I went to work with my father at the age of 8. I subsequently became a systems analyst, but that first job was one of the most rewarding I ever had. It all started in 1938, three years after the creation of the Rural Electrification Administration, with the rigging of high lines for the newly formed Deep East Texas Electric Cooperative. A practical man, my father said, “Son, we’ve got to keep food on the table, and I may need your help. I’ve got an idea.”
Each residence that joined the co-op and tied into the electric service had to have a meter installed and the house wired for ceiling lights and wall outlets. Dad’s idea was to teach himself to wire houses. With three children—I was the oldest boy—and a fourth on the way, he desperately needed to improve his chances of getting a steady paycheck. It turned into a skill that provided the family’s primary source of income for the duration of the Depression.
Dad bought tools that included a brace (a boring tool with a removable drill) and a variety of bits, four sizes of screwdrivers, cutting pliers, needle-nose pliers, a 20-foot retractable tape measure, rolls of rubber tape and water-resistant friction tape, a hammer with a hatchet blade on one side, a wood chisel and a file. He accumulated a wiring inventory that included fuse boxes, ceramic tubes and knobs, several gauges of Romex (electrical cable used for house wiring) and a large supply of electrical wire.
Dad found customers by following the high lines down dirt roads. He would mount a small fuse box and meter on an outside wall of a house. From there, he usually ran wires through the attic to each room for ceiling lights. At least this was the case for the better-built homes that had ceilings and attics, not just roof rafters. In these, he also added one or two wall outlets. Most of the structures had tin roofs, and during the summer, the attic temperatures became almost unbearable.
We quickly discovered I could cut Dad’s wiring time almost in half because I was small and could scamper about the attic fetching pliers, screwdrivers, brace and bits, electrical tape—whatever was needed. Another plus was my immunity to the attic’s scorching heat. Dad, who was in his mid-30s, would be dripping sweat in puddles, and I would still be going. I loved to help. Economically, we were a successful team, and he took me as often as possible.
It wasn’t unusual for workers to still be placing the poles when we finished wiring a house. In those cases when electric lines couldn’t be strung to the house, we mounted the fuse box and left. Other times, electricity was waiting, and we were there when the lights went on. It was magic. In one farmhouse, when they flipped the switch for the kitchen light, it barely glowed and the lady of the house smiled. Then it came on full, and tears rolled down her face. On another occasion, the man of the house, while holding down a light’s pull chain in the living room, said to another family member, “Come hold on to this so I can go turn on the light in the kitchen.”
Turning the electricity on for the very first time was always a moving experience, not only for families but also for Dad and me. One lady, when the lights came on, ran out on the porch and danced a jig.
Back then, people were used to filling their kerosene lamps, not turning on the electricity. One time, as Dad hooked a meter to a power line, the customer said to him, “Harry, just fill that bowl (meter) halfway. If I like it, I’ll have it filled next time.”
When power lines were first being installed across the countryside, churches were wired and received free electricity. Ironing was one of the meanest jobs housewives faced each week, and electric appliances were expensive. So housewives used the cooperative model once more and pooled money to buy electric irons and radios for their churches. Presto—ironing parties, much like quilting parties, came on the scene. The ironing housewives could turn on the radio and follow the troubles and tribulations of two popular shows, “Ma Perkins” and “Pepper Young’s Family,” while they labored.
Home radios were a must for those who could afford them. In the evening, families sat around the radio to listen to such programs as “Lum and Abner,” “Amos ’n’ Andy” and “Fibber McGee and Molly.” As the invisible current ushered in the era of radio to rural America, it served a larger purpose. It removed the dark cloak of clannishness while shining a light of knowledge down through the hills, creeks, rivers and backwoods where generations of families stayed in one area and many people mistrusted strangers and didn’t want them on their land.
Those days are gone. So much has changed. But the memories are still there, and they tell such a beautiful story of courage, facing hardships and working together. They were hard times, but on each occasion the lights came on, we knew we had extended ourselves beyond the call of duty.
Harry P. Noble lives and writes in San Augustine.