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Let There Be Light

Once upon a time—not so very long ago—a great darkness covered the Commonwealth. There was no electricity in about 90% of rural areas. The same was true throughout the United States.

Private, investor-owned power companies brought lights to towns, the urban areas, but the idea of reaching out to isolated places, up the hollows where mules were often the main transportation, well, that was not seen as part of the profit picture.

That was to change.

On May 11, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 7037, which established the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). There was no turning back. There would be lights on the farms of America!

In Kentucky, leaders arose from the grassroots and by the close of the decade rural electric cooperatives were springing up as eager as mushrooms, bright as the rising sun.

Today, there are 26 rural electric cooperatives from Big Sandy to Hickman-Fulton.

The kerosene lamp has become a flea market collector’s item. The Aladdin Lamp, like the one Carter Countian Jim Tom Martin studied by, gleams silently on a shelf reminding him of the not so good old non-electric days. “My grandmother and grandfather farmed to live. Had one milk cow or two. Raised tobacco and corn. Having electricity was like daylight from dark.”

Mrs. Leonard Adkins of Greenup County remembers the day the lights first went on along the headwaters of Little Sandy River. “It was very, very thrilling, really something else. My dad had a set of horses and he curled wire through the field. It was a miracle that came down through here. (Before electricity) we had a well with a hand pump. Put our milk and butter in a jar and put the jar in a bucket and hung it down the well. We had a big tub in the middle of the floor, which is how we washed. We took our time.”

What was true in eastern Kentucky was just as true in the Pennyrile and the Jackson Purchase areas. “Oh my goodness, the house is on fire!” exclaimed Aunt Martha upon seeing the lights turned on.

Charles Sowell remembers “milking cows, bringing in a few dollars…kerosene lanterns…bringing in coal…bringing in stove wood.”

“Thank you for salvation; thank you for the juice,” was not an uncommon utterance.

And then there was the thankful farmer over the line in Tennessee giving witness at a rural church:

“Brothers and sisters, I want to tell you this. The greatest thing on earth is to have the love of God in your heart, and the next greatest thing is to have electricity in your house.”

Ralph C. Edrington, angular as he is spry, has served 41 years on the West Kentucky Rural Electric Cooperative Corporation Board headquartered in Mayfield: “There were three of us boys in the family. We gathered up all the old wood to fire up the kettle. Monday was wash day. That was our job—to get the fire hot and keep the wood stove going. We helped her (his mother) to do the heavy part. Tuesday was ironing day. I have a ‘Labor Saver’ washboard. It’s in my den now. We had a basement in our house. We stacked ice in it and covered the ice with gunny sacks and sawdust. Made ice cream!”

Ralph Edrington, now 90 years old, grew up to become board president of West Kentucky RECC.

In the most southwestern rural electric cooperative, Hickman-Fulton, Manager Greg Grissom sums up the mission of Kentucky’s 26 cooperatives: “Service is Number One—our only reason for existence.”

So saying, I believe the time has come for me to tell the stories of rural electrification in a book titled Let There Be Light. If you have a favorite story to share, send it to me now—David Dick at P.O. Box 68, North Middletown, KY 40357 during this well-lit month of May.

We’ll relive some of the “good old days.”

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