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Powering American Farms

The Overlooked Origins of Rural Electrification

Richard F. Hirsh

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The untold story of the power industry's efforts to electrify growing numbers of farms in the years before the creation of Depression-era government programs.

Even after decades of retelling, the story of rural electrification in the United States remains dramatic and affecting. As textbooks and popular histories inform us, farmers obtained electric service only because a compassionate federal government established the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The agencies' success in raising the standard of living…

The untold story of the power industry's efforts to electrify growing numbers of farms in the years before the creation of Depression-era government programs.

Even after decades of retelling, the story of rural electrification in the United States remains dramatic and affecting. As textbooks and popular histories inform us, farmers obtained electric service only because a compassionate federal government established the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The agencies' success in raising the standard of living for millions of Americans contrasted with the failure of the greedy big-city utility companies, which showed little interest in the apparently unprofitable nonurban market. Traditional accounts often describe the nation's population as split in two, separated by access to a magical form of energy: just past cities' limits, a bleak, preindustrial class of citizens endured, literally in near darkness at night and envious of their urban cousins, who enjoyed electrically operated lights, refrigerators, radios, and labor-saving appliances.

In Powering American Farms, Richard F. Hirsh challenges the notion that electric utilities neglected rural customers in the years before government intervention. Drawing on previously unexamined resources, Hirsh demonstrates that power firms quadrupled the number of farms obtaining electricity in the years between 1923 and 1933, for example. Though not all corporate managers thought much of the farm business, a cadre of rural electrification advocates established the knowledge base and social infrastructure upon which New Deal organizations later capitalized. The book also suggests that the conventional storyline of rural electrification remains popular because it contains a colorful hero, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and villainous utility magnates, such as Samuel Insull, who make for an engaging—but distorted—narrative.

Hirsh describes the evolution of power company managers' thinking in the 1920s and early 1930s—from believing that rural electrification made no economic sense to realizing that serving farmers could mitigate industry-wide problems. This transformation occurred as agricultural engineers in land-grant universities, supported by utilities, demonstrated productive electrical technologies that yielded healthy profits to farmers and companies alike. Gaining confidence in the value of rural electrification, private firms strung wires to more farms than did the REA until 1950, a fact conveniently omitted in conventional accounts. Powering American Farms will interest academic and lay readers of New Deal history, the history of technology, and revisionist historiography.

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Powering American Farms

Richard F. Hirsh

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Reviews

Decisively revising the dominant electrification narrative, Hirsh's richly documented account is more complex and nuanced than the New Deal tale that has for too long been seen as the last word on the subject. His argument also rests on a much deeper documentary foundation than the books he so effectively undermines. Emphatically recommended.

Putting forth numerous strands of evidence to complicate, and in some ways contradict, the narrative that the federal government heroically brought electric power to farms across the country, Hirsh's work is an important contribution to multiple disciplines. It's both a corrective and an ideal tutorial on how to address interesting historical questions.

Hirsh understands that sound revisionism consists not in replacing one myth with another but rather digging deeper into the material to produce a fuller, more complex story with enough detail to illuminate and clarify its context. This insightful book combines thorough research with full and informative documentation, logical organization, and solid writing.

Powering American Farms upends conventional accounts of rural electrification in the early twentieth-century United States. By shifting our sights from the New Deal to the 1920s, Hirsh shows how agricultural engineers at land grant colleges collaborated with the managers of private power companies to help bring America's farmers on-line.

About

Book Details

Publication Date
Status
Available
Trim Size
6
x
9
Pages
400
ISBN
9781421443621
Illustration Description
8 color photos, 46 b&w photos, 3 b&w illus.
Table of Contents

Preface
Introduction
Part I. Historical Context of Rural Electrification
1. The Standard Narrative and Its Defects
2. Unattractive Economics in the Rural Electricity Market
3. Business Attitudes toward

Preface
Introduction
Part I. Historical Context of Rural Electrification
1. The Standard Narrative and Its Defects
2. Unattractive Economics in the Rural Electricity Market
3. Business Attitudes toward Farmers in the 1920s
4. The Lure and Lore of Rural Electrification
5. Farmers on Their Own
Part II. Alignment of Rural Stakeholders
6. Utility Interest in Rural Electrification Awakens
7. The Unexpected Public Relations Value of Rural Electrification
8. The Industry Organizes the CREA
9. State Committees Work to Resolve Uncertainties
10. Regulation and the Extension of Lines to Rural Areas
11. Momentum in the Rural Electrification Subsystem
Part III. Growth of Rural Electrification Efforts in the 1930s
12. Government Innovations in the Rural Electrification Subsystem
13. Competition and Private Utilities in the REA Era
Conclusion
Notes
Index
Color plates follow page ___

Author Bio
Featured Contributor

Richard F. Hirsh

Richard F. Hirsh (BLACKSBURG, VA) is a professor of history at Virginia Tech. He is the author of Glimpsing an Invisible Universe: The Emergence of X-ray Astronomy; Technology and Transformation in the American Electric Utility Industry; and Power Loss: The Origins of Deregulation and Restructuring in the American Electric Utility System.