One of my frequent complaints about us as Americans is that we have no real sense of history. We are very focused on the recent past and pay little mind to things that happened even forty or fifty years ago. This leads to some odd gaps in understanding and knowledge. People don’t grok how we got from Point A to Point B — and have no interest in learning — so when they see something from Point A in isolation, that thing seems offensive or weird.
I’m not immune to this behavior, of course. And perhaps it’s not a peculiarly American habit. Maybe it’s just part of being human. Maybe we’ve always been like this and always will be.
I’ve been thinking about this because last night I stumbled on one of my own blind spots.
The Path to Power
I’m currently listening to the The Path to Power, the first volume of Robert Caro’s highly-regarded biography of Lyndon B. Johnson. It’s a fascinating book and I can see why it’s so highly praised. I particularly like how Caro is unafraid to spent entire chapters (and dozens of pages) on digressions that provide context and color to the story. It’s entertaining, informative, and effective.
Midway through the book, for instance, Caro spends two entire chapters exploring the electrification of rural America, and particularly rural Texas. He opens chapter 27 with this bit:
Electricity had, of course, been an integral part of life in urban and much of small-town America for a generation and more, lighting its streets, powering the machinery of its factories, running its streetcars and trolleys, its elevated trains and subways, moving elevators and escalators in its stores, and cooling the stores with electric fans…It was not a part of life in the Hill Country.
Caro then spends pages and pages and pages describing what rural life was like without electricity: the grueling hours of work for men and women (and children), the monotonous repetition of chores necessary to obtain basic needs like water and heat, the endless work of food preservation, and the boredom of life without radio or electric light.
Life Before Electricity
Here’s a sample of the kind of effort that it took to simply live in rural Texas:
And so much water was needed! A federal study of nearly half a million farm families even then being conducted would show that, on the average, a person living on a farm used 40 gallons of water every day. Since the average farm family was five persons, the family used 200 gallons, or four-fifths of a ton, of water each day—73,000 gallons, or almost 300 tons, in a year. The study showed that, on the average, the well was located 253 feet from the house—and that to pump by hand and carry to the house 73,000 gallons of water a year would require someone to put in during that year 63 eight-hour days, and walk 1,750 miles.
Caro summarizes life for the rural farm family this way: “No radio; no movies; limited reading — little diversion between the hard day just past and the hard day just ahead.” (Aside: I’m curious why he uses semicolons in that sentence instead of commas. Is it the dash?)
Caro spends the entirety of chapter 27 describing what life on a rural farm was like during the mid 1930s. There’s zero mention of Lyndon B. Johnson at all. It’s simply pages of context and color. And the book is so much richer for it!
Electrifying Rural America
The next chapter delves into the politics behind electrifying rural America, and Johnson’s role in that process. At first, it’s the electric companies that refuse to to provide power to farms. To them, it’s bad business. It doesn’t make sense. They’ll never recoup the costs of building the infrastructure. Never. So, they refuse to do it.
When President Roosevelt established the Rural Electrification Administration on 11 May 1935, the tables turned. The government would help subsidize (and administer) the electrification of rural areas — but now it was the farmers who felt skeptical. Were the benefits of electricity really that great? And what about the costs? To them, electricity seemed outrageously expensive. How could they afford it?
The reluctance of the people sprang from simple poverty — “It cost five dollars [to apply for electricity], and a lot of people didn’t have five dollars,” says Guthrie Taylor. And it sprang from fear.
They were afraid of the wires. The idea of electricity — so unknown to them — terrified them. It was the same stuff as lightning; it sounded dangerous — what would happen to a child who put its hand on a wire? And what about their cows — their precious, irreplaceable few cows that represented so much of their total assets? “They were so worried,” Lucille O’Donnell recalls. “They would say, ‘What’ll happen if there’s a storm? The wires will fall down and kill [electrocute] the cattle.’”
It was a young Lyndon Johnson who helped champion the electrification of the Texas hill country (where he was from). He met with President Roosevelt and persuaded him to fund the project. In September 1938, the U.S. government did so. And about fifteen months later, electricity came to rural Texas.
One evening in November, 1939, the Smiths were returning from Johnson City, where they had been attending a declamation contest, and as they neared their farmhouse, something was different.
“Oh my God,” her mother said. “The house is on fire!”
But as they got closer, they saw the light wasn’t fire. “No, Mama,” Evelyn said. “The lights are on.”
They were on all over the Hill Country. “And all over the Hill Country,” Stella Gliddon says, “people began to name their kids for Lyndon Johnson.”
These two chapters are a fascinating glimpse into a piece of American history that has largely been forgotten. We take electricity for granted nowadays. It’s difficult to imagine that less than 100 years ago, there were still large parts of this country that didn’t have it.
The Electrification Acceleration
In 1935, when the Rural Electrification Administration was created, about 85% of city homes had electricity — but only 10% of farms did. This graph from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that much progress was made in ten years, despite the outbreak of World War II. By 1945, about 40% of farms had been electrified (compared to about 90% of city homes). And in 1955, the gap had closed to almost zero: about 95% of all homes in the U.S. had access to electricity.
But even that last fact kind of boggles my mind. Less than fifteen years before I was born (in 1969), there were still 5% of U.S. homes without electrical power!
I’m fond of doing historical comparisons to gain perspectives on timespans. Let me give you an example. Thirty years before I was born — in 1939 — there were still 15% of city homes and nearly 90% of farms without electricity.
Now, to gain perspective, think about thirty years before today. It’s 2023. What will kids born this year look back on and think “wow, I can’t believe this is such a recent technology”. Maybe it’s the internet? That’s not a perfect example but it’s close. I’m not sure their was a rural/urban divide in internet adoption, but it’s a technology that probably had around 10% use in 1993 (or maybe 1994 or 1995, not sure), but now is nearly ubiquitous.
Anyhow, I’m starting to ramble.
I enjoyed these two chapters from The Path to Power so much that I read them twice. Then I read them a third time while writing this article. It makes me realize that I haven’t been paying near enough attention to this book, so I’ve purchased a copy for Kindle and plan to read it in print in addition (simultaneously?) to listening to it.
Most of all, I can see why people praise Robert Caro. Can you imagine making the Rural Electrification Administration interesting? Yet he does. In this two-chapter digression from the story of Lyndon B. Johnson, Caro paints a clear picture of what life was like in the mid 1930s and why Johnson became a powerful political figure. And yet Johnson barely figures into the text for these 27 pages.
Footnote: I know little about Lyndon B. Johnson and didn’t choose this book because I wanted to learn about him. I chose this book because again and again I see people praising Robert Caro’s writing, and I wanted to experience it. The Path to Power is the first of four volumes in Caro’s biography of Johnson. For more than a decade, Caro has been working on a fifth and final volume. He says he has ~630 manuscript pages but still isn’t anywhere near finishing. He’s 87. I hope he’s in good health, because I look forward to reading all five volumes of this biography.