Friday, January 27, 2017

Power to the People

From outward appearances, the tall and mighty power poles that stretch across our wheat field looked unharmed after the ice storm two weekends ago.
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.
We know how that is.  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.
On our way to church last Sunday, we saw a parade of vehicles in the field. Evidently, outward appearances didn't tell the whole story. (There's another lesson there, isn't there?)
The ice that had draped fences and coated trees and made art out of weeds had also clung to the cross bars of the power poles.
A subcontractor, PAR, worked all day last Sunday to repair the damage on the poles, which are owned by Midwest Energy.
Wet fields and heavy equipment don't mix. The company had to use bulldozers to pull their trucks through the muck. (We know a little about that after a combine was buried in mud during our last wheat harvest!)
One of the supervisors came to the house to get a phone number and contact information so the company could settle any damages to the ground and crops. He also shared both a company phone number and his personal cell phone, just in case we didn't hear from the company.  What a nice guy!
Less than a week later, the company has already called to make reparations for the damage done. Some of the money will go to the landlord. (We don't own the ground.) And some will come to us.
We are thankful that the company is trying to "make it right." But we're even more thankful for electricity and for the workers who do all they can to get power up and running after a storm.

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.
We rural residents owe a lot to our ancestors who worked so hard to bring the convenience of electricity to our rural communities.

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.  

The importance of electricity in the lives of rural residents continues today.  It’s hard to predict what the future will hold. 

“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. 


  1. Kim,
    Neat history of electricity in Kansas and how your Grandpa helped bring it into your area.
    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks, Robyn! It's been on my mind since the ice storm. We don't realize how dependent we are upon electricity until we don't have it!

  2. Wow, what a wonderful read. One forgets that the history of electricity is so short. Our farm didn't have power until the 1960's.
    I also rode a horse to school in my 1st year of learning.
    We were born into a very fortunate age.

    1. We really were! We forget how fortunate until we're without power for any length of time.

  3. A great read Kim. Little did they realise at the time how much we would come to rely on electricity into the future.

    The contractors certainly made a mess of your fields. I'm glad to hear that they have come back to level out a bit and pay some compensation. It is nice to know that your electricity company realises the cost associated with this sort of damage.

    1. Thanks, Lynda. We were surprised - and pleased - that they already contacted us about damages.

  4. Kim, thanks for this history and reminder that farmers always have had to work extra hard for what they have!

    1. It definitely makes me appreciate Kansas pioneers on this Kansas Day weekend.