What’s it like to live five years without electricity?
Our Montgomery County, Tennessee, farmhouse was old. It had belonged to the father of an uncle by marriage, Uncle Sterling, who married Daddy’s sister, Aunt Edna. My older brother Nolen Robert and I were born in this house, with the aid of a family doctor who made house calls.
The space on my birth certificate calling for city or town was filled in with “Rural.”While there was no town near our farm, we always said we were from Palmyra because that’s where our post office was located. A gravel road, dusty most of the time, ran in front of our house about forty feet from our front porch.
We got electricity in 1949. This was the same year that the United States, under the signature of President Harry Truman, recognized the state of Israel, but I knew nothing about that at the time. I was five years old.
Our house was equipped with brass carbide light fixtures in each room, but they had not worked for several years before my parents bought the house. I remember the old carbide tank buried in the backyard.
Carbide consists primarily of calcium carbide. By combining water with carbide, carbide gas (also known as acetylene gas) is formed. It had been piped from the old tank to each carbide fixture in the house. I also remember regretting that those old lights did not work. Carbide lights were known to work well for several years until the pipes and valves corroded to the point where the supply of carbide gas was shut down. People who remembered said those old carbide lights used to put out extremely bright light, even brighter than electric lights, which we did not have.
My parents were married during the Great Depression and they could not even consider the very high cost of repairing or replacing the heavily corroded and inoperative carbide lighting system. Our light was provided by sunlight by day and by kerosene lamps at night. Heat was provided by a wood-burning stove in the living room that sat in front of the old, sealed-up fireplace, and by a wood-burning range in the kitchen.
I don’t recall candles ever being used in our house, although they probably were. We kept kerosene in 5-gallon cans, but during snowy or icy weather, it is possible that we could have run out of kerosene and had to use candles as backup.
Kerosene lamps gave off a warm glow. Just looking at a kerosene lamp gave a warm feeling to the room, even though it could be frigid when the fires would go out or when we were in rooms more distant from the stoves.
Things were a’changin’ in our part of the country. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was established as part of the “New Deal” in the 1930s to deliver electricity to a largely rural region of the U. S. Our area was served by the Cumberland Electric Membership Corporation which purchased electricity from TVA. Rural electrification was underway, and the excitement was palpable. Neighbors who lived closer to major highways or main cross-country lines had been getting electricity for some time, and the setting of poles and stringing of wires were headed our way!
Even though I was only five years old at the time, I clearly remember the day we got electricity. There must have been preparations going on in our house before we got hooked up, but I don’t recall any of that. Daddy may have done the internal wiring, or an electrician may have done it. As I write this, I’m amazed and somewhat saddened that it never occurred to me to ask Daddy years later how this was done, while he was still alive. We take so many things for granted and forget about them.
Anyway, the day we “got electricity” was for me a moment similar to when John Kennedy was assassinated in that I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news. My 11-year-old brother Nolen Robert and I were about 200 yards from our house down that gravel road, probably throwing rocks at trees or tin cans, or some similar form of rural entertainment.
Mother called to us from outside our house, a common way of summoning us. For some reason my brother ran like a shot to see what she wanted, and I kept on doing what I was doing. (Years later I was told that my brother was the obedient one, but that’s a different story.)
Moments later, my brother came running down the road yelling to me,
“We got lights! Come see the lights!”
I ran behind my brother as fast as I could to the house to see the lights. This is an exceptional childhood memory that blurs anything else that may have been going on at the time.
I titled this story “The Day We Got Lights” rather than “The Day We Got Electricity” for a specific reason. Having electric lights that came on at the flip of a switch, instantly replacing kerosene lamps was a major life event for us. This was a sign of progress, and maybe even affluence, as we understood the term at the time. We already had a battery-operated radio and a kerosene-operated refrigerator. We had a new reason for pride in who we were.
What we didn’t have at that time is noteworthy, also. We did not have a TV for another couple of years or so. We did not have an electric refrigerator or range, or an electric washer to replace Mother’s washboard. We did not have air conditioning as I was growing up, nor indoor plumbing. We didn’t have a lot of other things that some other people had, but we were making progress! Those other things came with time.
Subsequent progress is hazy in my memory, but I could cite evidence galore that we were progressing. An example is that we had wall outlets, but I do not recall if they were built into the walls or attached outside them and connected by wires in conduit. Among our first small appliance purchases were oscillating fans that we plugged in at various places, bringing big-time relief in hot weather.
Soon electricity spread from our house to our barn and chicken houses. The introduction of heat lamps in the brooder house made it easy to keep baby chickens warm in cold weather, eliminating the need for Daddy to get up in the middle of the night to stoke the wood-burning stove, except for occasional power outages.
It seems odd (or maybe just quaint) looking back, that seeing electric lights burning in our house for the first time was such a momentous occasion.
I wonder what five-year-olds of today will remember from that year that stands out in their lives a half century from now. Will they remember a particular computer game? Or a new house? Or near starvation? Or wars?