Powering American Farms
June 14, 2022
|The Overlooked Origins of Rural Electrification
|Johns Hopkins University Press
|June 14, 2022
|Richard F. Hirsch
The untold story of the power industry's efforts to electrify growing numbers of farms in the years before the creation of Depression-era government programs.
In Powering American Farms, Richard F. Hirsh challenges the notion that electric utilities neglected rural customers in the years before government intervention. Drawing on previously unexamined resources, Hirsh demonstrates that power firms quadrupled the number of farms obtaining electricity in the years between 1923 and 1933, for example. Though not all corporate managers thought much of the farm business, a cadre of rural electrification advocates established the knowledge base and social infrastructure upon which New Deal organizations later capitalized. The book also suggests that the conventional storyline of rural electrification remains popular because it contains a colorful hero, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and villainous utility magnates, such as Samuel Insull, who make for an engaging—but distorted—narrative.
Hirsh describes the evolution of power company managers' thinking in the 1920s and early 1930s—from believing that rural electrification made no economic sense to realizing that serving farmers could mitigate industry-wide problems. This transformation occurred as agricultural engineers in land-grant universities, supported by utilities, demonstrated productive electrical technologies that yielded healthy profits to farmers and companies alike. Gaining confidence in the value of rural electrification, private firms strung wires to more farms than did the REA until 1950, a fact conveniently omitted in conventional accounts. Powering American Farms will interest academic and lay readers of New Deal history, the history of technology, and revisionist historiography.