The REA, Delco Light Plants, and Uncle JC
According to Wikipedia, The Rural Electrification Act of 1936, enacted on May 20, 1936, provided federal loans for the installation of electrical distribution systems to isolated rural areas of the United States. Funding was channeled through cooperative electric power companies, most of which still exist today. These member-owned cooperatives purchased power on a wholesale basis and distributed it using their own network of transmission and distribution lines. The Rural Electrification Act was also an attempt made by FDR’s New Deal to deal with high unemployment. I can remember the trucks and men coming down the dirt road my grandparents had lived on most of their lives and dropping off the poles. It was about 1946-’48. Life was about to change even more and even faster in the rural south just about 60 years after the Civil War.
Until then, it was wood stoves, fireplaces, and kerosene lamps for most of the people living outside the cities. The idea of stringing miles of electrical wires through the country side to serve a few farm families made no economic sense. The REA was a government program that was implemented and actually worked!
In 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt establish the Rural Electrification Administration as an “emergency agency” by executive order “to carry electricity to as many farms as possible in the shortest possible time and have it used in quantities sufficient to affect rural life”. The Rural Electrification Act of 1936 transformed it to a permanent agency. In the next two years, $210,000,000 was spent on 100,000 miles of power lines to provide electricity to 220,000 farms – $950 per home. At the time, $950 was 55% of the average annual wage of $1,713 or 24% of the average cost of a new home of $3,925 and the population was 128 million total with 40%, or 51 million, living in rural areas. The cost would bring 60 amps of electricity to farms and country homes and businesses who would be charged a monthly service fee and for each unit of electricity forever.
It sounded good except that no one mentioned that Delco-Light and other farm and wind electric plants were providing electricity to nearly 1,000,000 farms in America already. That at that same time you could buy a Delco-Light plant for $495, a powerful Jacobs Wind Electric plant for $595, or both using a single battery for less than the $950 to run the power lines from the city – and never have a monthly electric bill. The effect on the farm and wind electric plant industry was immediate. Hundreds of manufacturing companies, throughout the Midwest and around the nation, and the distribution, sales, installation, service companies employing hundreds of thousands of people were staggered. After struggling successfully to grow during the early years of the depression, the impact of REA of the farm and wind electric industry was devastating. Many survived long enough to contribute to the war effort during WW II, many disappeared or changed to a related market, and a few continued on successfully.
(Source: Dr. Delco website: Dr. Delco Website)
My mother’s family was one of the 1,000,000 families that had a home power plant and theirs was Delco-Light Plant. My Mother’s oldest brother was born in 1915 and, by the evidence, was a genius with not much formal education. There was little he could not do. He could build a radio, drill a well, repair a car, and repair hydraulics. He could do sheet metal repair and study the Bible. He could drive a tractor and do farm work. He built a Heath Kit Shortwave radio to listen to the BBC and Moscow and Berlin. He understood herbal medicines and used them in his diet. He installed indoor plumbing and hot water long before they were the norm in the rural area. And, somewhere along the line, he acquired a Delco-Light plant and installed the system in my Grandfather’s house. He was always called by his initials, JC.
The Delco-Light plant provided power for about 5 lights that hung from the ceiling. It provided a few receptacles where a radio or lamp could be plugged in and it powered a well pump to pump water from the shallow well. The Delco Plant ran on a small gasoline engine and was run on a select basis, not all the time. It was DC and used storage batteries to extend the cycle and have power on demand for short periods. So, the lights could be turned on briefly without the gas engine running. Not too many things could be done at one time and kerosene lamps were still in use. My grandparents were the only people in the community with electricity of any kind before the REA. There were also wind turbine units that looked like a regular windmill, forerunners of the monsters you see today.
After the REA came, the batteries went into the “gulley” where all of the trash that would not burn went. There was no county wide trash pickup at that time. I do not know if there was a county land fill or not. What happened to the rest of the power plant, I do not know.
When JC was 16 years old, about 1931, he observed some people using compressed air to paint a house. He was fascinated by that and when he got home, a few days later, he decided to see if he could make a compressed air device and chose a glass bottle for the storage of the compressed air.
Using a tire pump, JC started pumping air into the bottle and it exploded. He lost one of his eyes as a result and was fitted with a glass eye. He could remove the eye, much to the delight of small kids and to the chagrin of his mother.
He was not eligible for the military when WWII started due to having only one eye so he was appointed by the then “War Department” to a job at a new Air Force base being built near Wellston, Ga. As the base, known as Robins Air Force Base, grew a new town sprung up around it called Warner Robins, Ga. Until the day he died, he always referred to where he worked as Wellston.
He rode Indian motorcycles in the ‘30’s. He bought one of the first Renault autos I had ever seen. Also, the first Honda auto. He bought a car called a Berkeley T60. It was a three wheeler and used a motorcycle engine. His wife was not happy about that one!
He worked at Robins, in spite of his handicap, until he was past 65. By then, he was terribly eccentric, anti-social, and hard to deal with. He also ate raw garlic and would reek of the smell. He told me it was healthy because it made people leave him alone. Of that, I am certain!
The folks at Robins decided they had had enough and started proceedings to have him forced into medical retirement. They succeeded in getting him out but his wife was not happy about the reduced income and him being home all the time. She started a letter writing campaign to the US Senators and everyone she could think of. She finally got someone’s attention that looked into the matter and in a short time, he was called back in and given his old job back, got his back pay, and worked there until he was about the oldest Civil Service Worker in the US!
Why did they call him back? Well, it seems, the appointment in the 40’s was a “Congressional Appointment” to work at Robins Air Force Base. It was a “Lifetime” appointment, the same as a Supreme Court Justice. He could work there as long as he wanted! And he did! He died at age 82.