This blog was posted Friday January 5, 2007 07:00 AM EST
By Jack Kelly
Congressman Johnson and Mrs. Mattie Malone examine an electric light fixture in May 1941.
(LBJ Library, Photo by Austin Statesman)
We remember Lyndon Johnson as forceful in pushing through his Great Society and civil rights legislation and as beleaguered by the tragedy of Vietnam. We remember him as the master manipulator of the Senate during the 1950s. Another Johnson is less familiar—the young schoolteacher from a humble central Texas background who was elected to Congress when he was 29. That Johnson is the focus of a current exhibit at the LBJ Library and Museum in Austin.
Power to the People traces Johnson’s prodigious effort to bring electricity to rural Texas in the 1930s. The exhibit highlights the energy, empathy, and persuasiveness that were hallmarks of his political career. It also reminds us that well into the twentieth century a significant portion of rural Americans were condemned by a lack of electric power to lives of relentless and exhausting labor.
The exhibit opens with a look at the Texas Hill Country, north and west of Austin, where Johnson was born in 1908. The territory, as the Johnson biographer Robert A. Caro wrote in The Path to Power, was a “beautiful trap.” Lush grass disguised thin soil. Arid conditions made farming precarious and kept the families that lived there in poverty for generations.
Johnson, a New Deal Democrat, was sent to Congress in a special election in 1937. Electrification of rural areas had been a major issue across the country since the 1920s. In 1935 almost 90 percent of farm families in the nation were still without power.
The museum exhibit makes us imagine what that life was like. In the morning a farmer might spend two hours milking his cows in the dark; he needed the daylight for working the fields, and kerosene lanterns were perilous in hay barns. A family of five used 200 gallons of water a day, each cow another 25 gallons, and all of it had to be hauled up in buckets from a well maybe 100 feet deep. Many residents had never even seen indoor plumbing.
Women’s work was punishingly hard. Washing clothes by hand took hours of manual labor. Ironing was an all-day chore. Even in summer a wood stove had to be kept blazing to bake bread and can fruits and vegetables.
In the evening, there was little light to read by. The lack of radio contributed to the region’s isolation. Citizens were unable to listen to President Roosevelt’s radio talks. “We kept reading about those wonderful fireside chats,” one woman remembered. “But we never got to hear them.”
The situation created a chasm between rural and urban lives. City dwellers had enjoyed electric illumination for generations and in 1937 could watch the Disney hit Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in air-conditioned theaters. The people of Johnson’s district lived much the way the settlers of the 1850s had.
Franklin Roosevelt had long been aware of the importance of rural electrification. He saw hydropower as a natural resource that should be shared by all. He created the Tennessee Valley Authority two months after his 1933 inauguration. In 1935 the Federal Power Commission set out to break up the holding companies that controlled most local utilities, and the government began building massive dams in the West.
Johnson was instrumental in arranging a program similar to the TVA in his area, obtaining financing and authority for the construction of four dams on the nearby Lower Colorado River. The power was available; the problem was getting it to the people.
Private power companies were unresponsive to local needs. The cost of stringing wires through rural areas was exorbitant, they complained, and they were afraid that farmers would not pay their bills.
In 1935 Congress created the Rural Electrification Administration to make low-interest loans to electric cooperatives so that rural areas could be wired. But for Johnson’s constituents there was a catch: The REA required at least three families per mile of line, and the Hill Country was just too sparsely populated.
Johnson began working to get enough farmers to join the newly formed Pedernales Electric Cooperative (still around, and a major sponsor of the exhibit). With the same tireless energy that he had applied to his political campaigning, he traveled door to door urging families to pay the five-dollar fee and sign up. Many were distrustful of signing anything, afraid of losing their farms to debt (private utilities spread rumors that individuals would be liable for funds owed by the coop). Others simply didn’t have five dollars.
“People were slow to apply,” says Sandy Cohen, curator of the exhibit. “They were suspicious. Johnson was one of their own, and used his political skills to convince them.”
Even his best efforts could not overcome the density requirement, but Johnson did not give up. He approached the head of the REA for an exemption. When that didn’t work, he wangled a meeting with the President himself. FDR passed the word, and the co-op received a $1.8 million loan to wire the Hill Country and bring power to 2,892 families. “I think of all the things I have ever done,” Johnson reminisced in a 1959 letter, “nothing has ever given me as much satisfaction.”
The debate over whether public or private efforts are more effective in addressing society’s needs has been a perennial one in the United States. Less than half a century later, President Ronald Reagan popularized the notion that, as he put it, “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.” By then, of course, the lights were on all over the country.
Power to the People: The Electrification of Rural Texas will be on view daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. until Memorial Day. The Museum is at 2313 Red River Street, adjacent to the University of Texas, in downtown Austin. For information, visit www.lbjlib.utexas.edu.
—Jack Kelly writes often for American Heritage magazine and is the author of Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics—A History of the Explosive That Changed the World (Basic Books).