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LIFE & LIGHT ON THE FARM: Electric power changed everything

0311
 2014


On a visit to the Dale farmhouse where he grew up, Royce Vickery brought along his mother’s old electric butter churn. The 70-year-old appliance saved hours of hand cranking.  (Sarah Beal photo)

By Ed Crowell

Along an “all weather” gravel road between Lockhart and Bastrop, a farmhouse built in 1937 still stands. Except for gray shingle siding and an enclosed front porch that came later, not much has changed the look of the house where Royce Vickery grew up.
 
He points to the electric meter mounted on the front right corner of the three-bedroom house his family sold in the 1970s. “That’s right where it was put when I was a boy. I had to get myself around a thorny pyracantha bush to read the thing,” 79-year-old Vickery said.
 
The meter was installed in 1939 by the brand new Lower Colorado River Electric Cooperative and it was a memorable event for a 5-year-old boy. The arrival of electricity eliminated many laborious chores and brought modern comforts to the family of nine that included Vickery’s two older brothers and four older sisters. 

(Courtesy Royce Vickery)In 1939, in front of the Vickery family home, from left are Royce Vickery’s mother Artie, holding her first grandchild Bobbie Loraine Pearson, Royce and his older brother Willis.  (Photo courtesy Royce Vickery)
 
“I remember watching the construction crews, 10 to 15 men, erecting the poles for the electric lines built along the road. Six-foot deep holes were dug by shovels that looked like a hand at the end of a 10-foot handle,” he said.
 
Each pole, some 30 feet long, was pushed up by many hands and guided into the hole until it was upright. He watched closely as the labor, without the benefit of machinery, consumed day after day beside the road.
 
A ripe tomato was a reward for one of the workers who strung the service wire to the Vickerys’ house over the family’s big tomato patch.
 
Another worker eyed Royce Vickery’s pet fox, which the boy led on a leash like a dog.
 
“One man gave me $2 for it and I got to go to Lockhart in a few days and buy me a new pair of shoes,” Vickery said.
 
That excitement paled compared to the day electric service finally was turned on. At that moment, Vickery and his brothers were off in a field on the 100-acre farm, baling hay by mule power.
 
The mule was harnessed so it would walk in a circle and provide the plunging motion for a stationary baler. The wooden contraption packed hay pitchforked into it and the boys would tie off the square bales.
 
“My brothers and I came from the field into the house toward the end of the day and the lights were on. We thought that was great!”
 
Now he and his siblings could do their homework in their bedrooms instead of all of them gathering around the kitchen table lit only by a kerosene lamp.    

(Sarah Beal photo)The Vickerys keep reminders of life before electricity in their home today: a kerosene lamp that had once been a source of light, and a kettle that was heated on a wood-burning stove. (Sarah Beal photo)
 
The Vickery family had farmed the land since 1855. Vickery’s parents, Bert and Artie, hired E.E. Anderwatha of Lockhart to wire the house with one overhead light in the middle of each room. “Most all had a pull string to turn the light off and on,” Vickery said.
 
The family was also the beneficiary of three wall outlets in the house. One in the kitchen was “for Momma to plug her expected new refrigerator into and on the opposite wall was another for an electric iron. The third plug was in the living room for an electric converter to run my daddy’s radio so he could listen to his favorite shows: ‘Lum ‘n’ Abner’ (a comedy about country storekeepers) and ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy.’ He previously had to use up batteries for his radio.”
 
Vickery said his mother definitely benefited from those first appliances: a refrigerator to replace the deliveries of ice blocks from Lockhart and an iron that didn’t need to be heated on the wood stove.
 
“About 1943, Daddy saw an ad in a farm magazine and ordered my momma an electric churn to replace her old crockery one with the wooden dasher that you lifted up and down until butter was made.  Momma always said that was one of the best inventions ever made.”
 
Vickery’s mother died in 1983, but he still has the churn, a big glass jug topped by a fist-sized Dayton Electric Manufacturing Co. motor. Despite the churn’s frayed, fabric covered wire, Vickery recently plugged it in and was pleased to see it works, 70 years later.
 
Now living with his wife Rudine a couple of miles west of the old farmhouse, Vickery is still a Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative member. He retired from work as an oil and gas well inspector for the Texas Railroad Commission after a 33-year career. He was familiar with wells from an early age. His father had dug slush pits for wells for a time, leasing a piece of the family’s farmland for drilling when the oil business boomed in the area.
 
Cattle, horses and cotton, as well as vegetable crops sold to local stores, kept the family busy before and after electricity came to the farm. 
 
The Vickerys were luckier than many other rural families throughout Central Texas because they got electric power before World War II. Once the U.S. entered the war in 1941, line construction materials and workers were redirected to the war effort. Most new electrical hookups by the LCREC and other rural cooperatives stopped.
 
“About 1946, after the war, Daddy got an electric stove for my mother to replace our wood-burning one. That stopped my wood cutting and filling the wood box every night before I went to bed,” Vickery recalled of one of his least favorite chores.
 
He has fond memories of his mother’s biscuits baked fresh most mornings, but the first batch from the new electric stove came out burned. “It cooked them too fast,” he said. “Momma was used to the long time it took for the wood stove to heat up.”
 
After Vickery’s brother Willis joined the Air Force in the late 1940s and was getting a paycheck, he bought their mother a toaster for Christmas. “Daddy and I agreed that was the biggest mistake (that) ever was because that eliminated Momma cooking biscuits for breakfast. Of course, she thought that toaster was great,” Vickery said.
 
An electric well pump for indoor plumbing and a bathroom came next for the family. Then an electric water heater. “Imagine how hot it was in the kitchen before that, with my mother heating water for bathing on our wood stove,” Vickery said.
 
His mother and father learned more about the uses of electricity after they visited the county agriculture agent and home demonstrator’s office in Luling around 1940. They were told there how to best keep meat fresh in a refrigerator and other practices.
 
Vickery’s father, who died in 1955, never took advantage of the latest technology for the farm. “That was a booger for me. Daddy never did get modern.” The family did eventually get a hand-cranked, gasoline-powered tractor. No electric fans cooled the house until the 1950s. Vickery said his parents never installed AC units. His mother and brother lived there up until the time the house was sold in 1973. Today, window-mounted air-conditioners cool the house for its current residents.
 
The first television was Vickery’s own, purchased in 1963 or ’64 after he married and was living in San Antonio. Before that, in the early 1950s, he would drive to the house of a neighbor who had a TV and they would watch Wednesday night wrestling matches.
 
Work in and around the barn in the dawn and dusk hours improved after the war when a power line was extended to the barn. Kerosene lamps no longer had to be carried there each day. Electric clocks helped them keep track of farm chores.
 
The biggest change, he said, was an electric pump for the water well on the farm. Before electricity arrived, water was pumped with the help of an automobile. One of the rear wheels was removed and belts and pulleys were used to pump the water into a 250-gallon elevated metal tank. From the tank, a gravity flow pipe took water to the house.
 
Vickery laughed as he recalled how electricity made for better fishing in a tank near the barn. 
 
“The electric line to the barn ran over our tank, so we put a lightbulb there that we could lower with a string to about a foot above the water. When the bugs came out in the summer and were attracted to the light, that’s where the catfish fed. We fished good at that spot.”
 
Today, Vickery occasionally passes by his old farmhouse on the paved, well-traveled FM 20 from Lockhart to Bastrop. The memories flood back.
 
Living was hard for Central Texas farm families who could not afford to buy many of the appliances and agricultural equipment available in those early days of power, he said. “But, still, that electricity was something else.”
 

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