Three days before Thanksgiving in 1935, 17 farmers met at E.J. Manning’s store in Burbank, a small town in the southeastern corner of South Dakota, to organize the state’s first electric co-op, Fairview Electric Association.
The organizers soon applied for a loan from the Rural Electrification Administration, only to be turned down because they hadn’t signed up enough members. So they knocked on more doors in Clay and Union counties and got the loan, and on October 1937 electricity started flowing through 67 miles of distribution lines built by this tiny rural utility now called Clay-Union Electric Cooperative.
Stan Jensen’s family’s farm was hooked up before World War II. He can’t remember the year, but he has vivid memories of life before and after electrification; listening to Joe Louis defend his world heavyweight champion title on a battery-powered radio, for example. The boxer’s opponent was down on the mat and the referee was counting when the battery went dead. Jensen didn’t know who won until he picked up a newspaper the next day.
Power for a radio wasn’t a problem after the Jensen farmstead near the Clay-Union county line was wired and the co-op hung a service drop from the nearest pole. And there was a good run of Louis fights to listen to. His reign as heavyweight champion lasted from 1937 to 1949, during which he fought 27 times.
Jensen, a Ph.D plant breeder who worked for Pioneer Hi-Bred in York, Nebraska, for 40 years, was interviewed by Wessel’s Living History Farm, also in York, for its oral history archive a few years back. RE Magazine caught up with him in February 2021, two days after his 94th birthday.
The Jensen farm was about 15 miles northeast of Vermillion, S.D., on a dirt road two miles from the nearest gravel road. The nearest paved road was on the outskirts of Vermillion.
He described it as “not a very good farm.” Like many others in the area, “it was rocky, and it didn’t drain well.” His father, mother and four brothers had to work 365 days a year to make ends meet.
They had milk cows and raised hogs and chickens for slaughter. They grew corn, oats and soybeans, a new cash crop on the Great Plains that was being pushed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Corn, Pioneer Hi-Bred varieties with higher yields and resistance to drought, would eventually give Jensen an international reputation. Other plant scientists nicknamed him the Deacon of Drought.
Unlike some of their neighbors, the Jensens did not own a Delco generator.
“We lived in the dark,” he says.
They lit kerosene lamps at night, but they were too dim to read by.
“We had to get our homework done before dark.”
Winters were hard, and 1936, the year Jensen turned 9, was the worst.
“I think we had five weeks without school.”
There was no mail delivery during one 10-day stretch. He and his four brothers played a lot of the board game Crockinole to pass the time.
“We were so isolated. I hated winters for a long time.”
Electricity made the isolation more bearable.
“I don't remember the year, but I remember very, very well the day, the moment that we switched the light on. Just a bare bulb in the ceiling.”
He raised his hands above his head and looked up as if he could still see its glowing tungsten filament.
Soon, it seemed, every farmstead in the valley had a yard light.
“My mother would look out the window at night and say, ‘Look at all those lights.’”
One of the first electric appliances in the Jensen home was a refrigerator. But they did not spend hard-earned money on a milking machine for their seven or eight cows. Why not?
“We had boys – five of them,” Jensen says.
Farm families read their own meters. “That was my mother’s job,” Jensen said.
You wrote the kilowatt-hours down on a pre-printed postcard and sent it to Clay-Union Electric’s headquarters in Vermillion.
Before electricity, when nature called, you visited the outhouse. And you bathed in the kitchen in “a big, old tub” filled with water heated on the wood stove.
“Everybody used the same water,” Jensen said, chuckling. “You didn’t change water between baths.”
Electricity meant power to run a water pump, and that meant getting indoor plumbing.
“That was a memorable day also.”