, electric water pumps, or electric stoves because of their lack of electricity.

Caro argued that the lack of electric utilities on farms did not just affect the “quality of life” of these farmers, but it fundamentally affected how they were able to do farm work and compete in their market. To explain, farmers who did not have access to milkers had to wake up at o-dark thirty to milk all of their cows which was an hours long process. They did so in pitch black because kerosene lamps ran the risk of burning down their barns and because they needed every hour of daylight to work the fields. Once milking was done, farmers needed to keep their milk on ice so that they could sell it to the dairy or at market. However, ice was expensive and difficult to maintain, and it was often ineffective at keeping the milk cold enough to be able to sell it at market or to the dairy. This was just one example of how farmers lacking electricity had to do more labor and had less ability to complete against their electricity-having counterparts.

Throughout the chapter, Caro traces many similar narratives about ways in which the lack of electricity affected the ability of farmers and other Hill Country folk to ‘live a full life.’ He discusses the wash (which we discussed in our unit about women and technology!), ironing, reading, and other forms of entertainment. Given the quality of life narrative present in this chapter and the other readings discussed in class, I find the conventional narrative around the REA to be unsurprising. Like Dr Hirsh said, it is a great story to tell – especially if one is in government and is trying to implement other programs / policies around the country – because one can say “look how much your lives improved!”

 

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