Eleanor Roosevelt, like her husband Franklin, the 32nd U.S. president, had first-hand knowledge of the urgent need for rural electrification.
The couple’s 34-room summer “cottage” overlooking the Bay of Fundy on the Maine-New Brunswick (Canada) border didn’t have power for many years, and the kilowatt-hour rate at their mountain retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia, was so much higher than the rate at their permanent home in Hyde Park, New York, they were convinced something had to be done to make power affordable in rural areas across the country.
Eleanor, considered the most influential First Lady in American history, wrote about rural electrification and related topics numerous times in her syndicated newspaper column, My Day, which ran daily from 1936, Franklin’s third year in office, until her death in 1962. Below are some examples.
On February 14, 1936, a snowy Friday in Ithaca, New York, Eleanor took in the Farm and Home Week exhibits at Cornell University, and then devoted the next day’s column to the rural electrification exhibit. “Life can be so much fuller and farm life so much more efficient on the farm as well as in the home if you can get cheap power,” she wrote.
She told of a conversation she had that reminded her of how difficult women’s lives were in rural areas. “My mind flew to some of our mountaineers; a woman at thirty-five looking sixty, teeth all going, so little chance for anything but work and only the bare necessities of life as a return for the whole family’s drudgery.”
Nine months earlier, President Roosevelt had created the Rural Electrification Administration by executive order. And on that very day, the first REA-financed electric co-op in the country (in Mississippi) energized its lines.
Eleanor’s November 10, 1939 column tells of a busy day entertaining visitors at the White House. A large group came by to talk about the WPA’s Worker Education Service early in the afternoon, followed by “a few visitors” for tea.
“One of them, Mr. Harry Slattery of the Rural Electrification Administration had so many human interest stories to tell that I have decided on my next trip to see some of the farms which have lately acquired electricity and to tell you more about it,” she wrote.
Slattery had been appointed REA administrator six weeks earlier, the third man to hold the job. His book Rural America Lights Up: The Story of Rural Electrification is a good early history of the REA program.
In a column datelined November 24, 1939/Warm Springs, Ga., the president’s wife had quite a bit say about the newsletter she had just received from Washington Electric Cooperative in East Montpelier, Vermont. She quoted it as saying REA-financed distribution lines were being built for $810 a mile when before REA “$1,500 was considered low.”
She was amused by the newsletter’s answer to a safety question posed by a reader: Could he climb the pole in his farmyard and turn off the transformer to work on his wiring?
“It is a convenient way out. In order to save trouble for your family we suggest that you make the funeral arrangements first and leave a note for the police so that they will not think it was murder.”
Later in this column, she tells the story of the farm wife in Knox County, Ohio, who, during harvest season, cooked lunches for 20 to 30 men on her new electric range, and her the highest monthly bill she received form her local co-op was $6.57.
“Besides the range she had a radio, electric lights, a washing machine and an ironer and her farmer husband uses electricity on his corn shellers, emery wheel [grinder] and cream separator. If this isn’t a story of a better life on a farm, then I do not know what it is.”
Eleanor, no longer the first lady and a widow for 12 years, visited Morocco in 1957. Writing from Fez on April 3, she noted that power rates were very high and consumption low, in part because labor was so cheap there was little incentive to mechanize. “Irrigation is a crying need on farms but so is rural electrification,” she wrote, adding that two Moroccan officials were then in the U.S. studying the Tennessee Valley Authority approach to bringing lights and power to poorer populations.
This was a time when representatives from developing nations were frequent visitors at NRECA’s offices in Washington and its co-op members out in the states. A few years later, NRECA signed a contract with the new federal Agency for International Development (AID) to do rural electrification studies, work that launched NRECA International, which has helped improve the lives of 160 million people in 48 countries.
Eleanor Roosevelt would likely be writing about that, too, if she were alive today. And she’d probably feel proud that she and Franklin got the ball rolling on rural electrification.