Thursday, December 29, 2011

December 29, 2011--Electricity Comes to the Hill Country

Without the New Deal's 1930s Rural Electrification Administration, much of small-town America would still be waiting to be wired. Few of the private power companies would have made the investment to bring electricity to small farmers in remote areas. There was little or no profit to be gained from the required, hugely expensive infrastructural effort.

But through the REA, advocated for Texas by freshman Congressman, the youthful Lyndon Baines Johnson, power was finally brought to even the unforgiving, hardscrabble Hill Country of western Texas where he was born and grew up.

To give you a flavor of this saga and its meaning, here is an excerpt from the first volume of Robert Caro's magisterial biography of LBJ:

In so impoverished an area, the very existence of a large-scale--and government-financed--construction project was significant. The average wage in the Hill Country had been about a dollar or $1.50 per day, but workers on government projects were paid the minimum wage in the area: forty cents an hour or $3.20 per day. Three hundred men would be employed on the Pedernales Electric Co-operative project, but when Ben Smith arrived to open the PEC's first hiring office in Bertram, several times three hundred men were standing in line to apply for these jobs. Many were given to men who had wanted electricity [for their own farms] but had not been able to raise the five-dollar deposit; they paid it out of these wages.

Herman Brown--Brown & Root had been given the contract to construct the PEC lines--was able to hire men who were known to be hard workers. They needed to be. The poles that would carry the electrical lines had to be sunk in rock. Brown & Root's mechanical hole-digger broke on the hard Hill Country rock. Every hole had to be dug mostly by hand. Eight- or ten-man crews would pile into flatbed trucks--which also carried their lunch and water--in the morning and head out into the hills. Some trucks carried axemen, to hack paths through the cedar; others contained the hole-diggers. "The hole-diggers were the strongest men," babe Smith says. Every 300 to 400 feet, two would drop off and begin digging a hole by pounding the end of a crowbar into the limestone. After the hole reached a depth of six inches, half a stick of dynamite was exploded in it, to loosen the rock below, but that, too, had to be dug out by hand.

"Swinging crowbars up and down--that's hard labor," Babe Smith says. "That's back-breaking labor." But the hole-diggers had incentive. For after the hole-digging teams came the pole-setters" and "pikemen," who, in teams of three. set the poles--thirty-five-foot pine poles from East Texas--into the rock, and the "framers" who attached the insulators, and the the "stringers" who strung the wires, and at the end of the day the hole-diggers could see the result of their work stretching out behind them--poles towering above the cedars, silvery lines against the sapphire sky. And the homes the wires were headed toward were their own homes. "These workers--they were the men of the cooperative," Smith says.

Gratitude was a spur also. Often the crews didn't have to eat the cold lunch they had brought. A woman would see men toiling toward her home to "bring the lights." And when they arrived, they would find that a table had been set for them--with the best plates, and the very best food that the family could afford. Three hundred men--axemen, polemen, hole-diggers, framers--were out in Edwards Plateau, linking it to the rest of America, linking it to the twentieth century, in fact, at the rate of twelve miles per day.

Still, with 1,800 miles of line to build, the job seemed--to the families very eager for electricity--to be taking a very long time. After the lines had been extended to their farms, and the farms were wired, they waited with wires hanging from the ceilings and bare bulbs at the end, for the lines to be energized. "It will not be long now before mother can throw away the sad [clothes] irons," the Blanco County News exulted. But month after month passed, for the lines could not be energized until the entire project was substantially completed.

As the months passed, the Hill County's suspicion of the government was aroused again. Brian Smith had persuaded many of his neighbors to sign up, and now, more than a year after they had paid their five dollars, and then more money to have their houses wired, his daughter Evelyn recalls that her neighbors decided they weren't really going to get it. She recalls that "All their money was tied up in electric wiring"--and their anger was directed at her family. Dropping in to see a friend one day, she was told by the friend's parents to leave: "You and your city ways. You can go home, and we don't care to see you again." They were all but ostracized by their neighbors. Even they themselves were beginning to doubt; it had been so long since the wiring was installed, Evelyn recalls, that they couldn't remember whether the switches were in the on or off position.

But then one evening in November, 1939, the Smiths were returning from Johnson City, where they had attended a declamation contest, and as they neared their farmhouse, something was different.

"Oh my God," her mother said. "The house is on fire!"

But as they got closer, they saw the light wasn't fire. "No, Mama," Evelyn said. "The lights are on."

They were on all over the Hill Country. "And all over the Hill Country," Stella Gliddon says, "people began to name their kids for Lyndon Johnson."

This was a time in America when we still did big things.


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