Search For:

Share This

Looking back on an electric cooperative childhood

Kentucky Living turns 75 this year, and so do I. As far back as I can remember, a well-thumbed copy of Rural Kentuckian (the name of the magazine from 1952- 89) occupied a prominent place on the family coffee table. To me, looking at back issues, especially from the 1950s, is a ticket to a trip back in time.  

I don’t remember when we didn’t have electricity. It got here before I did, but maybe not long before. When I was a kid in the 1950s, evidence of the time before “the electric” was all around, especially at my grandparents’ farm in Clay County.     

There, a bare light bulb hung from the ceiling in the living room, where two kerosene lamps, their bowls amber with coal oil, stood on the mantle.     

My grandparents’ Victrola still worked, but you had to crank the handle just right, and if you were the one doing it, your arm got tired, and you didn’t get to dance to Mainer’s Mountaineers or sing along with the Carter Family. Uncle Millard brought home a record player small enough to carry around, with a handle like a suitcase. He plugged it into the room’s only socket, and Rosemary Clooney sang “This Ole House.”      

Shelby, center, with her grandparents Bradley and Carrie Bishop, mother Jessie Gabbard and sister Jessie Lynne, on Bradley's birthday in 1952. Photo credit: Shelby family
Four-year-old Anne Shelby on her birthday with the Shelby family's new "deep freeze" behind her. Photo credit: Shelby family
Entertainers perform during a Jackson County RECC annual meeting. Photo credit: Kentucky Electric Cooperative archives
Miss Jackson REA accepts her trophy during a Jackson County RECC annual meeting. Photo credit: Kentucky Electric Cooperative archives

In the kitchen, a surprisingly white rectangle of a refrigerator hummed against the pine walls. An electric freezer—the “deep freeze”—took over the important job of food preservation, putting the smokehouse out of business.              

Ads in The Rural Kentuckian introduced readers to the new “automatic” electrical appliances. Electric ranges touted “push button cooking,” “wonder ovens” and “thinking tops.” My parents insisted on getting my grandmother a new electric range. She agreed but kept the wood-burning cast iron stove she’d cooked on for decades. They stood uneasily side by side, the old-fashioned stove black and ornate beside the gleaming white metal box of the new electric range.       

My grandparents drew their water from the well behind the house, pulling the metal cylinder up by the chain.

Later, an electric well pump did the work, pumping water up out of the ground and into the house. Almost overnight, the chain, pulley and cylinder, along with the familiar dipper, water buckets and chamber pots, changed from useful and necessary objects into symbols of the past.      

A wringer washer appeared, white with red trim, fat and friendly like a nice lady at church. On wash days, instead of bringing out the washboard and building a fire under the wash kettle, my grandmother rolled the automatic wringer washer out onto the front porch, where it chugged and churned, swished and swashed, then flattened the family’s clothes flat as flitters.   

For a long time, even as our houses filled up with things to plug in, we didn’t call the electric bill “the electric bill.” We called it what it had been when the poles and wires first went up: “the light bill.”      

The pages of The Rural Kentuckian document the dramatic changes taking place on farms and in rural communities around Kentucky. They document, too, another enormously important event at the time—the annual meeting, a two-day carnival/business meeting sponsored by the RECC. “The time of your life,” The Rural Kentuckian promised, and for a while, it was.    

Annual meetings of the Jackson County RECC transformed the McKee ballpark into a wonderland of light and movement and sound. A big tent—circus-big, tent revival big—grew at center field. Concession stands formed a line behind first base. A merry-go-round and tilt-a-whirl circled behind second. A performance stage sprang up in left field.      

There was music! Square dancing! A magician! A clown! There were contests! Cake-baking! Tractor driving! And prizes! Bicycles! Tricycles! Pressure cookers! And more people than you could shake a stick at. More than you ever saw in one place in your whole life before.  

The grownups sauntered between exhibits. The children ran, clutching corn dogs or snow cones, not minding the sweat or the dirt or the summer heat, wanting to see and do everything at once.   

At the end of the day, we climbed in the back seat of the car or up into the back of the pickup for the ride home. We had sawdust in our shoes and cotton candy on our faces. We had some good memories stored up for the winter. We had the time of our lives. And a whole big bucketful of free light bulbs.  

Writer and storyteller Anne Shelby lives near Oneida in clay County, in the house where her grandparents lived. The wood-burning cook stove is still in the kitchen. She and her husband Edmund Shelby are member-consumers of Jackson Energy.     

Don't Leave! Sign up for Kentucky Living updates ...

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.