Lights on the Farm
An excerpt from Lights Across the Countryside
The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) achieved nothing less than to bring this vast swath of the upper South into the modern age.
In 1933, 90 percent of the area lacked electricity. Farmers preserved food in cellars and iceboxes. They heated water on wood-burning stoves and lit their homes at night with smoky kerosene lanterns. But by 1945, three-quarters of the area had electrical service, and by the early 1950s, electrification was nearly universal. At the same time, the TVA's affordable power forced private providers to quickly drop their rates as well, making "the old fear of the electric meter . . . disappear," as Harper's magazine gleefully reported.
With the help of TVA loan programs, rural people were able to equip their homes with hot-water heaters and refrigerators. Better sanitation brought improvements in public health, including declines in infant mortality and hookworm infections. The TVA dams, meanwhile, not only stopped floods and controlled soil erosion, but also helped to eliminate the mosquito-borne scourge of malaria with its fevers and convulsions.
The dams and other improvements also controlled the flow of the Tennessee River itself, making it navigable for the first time. Freight traffic on the river increased from twenty-two million tons in 1933 to almost one hundred million tons in 1941. The TVA relocated 13,449 farm families (65 percent of them tenant farmers) from hardscrabble lands where they could scarcely hope to make a living to more fertile territory. Its job training, education, and community-development programs, as well as the wages it paid to workers and the union it promoted, all played key roles in revitalizing a regional economy that had experienced nothing but decline since the Civil War.
Yet the TVA did more than transform the Tennessee River Valley. It inspired other landmark New Deal initiatives, such as the Rural Electrification Administration which provided seed loans to establish the nonprofit rural electric cooperatives that built local distribution systems and, even today, deliver dependable electricity to much of rural America. The TVA also served as a model for electrification projects in Colombia, Mexico, and India.
Photo: Shopping for a refrigerator, 1936 or 1937. The Tennessee Valley Authority's Electric Home and Farm Authority gave loans to residents to buy hot-water heaters, stoves, refrigerators, and radios, helping rural families attain a modern standard of living. LOC