Have you ever met someone who, through a single conversation, gives you an entirely new perspective on the past and helps you see the present in a whole new light? Such was the case for me on a recent crisp, cool, blue-sky day.
I met Bobbie Powell at the Hawthorne Community Center in the picturesque southeastern corner of Walker County, where she and her husband, Allen Powell Jr., live. She introduced herself as I was setting up for a presentation. With a big smile, she told me about her days of cooking on a coal oil stove, before Sam Houston Electric Cooperative brought electricity to the area, and went on to tell about the purchase of her first electric stove, sometime around 1950.
I was mostly focused on my presentation, so it was not until after the meeting as I was driving home that it hit me: Ms. Powell is a living historian who experienced the beginning of rural electrification and much, much more. Surely she had more to tell.
I called her a few days later and asked if I could come to her home for a visit. I love hearing the stories of people who can recall “when the lights came on” in their lifetime, and I wanted to learn the rest of her story.
On the day I arrived, the weather was sunny and cool. A bit too cool in the shade but just right on a bench in the sunshine. Ms. Powell had not yet returned from her regular trip to the grocery store, but Mr. Powell was out in the yard. He greeted me with a smile. We sat on the bench, and he began to talk. Oh, how I wish I’d recorded that conversation!
I listened with a sense of awe and admiration as Mr. Powell shared chapters of his life with me, from childhood shenanigans to the life challenges he experienced as an adult, including going all the way to Wichita, Kansas, to look for work. Times were very different then. He often carried a .38-caliber pistol in a paper bag for protection as he traveled in search of jobs to pay the bills.
He said he even put himself in jail once, to see what it was like. I asked if there was more to that story, but he assured me that he just wanted to see what being in a jail cell felt like.
Mr. Powell also worked in Johnny Muller’s sawmill in Willis. Workers were transported to and from the mill by bus. The workdays were long, and the labor was hard. “I got paid a dollar a day,” he said.
But Mr. Powell made his best money by chasing cows on the weekend. He had a horse and a good cow dog. “Cowboyin’ paid better money than the sawmill. I could have been a millionaire, but I got a wife, instead,” he told me with a grin.
Ms. Powell returned from the grocery store about that time, so I decided it would be best not to follow up on the “millionaire” comment. Then, with the energy and clarity of a person half her age, she told me a story I will never forget.
In the days before electricity, Ms. Powell had a beauty shop in the front yard of their home. She cut hair only for ladies and children. “Allen said I was too pretty to cut men’s hair,” she said with a smile.
When they learned that Sam Houston EC would be bringing electricity to their community, the Powells purchased an electric stove from Ralph Hardy’s General Store in New Waverly. There were two electric stoves in the store. Hardy bought one, and the Powells purchased the other for about $200.
Then they waited almost two years for electric lines to be built. “The electric stove sat in the corner in a big box until we got electricity and could use it,” Ms. Powell said.
In the meantime, she continued using her coal oil stove. “It had three stovetop ‘eyes’ on one end to cook on, and it had two burners in the oven,” she said. “It could really drink the oil. ‘Ga-lub, ga-lub’ was the sound it made as you poured the oil in.”
They later purchased a new refrigerator. “It was beautiful,” she said. “It had a button you could push to make the shelves come out. And it was trimmed in gold.”
The Powells were first in their community to get electricity. “When the lights came on, everyone came to see,” Ms. Powell said. But there was some jealousy, too. “We had electricity and they didn’t. Some women stopped coming to my beauty shop because of it.”
Her business slowed over time, and she decided to close her shop. She began working at a beauty salon for white women in Conroe. Because of cultural norms of those times, she was not allowed to cut customers’ hair. She was only allowed to shampoo and do other basic tasks below her skill level and experience.
Her supervisor, however, encouraged her to make a decision that would change her life. Ms. Powell enrolled in Conroe College, which was originally established as Conroe Normal and Industrial College for African-Americans. She became a nurse and had a long, successful career in the medical field.
Adding to an already amazing life story, Ms. Powell began playing piano by ear at age 5, and she’s been playing in worship services at Jasper Missionary Baptist Church (also a Co-op member) near New Waverly for more than six decades.
Having spent many years in the electric cooperative industry, I had always assumed that folks in the days prior to rural electrification simply got electricity from their cooperative. Then, their lives became better and that was that. As I learned from the Powells, there’s a lot more to the story.
Mr. Powell is 88 years old now, and Ms. Powell is 83. They have four children, 27 grandchildren, 38 great-grandchildren and five great-great-grandchildren. To me, they exemplify lives well-lived. They’ve experienced so much change, and they embraced that change all along the way. They adapted. They worked hard. They kept a positive outlook and sense of humor.
As I was about to leave, Ms. Powell brought out a photo of herself from her younger years. Mr. Powell was right: She was very pretty—and she is still pretty.
I am so glad they shared their story.