Challenges of Bringing Electricity to Farms
in the 1920s and Early 1930s
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In many urban areas across the country, gas lighting became available for businesses and homes in the late 1800s. Electricity followed within the next decade, although the service was often only available to businesses. In the City of Wausau, the first electrified building was the downtown Bee Hive Store, which was illuminated in 1886. Electricity usage soon spread to homes and by the 1920s most city and town dwellers, except for the very poor, had access to electric lights and appliances, and running water.
Power companies found cities and towns more profitable to electrify than rural areas. Rural power lines had to be sturdier than those in town to withstand long distances along with exposure to winds and all types of weather. The land was not always flat or dry and many trees needed to be removed or trimmed. There were also fewer customers and they were much farther apart than in cities; there might only be several rural customers per mile of power line. Electric companies charged farmers up to twice as much as city dwellers. In 1920 there were 6.5 million farms in the United States but fewer than 100,000 were on the power grid.
The 1920s were also a time of economic depression and crisis on the farm. There was an increasing gap between the lifestyles of rural and urban residents. Images of the “Roaring Twenties” in cities depicted the good life but farmers saw the prices they could get for their crops and milk decrease year after year. Rural land values dropped dramatically and, in Wisconsin, the value of farmland dropped almost 40% from 1920 to 1930.
In the 1930s the Great Depression hit the urban population of the country and the economic crisis became nationwide. On the farm, things only got worse as prices continued to drop and drought affected crops. In these conditions, rural electrification moved very slowly. Farms near main roads or larger users of electricity, such as cheese factories, were able to connect to existing lines if they could afford the expense. Rural residents who lived far from existing lines had no options other than purchasing a gasoline fueled or wind powered “light plant”. In 1930 about 25% of Wisconsin farms had electricity. Nationwide, in 1935, only 11% of farms were electrified.