Hidden Corners of History - Electrifying Rural Kentucky


Jarrod E. Stephens

The Ashland Beacon

   If the past two weeks have taught me anything, I’d say that the lesson would have to be one on gratitude. On February 10 at approximately 10:22 p.m. I was enjoying an old western movie while the freezing rain pounded our roof. Having spent the entire day preparing for the forecasted winter storm, I was not at all surprised when my television went black and I fumbled to find my phone to give me light. Within a matter of minutes my home was once again illuminated thanks to the convenience of a generator. 

   Six days later as I sit here and type this article, power restoration is still likely days away and I’m still graced with the melodic hum of my generator as it electrifies my home. However, in spite of the rural setting where my home is located, I can be thankful for the foresight of national and regional administrators who many decades ago laid the foundation for the rural electric cooperatives that serve our region and know that my power will be soon restored.

   Such conveniences as reliable electricity are easy to take for granted when we know nothing other than to have all the power we ever need at the flip of a switch. In 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an order to establish what came to be called the Rural Electrification Act or REA. The act would provide funding for organizations and cooperatives to begin providing electricity in rural areas. The availability of affordable electricity rarely reached beyond the city limits in most areas due to the high cost of creating and maintaining electrical grids which made such business ventures unattractive for electric companies. The REA would put money into the hands of cooperatives that would build the power grid for those who were never before able to have running water, refrigeration and electric lights. The act would forever change rural Kentucky.

   Of course, the impact of the REA was not felt or seen overnight. It was instead years and decades before our region began to be illuminated by this great idea. Folks in rural Kentucky lived hard lives that depended on labor intensive work and were some of the last residents to overcome the devastations caused by The Great Depression. Farmers were used to the proverbial “daylight until dark” lifestyle, but whenever the possibility of having lights and the other conveniences that electricity can bring, the idea began to gain traction. 

   My grandma is 94 years old and she can clearly recall how that the only form of power that they had in their home for many years was a battery-operated radio. She said that her dad would have to periodically take the radio’s battery somewhere to have it charged so that they could listen to their favorite radio show. The only light that they had came from oil lanterns that were used sparingly. Refrigeration was out of the question and they would keep their milk cool by hanging the milk bucket down into the depths of their dug well. 

   As the REA money began to trickle into our region, there were challenges faced that were not an issue in western and central Kentucky. The hills and hollers of our region posed a difficult obstacle for crews to create and maintain a right of way for the lines to be taken. Even after the lines were established, the ever-present challenge of maintaining the lines came to light (pun intended.) Those same challenges are the reason for our recent outages. 

   The first rural homes to have electricity typically consisted of a single light in the middle of the ceiling in large rooms as well as a receptacle or two; something that many of us can recall from older homes we remember. While today that sort of setup for many homes would never pull the load of our electrified lives, it was a blessing for rural families that we could scarcely begin to understand. Electric well pumps could be installed, refrigerators or ice boxes could be used and life after dark could exist.  

   It’s so easy to take simple aspects of life such as electrical power for granted. We are a spoiled generation of people who need to be mindful of the men and women who work tirelessly to make sure the lights stay on. Thank you to all the linemen and all other electrical workers who have given of themselves to clear right of way and repair the lines during this difficult stretch of winter so that we can all go about our lives with the conveniences that we’ve come to love. Also, thank you to the past administrators who had the vision to bring affordable electricity to our rural region that we call home.