We Got The Juice

(Where It Was Needed)


Richard Bishop

© Copyright 2012 by Richard Bishop 


Photo of an REA office.

I was raised on a Farm in southern Michigan in Kalamazoo County, on Rural Route # 7, about 5 miles southwest of the City of Kalamazoo. It was a medium-sized spread at 240 acres (about 3/8ths of a one mile square Section).

We had moved to this Farm from Richland, Michigan in 1933 when I was two years old. The connection for Electricity was made in 1939 under the New Deal's Rural Electrification Administration (REA). It was really convenient for the house, inside Toilets and all, but most outside structures got only a couple of 60 watt light-bulbs apiece which, on a Farm, helped only marginally with the chores.

This is not to say that efforts to modernize rural areas were not fully appreciated. In the USA, the Administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt had their problems in bringing Electricity to rural areas. The USA was valiantly trying to “catch-up” with other “modernized” countries. In 1934 less than 12% of US Farms had Electricity while Germany and France both stood at 90% !1 At first it was thought that the 2,300 Volt AC (Alternating Current) Electrical Distribution systems in the cities would work just as well out in the countryside. They found, through hard experience, that it worked for only up to about 5 miles before the Voltage drop at the end of the line became intolerable.

Later it was found that by tripling the Voltage up to 6,900 Volts the carrying distance could be extended out to about 45 miles. But this required a more expensive step-down transformer (from 6,900 Volts down to 230 Volts) for each Consumer. Even so, the Government deemed the extra cost to be acceptable for a “go-ahead” of the program.

Once the Electrical Engineering planning work was done, the transmission lines and household installations were begun by Teams of the Rural Electrification Administration. Usually there was a 230 Volt fused circuit for the Kitchen stove and three or four fused circuits for the rest of the house. From then on, it was one ceiling-light and one (plug-in) outlet per room. It goes without saying that there were a lot of immediate advantages to having constant Electricity. One of the earliest noticeable was not having to carry a lamp or lantern around when it was dark. . . going up and down the stairs inside the house was really a balancing act. Perhaps one of the most appreciated advantages for all ages was an electric pump for the well and the resulting installation of a pressurized water system. While it was nice for drinking and for the kitchen and for taking a bath, these were nothing compared to the luxury of inside Flush-Toilets which were not far behind! Under the pillow and over the sheet, a fifty-yard dash to the Toilet-seat.

All of a sudden, the above sentimental lines were a thing of the past. And most Folks never looked back because things were in order now; the way they ought to be.

Let me say that before this time (in the good old days), our newly occupied Farm once had represented the forward-looking cutting edge of another innovative era - one that most folks, then, could only dream of (present company, included). Before the Rural Electrification Act (also abbreviated as REA) of 1936 was signed into Law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during The Depression, there were very few systems to choose from that could provide lighting and power for Farms, rural areas and big estates. Many of them were in the form of big, expensive, diesel-powered generators (which, by the way, had been in use, industrially, already before WW I, 1914-1917, in Mines and river Dredges). But, there were alternate, less costly systems, according to Wikipedia:

 “a small but growing number of farms installed small wind-electric plants. These generally used a 40V DC generator to charge batteries in the barn or the basement of the farmhouse. This was enough to provide lighting, washing machines and some limited well-pumping or refrigeration. Wind-electric plants were used mostly on the great plains, which have usable winds on most days.”

If you really had to have power for “washing machines and some limited well pumping or refrigeration,” then a modest DC (Direct Current) Voltage was required (24 to 40 Volts). Also, DC Current was no different from AC (Alternating Current) in that appreciable losses in Voltage occurred whenever transmission distances were involved and a substantial DC Voltage was needed to offset this loss.

 The most popular small system used in the 1930’s in outlying areas was the Jacobs Wind Generator made by the Jacobs Wind Electric Company. What is interesting here to people living on a farm or a ranch, is that the Jacob Brothers, Marcellus and Joe, founders of the Firm, had developed and built their first Wind Generator in 1922 on the family ranch in Wolf Point, Montana. Neighboring Ranchers were greatly impressed and word-of-mouth created a demand for such an innovative improvement to the quality of life in rural areas. The Brother’s search for a place with the necessary manufacturing/production-line technology led them back east to Minneapolis, MN.

 Their low-cost electric plant came in 3 models and could furnish 1.8, 2.5 or 3.0 Kilowatts @ 32 Volts DC. The Generator was driven by a three-bladed variable-pitch propeller with blades made of Sitka Spruce. It cost $ 490.00 but the fifty foot tower and battery boosted the total cost up to $ 1,030.00 (in those hard times, many families could not afford the $400.00 cost of a traditional windmill to pump water let alone a special one to produce electricity). Obtaining appliances that would run on 32 Volts was another problem, but that did not seem to depress the world-wide sales. At one time, Jacobs had 300 Distributorships throughout the World and altogether, somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000 units were sold (the Brothers kept such data a strict secret). One such exemplar made them really proud. A 2.5 Kilowatt model was selected by Admiral Richard E. Byrd to be taken to Antarctica on his Second expedition in 1933-35. This unit reliably backed-up his all important radio contact with the rest of the world. Twenty-two years later it was still found to be in “operable” condition at Little America by his 5th Expedition (1955). By this time, the snow was packed up around the tower to within 10 feet of the propeller.2

What did drastically dampen the sales of Wind Generators (of all manufacturers) was the Government’s (REA) looming intention to provide Electricity through permanent transmission lines and individual household connections. By 1939, 25% of US Farms were Electrified and by 1945, 90% of US Farms were so serviced.3 After WW II, because of the success of REA, production ceased in 1960 on this particular private-sector pioneering effort to provide Electrical power in remote areas (after the 1970s, there was a sort of Renaissance of wind power for Electricity and the Jacobs production line was re-started in 1980 to produce larger capacity units; i.e., 10 - 20 Kilowatts). But, until the formal REA system was implemented, and if, in the meantime, you couldn’t afford the store-bought Jacobs System (called the “Cadillac” of Wind Generators), a person with “do-it-yourself” talents could save a substantial bundle of money by modifying a normal Windmill. It could be made to generate Electricity by putting a “used” heavy-duty Truck Generator up on top (or by erecting your own tower - that form of steel was inexpensive - and installing the equipment, obtained cheaply from an automobile Junkyard).

And so it was with our Farm. Another earlier Operator had arranged shelves on three sides of the Well house for holding rack after rack of 6-Volt DC Automobile batteries - leaving one side only for the tanks of water for cooling the large cans of milk - normal to a Dairy Farm (which our Farm had formerly been). It was estimated that there was room for at least 40 of the heavy leadacid batteries on the sturdy shelves.

When hooked up in parallel (i.e., all positive “+” terminals connected to each other and all negative “-” terminals connected to each other), the current would have been restricted to 6 Volts DC (but, when hooked up in series - positives to negatives - like in a flashlight, the Voltage would become accumulative and forty 6-volt DC batteries could have produced 240 Volts!)

On the roof of our Well house, were four corrugated steel “spikes” (protruding about 3 inches); all that remained of a former tower for a Windmill that had been cut off with a welding/cutting-torch. Evidently, there had been an Electrical Generator mounted on top equipped with a large Wind Propeller (or, alternately, a regular Windmill had provided power to such a Generator with a belt drive, in addition to its normal water-pumping duties). It was obviously not a Jacobs unit since their towers were all three-legged.

From then on, the system was a snap to maintain - a Voltage Regulator to prevent over-charging and bottles of Acid for topping-off the Batteries when they got low on solution. Any automobile Garage could have been called to keep the simple system in Repair. What were the results of such a system?

 Direct Current (DC) lights, which were quite bright and portable and the Electricity could travel the short distances around the Farm over fairly permanent wiring without diminishing the power much. With 24 to 40 Volts DC, there was power enough for “washing machines and some limited well-pumping or refrigeration,” but the Wife and Children were still safe and there was no danger of life threatening electrical shocks or electrocution.

And with the enormous lasting power (Ampere hours - Ah) of so many batteries and with the low-drain bulbs, no one would have to worry about lack of wind for days-on-end in the Mid-West (unlike the great plains). Besides, in any event, you could drive an Automobile or Truck up to the Well house and hook onto the system and charge the batteries by running the vehicle for a while at 1/8 hand-throttle.

But, sigh, from 1933 through 1938 we, like a lot of other Farm or Ranch families, “did without” such an alternative (interim) system. We used handpumped-pressure Aladdin Lamps inside the house (which used white gas to brilliantly glow a mesh grid) and we also used smelly and sooty Kerosene lanterns for our outside lighting and chores - but daily we were being reminded that there were other, perhaps cleaner, more modern ways of lighting whenever, at night, we “dashed” past the Well house on the way to the "outhouse."

Therefore, we really appreciated the extreme effort it required all over America to provide Electricity to Farms and Ranches in rural areas; our hookup in 1939 as a result of the Rural Electrification program was a very real, not just a cosmetic (easy on the eyes) boon to us.

1 REA Statistics.

21985 Newspaper Clipping and Obituary - Marcellus Jacobs, by Donald Marier, 6 ALTERNATE SOURCES OF ENERGY/75.

3 REA Statistics (Ibid).

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