What REA Service Means to Our Farm Home Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Rose Dudley Scearce, a resident of rural Kentucky, wrote this article for the magazine Rural Electrification News, the public information arm of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), to extol the benefits of electricity in her farm home. By the 1930s, the vast majority of urban areas in the United States had access to electricity, but early distribution systems were primitive and could only carry a charge over short distances. Electrical companies claimed that the cost of bringing electricity to sparsely populated rural areas was prohibitive, as it required a much higher voltage transmitter to carry electricity across long distances. The REA was established in 1935 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, a series of domestic programs established to fight unemployment and reinvigorate the US economy during the Great Depression. The REA provided low-cost federal loans to local electrical cooperatives that organized teams of electricians and laborers to wire rural homes and barns in their area. In the first four years of its existence, the REA helped to bring electricity to more than two hundred thousand rural homes.

Summary Overview

Rose Dudley Scearce, a resident of rural Kentucky, wrote this article for the magazine Rural Electrification News, the public information arm of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), to extol the benefits of electricity in her farm home. By the 1930s, the vast majority of urban areas in the United States had access to electricity, but early distribution systems were primitive and could only carry a charge over short distances. Electrical companies claimed that the cost of bringing electricity to sparsely populated rural areas was prohibitive, as it required a much higher voltage transmitter to carry electricity across long distances. The REA was established in 1935 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, a series of domestic programs established to fight unemployment and reinvigorate the US economy during the Great Depression. The REA provided low-cost federal loans to local electrical cooperatives that organized teams of electricians and laborers to wire rural homes and barns in their area. In the first four years of its existence, the REA helped to bring electricity to more than two hundred thousand rural homes.

Defining Moment

By the 1920s, electricity was common in urban areas across the United States. Approximately 90 percent of American city dwellers had access to electrical service by 1930. In rural areas, however, the cost of running lines to remote homes and farms was considered prohibitive, and only about 11 percent of farmers had electricity, many from small wind-powered plants. Charged batteries, used for limited lighting and appliances, were unreliable and sometimes dangerous. Gas-powered machines were also prohibitively expensive to purchase and fuel. In addition to the cost of running distribution lines to remote areas, the amount of power that could be delivered dropped significantly over long distances, and the voltage distribution system had to be more than doubled in order to maintain sufficient strength. Electrical utilities companies were, therefore, unwilling to provide power to rural areas unless farmers agreed to build the distribution lines themselves at great cost and then turn over ownership of the distribution network to the electric companies.

In 1923, with the support of the University of Minnesota and the Northern States Power Company, the Red Wing Project was established to demonstrate the feasibility of providing electricity to rural farms. The Red Wing Project worked to electrify nine farms in rural Minnesota using high-voltage lines and then analyzed the methods and use of rural electricity over several years. Engineers worked to adapt hand- or horse-powered machines to run on electricity. By 1926, Minnesota farmers were using electric motors to simplify and speed up a wide variety of agricultural tasks, including grinding grain, separating cream from milk, refrigerating farm products, pumping water, and mixing concrete. However, the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 hampered any further interest in rural electrification.

In 1935, the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) drew on the success of the Red Wing Project as a model for its own success. President Roosevelt set up the REA by executive order on May 11, 1935, with the dual mission of bringing electrical distribution systems to rural America and providing desperately needed jobs for electricians, laborers, and engineers during the Great Depression. REA teams canvassed the countryside, distributing information about the benefits of electricity for farmers. The REA provided low-cost federal loans to local cooperatives that established electrical distribution networks in their area and then purchased power on a wholesale basis. As more farms became electrified, the demand for power helped to offset the significant cost of bringing power to these remote areas, as the average farm utilized more power than the average urban household. The government also developed a low-cost loan program to help farmers purchase electrical appliances and equipment. Furthermore, despite the initial costs, electricity significantly increased the productivity of rural farms and helped to decrease their operating costs. Many utility companies objected to government interference in their business and saw the rural cooperatives as unfair competition. Some politicians argued that it was a step closer to socialism. Many farmers were initially skeptical about the reliability and usefulness of electricity. Still, by 1939, the REA had overseen the establishment of more than four hundred rural electric cooperatives that provided approximately 288,000 farms with electricity, a jump from 11 to 25 percent. By 1960, 97 percent of all American farms had been electrified. The REA became part of the US Department of Agriculture in 1939. In 1949, the Rural Electrification Act was extended to allow telephone companies to use the same organizational structure to bring telephone service to rural areas across the United States.

Author Biography

Rose W. Dudley Scearce was born on January 4, 1887, in Fayette, Kentucky. Little is known about her life, but she was one of seven children and is listed on census records as having graduated from college. Her marriage date is unknown, but she had her first child with her husband, Ralph Scearce, in 1920 at the age of thirty-three. Rose Dudley Scearce died of cirrhosis of the liver on October 8, 1947, at the age of sixty and is buried in Shelbyville, Kentucky.

Document Analysis

Rose Dudley Scearce's testimonial to the joys of rural electricity was published in a magazine distributed by the REA and is, therefore, designed to appeal to rural Americans who were considering electrification of their farms, perhaps reluctantly. Scearce does not address the farm work that is made easier with electricity, but she speaks of the domestic improvements to her home. She appeals to mothers and homemakers, arguing that their lives will be made far easier with the introduction of electricity.

Scearce opens her article by expounding on the joys of electric lighting, calling on her role as a mother to help make the case that this is a necessary change. “My little boy expressed my sentiments when he said, ‘Mother, I didn't realize how dark our house was until we got electric lights.’” She encourages her readers to get a lamp approved by the Illuminating Engineering Society (IES), which she touts as being of higher quality than regular electric lamps.

Scearce explains that her family then purchased an electric radio, and she refers to her own readership of the Rural Electrification News as her motivation for its purchase: “The radio was the most popular appliance that had been bought. So, like the rest of the people, we changed our storage-battery radio into an electric radio.” Next, her family purchased a refrigerator and washing machine. Scearce describes how she had made use of a gasoline-powered washing machine, but is grateful for the great reduction in noise. “It is such a blessed relief to do the laundry in peace and quiet,” she writes. Indoor plumbing is also made much easier with the use of electric rather than manual water pumps, and she is particularly impressed with the electric iron, as she had not done her own ironing before. She exclaims “I can turn my dial on the iron to any fabric I may be ironing and the iron will stay the temperature needed for the fabric until I move the dial.”

Scearce's description of her cooking stove is particularly illuminating. Many homemakers saw the electrical stove as the answer to many hours of drudgery as coal and wood stoves required constant maintenance and close supervision to maintain the correct temperature. Scearce describes how she was so eager to use an electric stove that “many months before the current was turned on… we wired our kitchen for an electric range.”

The vacuum cleaner is the one item that Scearce most wanted, and she waxes nearly poetic about it. On a dusty, dirty farm, it is nearly impossible to keep her house clean, she says. Without electricity, she explains, “When I finished [sweeping the carpet] I was choking with the dust, the carpet was not clean, and I was in a bad humor.” This is the primary thrust of Scearce's argument in favor of electrification. Electricity does not just enable cooking and cleaning and ironing to be completed quickly, but they also open up the possibility of leisure time. In Scearce's mind, electricity is not just a technological improvement, but the key to happiness. Scearce concludes, “I am enjoying life more because I have more time to spend visiting my friends, studying and reading, and doing the things that make life richer and fuller.”

Essential Themes

The electrification of rural America profoundly changed the lives of millions of Americans. In this article, Scearce urges rural homemakers to take full advantage of electrification by offering her own home and her experience as an example. While the benefits of electricity in facilitating farm work had been demonstrated by the Red Wing Project, Scearce focuses on describing the domestic benefits of electricity. She addresses the hesitation that many felt at the introduction of electrical appliances, which represented not only a new technology but a new way of life, by providing examples of how the changes in her home have been a great benefit to herself and her family. She also argues that, with the help of electricity in the home, the quality of life of rural homemakers will improve.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Campbell, Dan. “When the Lights Came On.” Rural Cooperatives 67.4 (2000): 6–9. Print.
  • Katznelson, Ira. Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time. New York: Liveright, 2013. Print.
  • Shlaes, Amity. The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression. New York: Harper, 2007. Print.
  • United States. Rural Electrification Administration. Rural Lines, USA: The Story of the Rural Electrification Administration's First Twenty-Five Years. Washington: GPO, 1960. Print.
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