The following true story is told by Mr. John Earl George, Jr., whose father had to literally go out and canvas the countryside in order to have electricity brought to his rural residence in Derry Township, Westmoreland County back in 1939. Real historical facts come from pages directly out of Mr. George’s personal journal that detail names, dates, and places. This story first appeared in the February and March 1999 issues of Penn Lines.
In 1939, the United States of America was just beginning to find its way out of the quagmire of the Great Depression. It was still difficult for the average man to find work, cash, and even food. The lack of government regulation still allowed some men to become very wealthy, building fortunes at the expense of others. Rural areas were especially hard hit and slow to recover.
One of the obstacles to economic recovery in rural areas was the lack of an electric distribution system. Electric companies of the time typically went from town to town along major highways and left the less populated areas in the dark. This made economic sense to these companies. These big companies felt that they could not make enough profit from sparsely populated rural areas to justify building power lines to them.
Rural residents, like Mr. George, still had to rely on windmills, chemical reaction cells, and even large battery packs as their only source of electricity. All of these were expensive to buy and required a lot of maintenance.
In the spring of 1939, Earl (John E. George, Sr. was known to friends and neighbors by his middle name) contacted the local electric company, which at that time was the Pennsylvania Electric Company. He felt it was about time that his house had electricity like his relatives who lived closer to Route 22.
Earl asked what it would cost to bring an electric line from his brother Albert’s house, where the line ended. This was a distance of about 1100 feet. A representative from the Pennsylvania Electric Company came down, measured the distance, and told Earl that it would cost him $471 to extend the line. This was terrible news.
Remember, 1939 was still the great depression. For the average man in rural Pennsylvania, $471 was nearly a year’s wages. Earl, who was crippled in a railroad accident and could only walk with the help of two canes cut from his hickory tree, was living off his railroad pension. When Earl Jr. and his cousins could find work at $1.50 a day, they thought they were doing really good.
People, especially rural people, just didn’t have a lot of cash. Earl’s neighbor, John Henderson, tried for four months to sell his Model A Ford, which was in good running condition, for $25. No one could afford such a luxury. He ended up selling it for just $16. Can you imagine what a Model A Ford in running condition would sell for today?
Coming up with $471 was impossible, and Earl wasn’t alone. Rural people all over Pennsylvania were running into the same problem. The big electric companies wanted an exorbitant amount of money to build lines to their homes. So, some of them decided to do something about it.
About this time, when getting electricity seemed impossible, Earl heard that the REA in Indiana was building lines to rural homes for only $5. On June 3, Earl’s son drove him to the Southwest Central Rural Electric Cooperative office in Indiana where he was told, “Yes!” Southwest Central could build an electric line to his home if he and his neighbors wanted them to do so.
You see, Southwest Central was a Rural Electric Cooperative. An electric cooperative started by rural people like Earl who wanted electricity and couldn’t afford to pay the huge fees that the big electric companies wanted to build lines to their homes.
Earl was sold on the idea of neighbors working with neighbors to bring electric to rural people who needed it. Earl began visiting his neighbors to tell them the news. Now they could get electricity brought to their homes at a price they could afford.
On August 24, Mr. Sterling Orange, the General Manager of Southwest Central Rural Electric Cooperative Corporation, visited Earl at his home to discuss the situation.
From the start, Earl and Sterling found that they had something in common. While working as a miner, Sterling had been crippled in a mining accident, and now walked with the help of a cane. Contrary to Earl’s hickory canes, Sterling’s was the store-bought variety.
Sterling told Earl that in order for Southwest Central to bring electricity to his home, they would have to build the lines from Indiana County across the Conemaugh River to Westmoreland County. This was a pretty heroic and expensive undertaking for the day. Before the Rural Electric Administration in Washington, D. C. would allow this, they had to know that enough of Earl’s neighbors wanted electricity to make this undertaking worthwhile.
Earl spent that fall and winter and the next spring in a tireless effort to get as many people as possible to sign up for rural electric service. He covered all of Northern Westmoreland County being chauffeured over muddy dirt roads by Earl Jr. and his nephews Charlie and Ed. He writes that on June 28, 1940, while out signing up subscribers, their car got stuck in the mud and Mr. J. P. Martin pulled them out with his team of horses.
Each household that signed up for service paid only a $5 membership fee. This is the same $5 membership fee that people still pay today when they become members of the cooperative.
On June 13, 1939, Earl received a letter from the Rural Electric Administration (REA) in Washington, DC telling him that their representative, Mr. Coffinger, would be in New Alexandria on June 25. The purpose of his visit was to hold an open meeting with all interested people to discuss the pros and cons of receiving rural electric cooperative power. On June 28, Earl sent notices to 75 people, whom he signed up, about the REA meeting. The night of the REA meeting in New Alexandria, people overwhelmingly elected to join the cooperative.
On November 22 construction began. Men from Southwest Central Rural Electric were clearing brush, cutting trees, and digging holes to set poles. They spent long hard hours working without the benefit of modern power tools.
Finally on April 4, 1940, one year after Earl first looked into having electricity brought to his home, his journal says, "Electricity turned on". Earl and his neighbors rejoiced. Electricity had come. No more oil lamps, ice boxes, windmills, or batteries.
And how do you think Earl and his family celebrated? They went shopping and bought a brand new refrigerator.
Earl’s first electric bill was only $3.40. He was very pleased. Getting electricity was well worth all of his efforts.
If you ever heard the old saying, "They don’t build things the way they used to", it could be true. Earl’s son, Earl, Jr., tells us that before he unplugged it and stored it in his basement a few years ago, that old 1940 refrigerator was still working.
Mr. George’s story is one of many from satisfied customers of REA Energy Cooperative throughout the years.
Our special thanks to:
Mr. John Earl George, Jr. for preserving his father’s journals.
Mr. Charles A. George for adding significant details.