The Dark Days Before Electricity
October 26th, 2012 by Nancy Jorgensen
Noel Curry of Cochise, Arizona, remembers what it was like to farm in earlier days and how the arrival of electricity in rural areas made life easier. Photo by Geoff Oldfather.

Noel Curry of Cochise, Arizona, remembers what it was like to farm in earlier days and how the arrival of electricity in rural areas made life easier. Photo by Geoff Oldfather.

Noel Curry remembers when electric lights first came to the farm in Oklahoma where he grew up. It was in the early 1940s, and he was about 9 years old. Until then, he struggled to complete his homework under the dim light of an oil lamp.

“And teachers in those days believed in homework!” exclaims Noel, who now lives in southeastern Arizona with his wife, Anna.

Electricity was slow to reach rural areas. Investor-owned electric companies found it unprofitable to string power lines and poles to farming communities, where customers were few and far between.

Rural people joined together to form consumer-owned electric co-ops like the one that brought power to Noel’s family farm. The Rural Electrification Administration, now called the Rural Utilities Service, financed co-ops with low-interest loans.

People like Noel and Anna, who remember those dark days, don’t take electric service for granted.

“Electricity is still pretty reasonable, cost-wise,” Noel says. “If you don’t realize it, just turn off your main switch. You’ll get the idea real quick. Nowadays, if the electricity turns off, we’re in a panic. It’s no longer a luxury—it’s a necessity.”

Noel met Anna when they were in ninth grade. As electricity arrived, their parents bought new appliances to ease the workload. One of the first that Noel’s dad bought was a cream separator.

“I thought we were right next to the Rockefellers when we got that,” Noel says, laughing.

Previously, Noel operated a hand-powered device to separate milk from cream. Cream was a hot commodity, and Noel’s folks traded cream and eggs for groceries in town.
Anna’s mother was blind, so Anna cooked, cleaned and washed clothes from an early age. She depended on a gas-powered washing machine, which she agitated with a foot pedal.

“We got our electric washing machine when I was about 13, and we thought we were rich,” Anna remembers.

Before electricity, Noel and Anna’s families depended on short-lived batteries to operate their radios. More reliable electric-powered radios kept them in touch as the U.S. entered World War II.

Noel and Anna began farming when they married right after high school in 1950. Two years later, they moved to southeastern Arizona to escape a devastating drought that swept through Oklahoma. They were attracted to Arizona’s Sulphur Springs Valley by the plentiful ground water available for irrigation. Their irrigation pumps were powered by the local co-op, Sulphur Springs Valley Electric Cooperative.

The Currys prospered in Arizona, growing cotton, corn, chile, wheat, barley, oats, alfalfa, melon and pumpkins. They herded cattle on horseback. They also raised two children, Ed and Helen, who still farm nearby.

Noel and Anna love living in rural Arizona. “It’s quiet and peaceful here,” Anna says. “We like the outdoors, the privacy and the great views.”

They wouldn’t like it so much without air conditioning—also made possible by an affordable source of electricity. They used a swamp cooler for many years, but coolers aren’t always effective when Arizona’s summer rains bring humidity.

“Before air conditioning, we used to sleep outside in hay wagons on summer nights,” Noel remembers.

Still, Noel and Anna enjoy the climate.

“There are very few days when we don’t see the sun, and very few days when we wear a coat,” Noel says. “We live in one of the best places in the world.”