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Life Without Electricity

Thank goodness we didn’t have to invent gravity—it has discouraged jumping off cliffs.

Discovering friendly fires has been job enough—rubbing two sticks together in just the right way required special imagination with no short supply of patience.

The wheel took some careful doing—rolling it along from tree trunk to vulcanized rubber changed the world from standing pat to strolling on the moon.

Of all creations, electricity has been a crowning achievement. I’ve come to the conclusion that we take this miracle for granted. In last month’s column, I went back to “the good old days,” when I was 5 years old. Even at that age, I thought summer lightning strikes on the farm were all the warning anybody needed not to touch a wire fence in a thunderstorm.

So now, looking for verification that the “good old days” were just maybe not cracked up to be the answer to our “troubled present time,” I went this year to visit a lady who turned 100 years old. When I told her I’d just had my 77th birthday, she laughed and said, “Why, you’re just a youngster.”

Meet Florence Day, native of Nicholas County—mind as clear as a ringing bell when it’s time for dinner. She likes company. She remembers how it was on the farm before electric co-ops called.

“Didn’t know what a school bus was. Rode into town in my pony-drawn buggy. Parked at the livery. Returned home same way I came. We never had a car.”

Florence was the youngest child in the family, and she had two brothers and one sister to help with handling the reins and putting on the brakes.

As was typical of the time, Florence depended on firewood and “outside” hot water in an iron kettle. It was not unusual for a tub of fetched water in “a plain old tub” to satisfy the needs of the Saturday night “bath.”

“What about the water. I mean, where did it come from?”

“The well.”

“Just lower the bucket and pull it up?”

“After you maneuver around the milk, cream, and butter.”

“They were in the well?”

“That’s how we kept them cool.”

“How did you keep meat from spoiling?”

“Cured it with sugar and black pepper. Several neighbors worked together at hog-killing time. Had a fruit barrel in the corner of the kitchen. Buried cabbage in the ground. We stored the potatoes in the cellar.”

“Now, I’ve heard stories about the housewife and the flat iron. Would you tell me about that?”

“Everything had to be ironed.” Florence repeated the statement with a glint in her eye that said her mother was duty bound: “Everything had to be ironed.”

“Three or four irons on the stove?”

“Used them one at a time until the heat was gone, put it back on the stove, took the next in line.”

“I remember my grandmother used to wet her fingers and pop them on the bottom of the iron to be sure the heat met her measured need.”

Florence remembered the same thing, and we talked about the “ice house,” which meant sawing ice from the pond, bringing it by horse and sled to the deep hole in the ground, then covering it with straw to keep the chunks from melting.

“Light by kerosene lamp?”

“Had to trim and clean the wicks every day.”

“What was the one most pleasant thing you remember?”

“Ice cream on weekends. Made it in an old freezer, which we turned by hand.” Florence Day was wearing a smile that said, “Give me another spoonful.”

“Must’ve been a pretty tough life,” I said as I wondered how it must’ve been before there was electric on the county back roads.

“We didn’t think it was tough,” said Florence, shyly.

I took her word for it, but I’m pretty sure there aren’t many who’d like to go back to the days before the lights went on.

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