Harvest, June 2013
The poles often play starring roles in my sunset photos as silhouettes to mark the departure of another Kansas day. They are part of our western landscape, a line marching steadily toward the horizon. However, like most people, I don't think a lot about electricity until I don't have it. During this ice storm, we were fortunate. We were only without power for a few hours, and we were sleeping during most of that time. Many others were without electricity for several days.
After a 2007 ice storm, we were without power for 12 days. The only good thing that came out of that 2007 ice storm was a photo of the sun coming up after a week of gray days and sub-freezing temperatures. I put that photo on canvas and it decorates my living room, part of my "There is a time for every season ..." Ecclesiastes grouping.
made art out of weeds had also clung to the cross bars of the power poles.
My Grandpa Shelby Neelly was was one of the people who helped develop the rural electric cooperative in Pratt County back in the 1940s. He served on the Ninnescah Rural Electric Board and also the Kansas Rural Electric Cooperative board. My dad later served on both boards as well.
The first electric light bulb twinkled into history in 1879, when scientists in Thomas Alva Edison’s laboratory corralled this new form of power. By 1930, nearly 70 percent of city dwellers were hooked up to the electrical lines and poles that dotted U.S. cities. At the same time, however, only 10 percent of farm families had access to electricity.
In 1932, presidential candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised a “New Deal” to help combat the Great Depression. One of his New Deal programs was the formation of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) in 1935.
|First rural electric line in Kansas, Brown County, 1938. Photo from Kansas State Historical Society.|
In 1935, with the passage of the Emergency Appropriations Act, a zero-interest loan program was established for building electric transmission distribution lines into rural America. However, existing investor-owned companies still weren’t interested in providing electricity to farms because they didn’t believe it was profitable. In 1936, with the passage of the Electrification Act, not-for-profit cooperatives were encouraged to apply for the loans. Neighbors joined together to create and control the future of their electric companies.
|Grandpa Neelly and me, 1957|
Shelby Neelly had been living in the central Kansas community of Greensburg. The teacher and coach enjoyed the electricity available to city dwellers. But, in 1942, when Neelly moved back to Pratt County to farm, he and his family were again without the modern convenience of electricity.
When the Ninnescah Rural Electric had first approached his neighbors, they didn’t see the need for electric power. Only a couple of families along the road had signed up in the cooperative’s initial recruitment effort. Then, World War II curtailed the use of wire and other supplies necessary for building miles of electric line.
“My kin, Ray Denton, drove up and down the roads in two or three townships out here trying to get people to sign up,” recalled the 99-year-old Neelly in a January 2004 interview. “It was $5 to sign up, and a lot of people didn’t think they had the $5. At that time, people couldn’t even imagine all the electrical appliances we have today.”
|From from Kansas State Historical Society, Brown County, KS|
Getting the monetary commitment from farm families was just the beginning. The cooperative boards spent hours mapping out the best locations for electric lines with engineers. They again made the rounds to neighbors to purchase land easements for placing the lines. They also had to apply for the loans to the REA.
|Photo from Energy for Generations archive|
By 1945, the Neelly family had electricity in their farm home, just like many other farm families in Kansas. At first, only the kitchen, living room and dining room had the single bulb in the middle of the ceiling. It was a far cry from the outlets located on every wall in today’s country homes, but it was miraculous at the time to have indoor plumbing. Farm families were able to replace their ice boxes with electric refrigerators, no more lugging 25-pound chunks of ice into the kitchen. Farm wives and children no longer hauled pail after pail of water into the home for washing dishes or taking baths. Families could sit around their living rooms at night listening to the radio and reading by the light of their electric light bulbs rather than the muted glow from kerosene lanterns.
All across the country, farmers and ranchers began to realize the potential for electricity in their daily work. Electricity could grind feed, shell corn, pump water and saw wood. It powered milking machines and lifted hay into the barn. Farmyards were often lit with lights, adding extra hours to accomplish work.
“As technology evolves, almost all of it is powered by electricity,” Bob Moore said in a 2004 interview. “Today we have more technology available than we could ever have dreamed of when I was a boy. It’s amazing that we have computers and television that connect us to the whole world. The future is not that different from the past. All kinds of new innovations will require electrical power. We just can’t imagine what all of them will be.”
On Sunday, we'll celebrate Kansas Day. It's been 156 years since Kansas joined the Union. I'm thankful for the pioneers who established this land and for those innovators who came along later - from the people who brought electricity to the plains to those today bringing high-speed internet connections.