2022 marks Sussex Rural Electric Cooperative's 85th anniversary! Since our founding in 1937, we have worked tirelessly to provide the highest quality of service at the lowest possible cost to our members.
To celebrate 85 years of Sussex Rural Electric Cooperative's impact on our community, we are taking our members on a journey back through our history via weekly #ThrowbackThursday posts on social media. Starting from the roots of rural electrification, these posts share the stories of life in rural areas like Sussex County before electricity was accessible, the effort to electrify our local areas, and the evolution of Sussex Rural Electric Cooperative's service to its members.
The timeline below collects the photos and information shared in the #ThrowbackThursday posts that have been shared so far. The timeline will be updated regularly with new content. To see these posts as soon as they go up, follow us on our Facebook or Twitter pages!
Life in 1930s Rural Sussex County
In the 1930s, life moved slowly. Farmers and housewives' lives were filled with daily tasks and chores that were incredibly strenuous and time-consuming compared to today. Most people living in Sussex County could not afford access to the electricity that made the lives of some lucky neighbors significantly easier. This would not change until the Rural Electrification Act made it possible to form a cooperative that could bring reliable, affordable power to the area.
Chores Pre-Electricity - Ironing
Every daily chore was more difficult and time consuming without electricity. After wash day, when the dry clothes were taken off “the line" they had to be pressed. In the 1930s ironing was done with 6-7 lb. wedges of literal iron heated on the wood stove. The phrase “irons in the fire” comes from this practice.
Irons only retained heat for a few minutes, so a man’s shirt generally required two irons. Irons needed frequent cleaning because a little spot or soot from the fire could mark a shirt and then the washing process would have to begin again. Pictured below are common flatirons of the time and a woman happy to have electricity to make ironing easier.
Sussex County farmers in the 1930s faced frustration when attempting to get access to electricity. While some more populous towns had already been electrified, the investor-owned utility of the time refused to build electric infrastructure to serve less-populated areas where many farms were located.
Without electricity, everyday tasks on the farm required more manual effort and more time. Farmers had no access to running water or tools like electric milk pumps, augers, or motors to make their work easier. After Sussex Rural Electric Cooperative was formed by these farmers to bring power to their farms, productivity skyrocketed. Many farmers were able to double their stock and vastly increase the amount of dairy, meat, or fruits and vegetables they were able to produce.
Without electricity, people needed a constant supply of ice to preserve their food in literal "ice boxes." In the winter, ice was harvested from lakes and stored in icehouses for later distribution in the summer. At the time, large-scale ice harvesting took place in Sussex County so ice could be delivered locally by truck and exported to the city by railroad.
Gathering ice used to involve cutting blocks from frozen lakes using a horse-drawn saw. Later on, harvesters used a gas-powered ice-cutting machine (pictured below). Once electricity was readily available, refrigerators and freezers became commonplace and removed the reliance on icehouses.
Food Freshness Pre-Electricity
Without refrigerators in the home, those without electricity in 1930s Sussex County used other methods to keep food and milk unspoiled. Canning food was a reliable way to keep food fresh, but fruits and vegetables had to be canned the same day they became ripe. This was a long, tedious process that involved keeping a fire burning so water could be boiled to seal each jar.
Milkmen also delivered milk daily throughout the county. Local creameries processed milk from nearby farms and employed milkmen to deliver it to each home and bring back empty glass bottles. The convenience of refrigeration eventually made these practices less necessary.
Lighting Without Electricity
Perhaps the most significant challenge of pre-electrified rural life was the limitations of lighting. Most candles were handmade, and the oil lamps and lanterns that people relied on when the sun went down were very dim. Families rarely had enough to go around for everyone. Frequently, there was not enough light from the one good lamp in the home for children to study, housewives to do their sewing, and the farmer to do his nightly reading after a long day of work.
These lamps also had to be carefully cleaned once or twice per week. Washing, polishing, and refilling them was just another time-consuming chore rural residents had on their plates.
Inventiveness of Rural Americans Without Electricity
While they did not have access to electricity, rural citizens in the 1930s still understood the concept of energy and used the resources they had available to modernize their lives. For example, some homes had a record player that was powered by a crank. This allowed families to enjoy music at home in their leisure time - it just took some elbow grease!
Even more inventive were measures used to automate chores and farm work. For instance, farmers used their dogs, horses, or even cows as a power source for saws, mills, and other equipment. This photo of an animal treadmill was taken at the High Breeze Farm in Vernon and shows "horsepower" being applied by a cow to help with work on the farm.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Rural Electrification
32nd US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was instrumental in bringing electricity to rural Americans. FDR believed strongly that electricity was a necessity of modern life. His campaign to electrify rural areas led to the Rural Electrification Act and, as a result, Sussex Rural Electric Cooperative.
FDR attributed the beginning to this crusade to an experience he had in 1924. He went to Warm Springs, Georgia to treat his polio and was shocked to experience the high cost of electricity that rural residents had to pay. A central aspect of the REA was ensuring that electricity was affordable for rural Americans. FDR later built his own cottage in Warm Springs, which was dubbed “The Little White House.”
The Rural Electrification Act
Rural electrification was one of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal measures meant to curb unemployment during the Great Depression and offer more opportunity for underserved Americans. He accomplished this through an Executive Order in 1935 that established the Rural Electrification Administration. He signed the Rural Electrification Act the following year.
This allowed rural communities to form member-owned cooperatives to finally bring electricity to their areas using loans from the federal government. Albert Viet of Sussex County was quoted as saying “I know they only lend us the money, but if they didn’t we couldn’t afford to have the electric wires brought here. We gave the [electric] company a chance; we’ve been asking them for it for years.”
The REA Surveys Sussex County
With the Rural Electrification Act in effect, REA representatives began traveling across the country to survey land and gauge interest from rural residents on forming rural electric cooperatives. Sussex County was one of these early areas visited. At this point, the area was partially electrified by the investor-owned utility but this was focused mainly in sections close to mining operations and the most populated areas along county roads.
Sussex Boro, for example, had electric power as early as the turn of the century, but even by the 1930s many farms could not get affordable electric service. Some towns like McAfee had utility poles in the area to support telephone service but still did not have electricity.
REA Promotional Posters
A big part of electrifying rural America in the 1930s was showing rural residents that it was a worthwhile cause. In many cases, this involved explaining how having their homes and farms connected to the electric grid would improve their day-to-day lives.
Promotional posters like these were made and distributed nationwide in order to explain and quantify for rural Americans the difference a kilowatt hour could make. This helped get many families interested in joining the grassroots movement to electrify their communities.
"The Electric Circus"
Efforts to inform Americans about the Rural Electrification Administration led to the creation of a traveling community event dubbed “the electric circus.” Workers, mostly women, taught people the benefits of electricity and demonstrated how easy electric powered-appliances and other equipment were to use compared to other alternatives of the time.
These events included presentations such as turkey-cooking contests and nighttime demonstrations of home lighting. These were creative ways to both familiarize rural families with how electricity worked and to get them excited the potential of gaining electricity for their own homes through co-op membership.
Sussex Rural Electric Cooperative is Formed
In 1936, 150 local farmers gathered at the Newton Courthouse to learn about what the Rural Electrification Administration could offer to help them form their own electric cooperative. Prior to this, the local investor-owned utility would charge at least $10,000 per farm to connect them to the existing electric grid. With an electric cooperative, members would just have to pay a $5 membership fee.
Many of the farmers signed on. On March 7th of 1937, Sussex Rural Electric Cooperative was officially formed. In April, SREC qualified for an REA loan of $134,000. The first SREC Board of Directors met on May 7th and used this money to award construction contracts for its first 128 miles of electric lines.
After Sussex Rural Electric Cooperative was established, the time came for the newly-formed co-op’s crews to build its system from scratch. While the REA could provide technical knowledge to assist with this undertaking, much of this work was performed by members of the community, many of them farmers.
Many of these new linemen had no proper training and they did not have the benefit of access to the same kind of equipment lineworkers use today. Nevertheless, their hard work embodied the cooperative spirit and helped bring power to their community. SREC’s system was first energized on July 8th, giving the Co-op’s members access to electricity for the first time.
Rural Electrification Spreads
Throughout the country in the late 1930s and early 1940s, rural electric cooperatives were being formed with the support of the Rural Electrification Administration. Thanks to these efforts, more rural Americans had access to electricity than ever before. In 1941, 30% of farms nationwide had electricity, and by 1950 this figure had risen to 90%.
This rapid expansion of access to electricity was historic. Of the famous moments captured during this time is a photo known as “the Four Horsemen of the Lines.” This widely-published photo captures a climactic moment in Horton, Kansas, showing crews stringing the last miles of electric lines before the system was energized. The four crew members were all local farmers whose wages went toward wiring their farm homes.
The Seven Cooperative Principles
When the FDR administration made its plans for rural electrification, it was decided that a not-for-profit cooperative business model would work best to empower independent communities. Unlike with existing electric companies, those who paid the $5 membership fee became part-owners of the Cooperative.
Co-ops are governed by a set of Seven Principles: Voluntary & Open Membership, Democratic Member Control, Cooperation Among Cooperatives, Autonomy & Independence, Member Economic Participation, Concern for Community, and Education, Training, & Information. These are based on the Rochdale Principles, established in 1844 by an artisan cooperative in Rochdale, England.