As late as the mid-1930s, nine out of 10 rural homes were without electric service. The farmer milked his cows by hand in the dim light of a kerosene lantern. His wife relied on the wood range and washboard.
The unavailability of electricity in rural areas kept the economies in these places entirely and exclusively dependent on agriculture. Factories and businesses, of course, preferred to locate in cities where electric power was easily acquired. For many years, power companies ignored the rural areas of the nation.
The first official action of the federal government pointing the way to the present rural electrification program came with the passage of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Act in May 1933. This act authorized the TVA Board to construct transmission lines to serve “farms and small villages that are not otherwise supplied with electricity at reasonable rates.”
The idea of providing federal assistance to accomplish rural electrification gained ground rapidly when President Roosevelt took office in 1933. On May 11, 1935, Roosevelt signed Executive Order No. 7037 establishing the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). It was not until a year later that the Rural Electrification Act was passed, and the lending program that became the REA got underway.
Within four years following the close of the war, the number of rural electric systems in operation doubled, the number of consumers connected more than tripled, and the miles of energized line grew more than five-fold. By 1953, more than 90 percent of U.S. farms had electricity.
Today, about 99 percent of the nation’s farms have electric service. Most rural electrification is the product of locally-owned rural electric cooperatives that got their start by borrowing funds from the REA to build lines and provide service on a not-for-profit basis. Today the REA is the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) and is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.