I have always taken electricity for granted. When mom and dad would reminisce about the old days of the kerosene lantern, I could only imagine. The Rural Electrification Administration was created in 1935 when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued the executive order. Interestingly enough, that was the same year my folks were married.

In 1936, Congress endorsed Roosevelt’s action by passing the Rural Electrification Act. At the time, electricity was commonplace in cities, but largely unavailable on farms, ranches and other rural places. Mom and dad began their married life with kerosene lamps and a wood stove. They did not get electricity right away, but gradually, with progress, things began to change. 

“With electrification farmers began to realize that lights could be turned on with a flick of a switch. They saw water coming out of a faucet without pumping first. Meat and butter could be kept cold for days in something called a refrigerator. There were irons that somehow stayed hot as long as they were needed. Farmers called it a miracle. City folks called it electricity.”

Putting up the first lines a rural area of the country. Public domain photo

My parents built their new house in 1951, and with that, the entire family enjoyed the convenience of electricity. By the time I was born a few years later, everyone was getting pretty used to the luxury of electricity and indoor plumbing. Of course, there were those occasional times when the power went out, and when it happened, I thought of it more as an adventure rather than an inconvenience. The only time we went without electricity was when a bad electrical or ice storm hit and we temporarily went without. There were those occasional times that we started milking by hand, but usually the electricity went back on before we were done. In the house, when there was a power outage, we managed with flashlights and candles. We were just starting to have fun when the lights would go back on. 

And then, there is the yard light. When rural electrification began, it was one of the conveniences that every farmer could choose to have. My father chose to have it, and “IT” actually played a pretty big part in my life because of how my dad chose to use it.  Yes, our family yard light has a story of its own, all in innocence and fun, of course. It was a simpler time.

At our place, the yard light was situated in the front yard, lighting part of the front yard and a bit of the circular gravel drive. To conserve energy, the yard light was not used unless absolutely necessary. It wasn’t an easy task to change the light bulb of the yard light. In fact, I think dad might have had to call the utility company to do that job, so we were made very conscious of conserving energy at a very early age. Dad would scold us if the light was accidently on at any time that he did not deem it necessary.

Thankfully, he deemed it necessary when he sent one of us down to the barn after dark because “someone” had forgotten to turn the hay-barn light off (or any one of the lights in the barn or milk house). We would dash down the hill, flip the switch of whatever light had been left on and run as fast as we could back up to the top of the hill where the yard light was thankfully shining ever-so-bright.

I didn’t give it much thought that we didn’t have the kind of yard light that went on automatically at dusk, and go off at automatically at dawn. Nope, our yard light had that convenient switch right inside the house, at the backdoor entry. It had to be turned on and off MANUALLY. A real person had to flip the switch.

And so, the yard light was an essential part of our farm life…although only to a certain extent. 

Lo and behold, it came to pass that a new and essential use of the yard light unfolded. Dad’s daughters began to date.

That darn light happened to be located in the yard, at a very disadvantageous spot in the whole scheme of things pertaining to the dating world. The light was kind of right where a date would end…you know, right where your date parked the car before saying good-bye. You know, right at that spot where maybe, just maybe…there might be that anticipated, yet nervous, moment where there might be a good-night kiss before walking up to the back door. Since our yard light did not switch on automatically at dusk, we were always in the dark. Literally.

And so with that said, my sisters and I could arrive back home from a date (having abided to our prearranged curfew time) and approach a dark yard. The house would be dark. Mom and dad were supposedly sound asleep. There were no porch lights, so of course, no light there. We just had that wonderful moonlit sky. Yup, we sure were in the dark, sitting in there in the quiet…except for the 8-track player or radio blaring as loud as possible. Times were much simpler back then.

Logo of the Rural Electrification Administration. Contributed photo

Anticipating a possible good night kiss usually meant a lingering goodbye. My dad always said, “A gentleman will walk you to the door.” That was never a problem. But before that, we would sit in the yard, right under the unlit yard light. Yes, the unlit yard light. It seemed acceptable to sit and chat for awhile as we said our goodbyes and listened to the 8-track. I mean, we HAD gotten home by curfew for crying out loud.

And then, low and behold, if time got away from us, that darn yard light fell into play. If it took longer than about half an hour for our goodbyes, the yard light would start to flick on and off, on and off…on and off. That, of course, was the signal from our father to come inside. Time to say goodbye. If a few minutes passed, soon, a rapid-fire three-on-three-off flips of the switch flashed in the dark sky. No ignoring that. If THAT didn’t work, soon the yard light was on for good, until we turned it off ourselves once we were inside the house. (My father always asked the next morning, “What could you possibly find to say after 11:30 that you couldn’t say before 11:30?”).

There may be some disagreement, but I think I abided by the rules a bit better than my sisters. Regardless, we endured the routine, and we all have laughed about it later. I mean, in the grand scheme of things, the yard light just added to our tales. After three-on-three-off flips of the switch…and after a few rapid-fire three-on-three-off…we knew for certain the yard light would be flipped on to stay…when dad deemed it necessary. 

Our yard light. An essential part of OUR rural life. 

Fun Facts:

• FDR issued the executive order which created the Rural Electrification Administration in 1935. In 1936, Congress endorsed Roosevelt’s action by passing the Rural Electrification Act, and Sam Rayburn was the speaker of the house. He was a major proponent of the REA, and proudly stated in 1959 that 90 percent of farm homes in the United States were electrified, compared to 3 percent in the early 1930s.

• A standard REA installation in a house, post-World War II, consisted of a 60-amp, 230- volt fuse panel with a 60-amp range circuit, a 20-amp kitchen circuit and two or three 15-amp lighting circuits.  A ceiling-mounted light fixture was installed in each room, usually controlled by a single switch mounted near a door. At most, one outlet was installed per room, since plug-connected appliances were expensive and uncommon.

Information gleaned from the files of the Douglas County Historical Society and the Park Region Echo: 

• In local terms, Sen. Henrik Shipstead worked at the national level in making rural electrification a reality. An excerpt from the book, Shipstead of Minnesota by Martin Ross, tells of Shipstead’s work for the REA program: “Having been brought up on a farm, Shipstead could appreciate the position of farmers who called on him one day at his Minnesota camp to ask if there was any way to get power rates reduced so that rural dwellers could afford the convenience of electricity. Shipstead returned to Washington and discussed his program with President Roosevelt. The President was interested and lent his support to the legislation that Shipstead introduced to the Senate.” 

• On June 1, 1937, the first wires of Douglas County’s electrification lines were strung on poles seven miles northeast of Garfield. With its completion in September 1937, 45 farms were powered by the growing cooperative from Douglas County. The first substation site near Garfield was purchased in 1937. This substation was also used by the Ottertail Power Company, which provided power to Douglas County’s cooperative.  

• The first line was known as the Shipstead-Hove line and extended from LaGrande Township in Douglas County to the east side of Lake Irene where Sen. Shipstead’s cottage was located. Cliff Hove, of Alexandria, served on Douglas County’s cooperative board of directors and was the project superintendent during the co-op’s developing years. Hove’s term as manager had seen the cooperative grow from 50 miles of line to 2,200, and from a $50,000 project to one that was worth nearly $3 million. 

• For a brief one-year period the association’s name was changed to Douglas County Electric. In June 1949 the name of the cooperative was officially changed to Runestone Electric Association. The office manager, Joe Perino, suggested the name change because of the cooperative’s expansion beyond Douglas County and his preference for the initials “REA.” Perino began as office manager in 1947, replacing Cliff Hove.

• In 1968 3,000 people attended the 33rd annual meeting of the Runestone Electric Association meeting in Alexandria. Senator Walter Mondale was the principal speaker at the meeting. Annual REA meetings continue to this day.