Ernest J. Dyck doesn’t have to think twice about how electricity changed life on the farm.
Electric lights inside the house were the first change: no more fumbling in the dark for matches and filling or cleaning oil lamps.
“It was so easy to get used to. You could just flip a switch. Before, you had to fumble around on the shelf for the matches,” said Dyck, who never got power on the farm until the 1960s.
The family had moved from southern Saskatchewan to the LaCrete area of northern Alberta, and the isolated farming area was one of the last areas to get power.
Electricity on the farm put rural families on an equal footing with those in town, said Herman Schwenk, former president of the Alberta Federation of Rural Electrification Associations.
“Power really did allow farmers to have the same amenities as people in town. They had running water and lights that turned on with a switch,” said Schwenk.
Schwenk’s family farm had a small 32-volt electric plant and a wind charger, but having power come to the farm on high wires was a positive change.
“Before we had to pump water by hand for cattle. Now there was an electric motor to drive the pump. Power got rid of an awful lot of hand work.”
Electricity also eliminated the worry about fire in houses and barns. Early morning milking required a lamp in the barn that could easily be knocked over.
“You had to be very careful,” said Schwenk.
A welder was the first electric machine bought for the Dyck farm.
“It became a very important tool on the farm and we used it a lot.”
Before the farm got electricity and its own welder, Dyck would take apart the equipment and drive to town in search of someone who could weld it back together.
“Electric welders weren’t the best welder but you could put things back together and make it work,” said Dyck, who soon added bench grinders, drills and saws to the list of handy electric tools that made life easier.
“Before the skill saw, we just had a hand saw. Now you could cut a two by six with hardly any effort.”
It didn’t take long before electricity was taken for granted. When the power went out once in his house, Dyck headed out to the shop to weld, but that didn’t work. Next he went to the grinder, but that wouldn’t work either.
“That was when I realized how a person gets used to it so easily.”
Along with the electricity came a monthly bill that was sometimes hard to pay, said Dyck.
“There were times when I didn’t always have the cash to pay the bill. That was the reality of the convenience of having power,” said Dyck, who believes the benefits of electricity outweigh the problems.
Electricity meant farmers were no longer tied to the farm 24 hours a day worrying about barns and houses freezing.
“It’s easy to go on vacation when you have all these conveniences.”
Walter and Myrtle McNary got power on their farm near Bittern Lake, Alta., in 1952. After lights in the house, one of the first changes was switching the milking machine from gasoline to electricity.
The motor on their cream separator did double duty, also running the electric washing machine on wash days.
One of the biggest treats for the family was an electric dryer. Walter had worked in North Dakota one winter and came back to Alberta raving about a machine in which clothes were put in wet and came out dry.
“I saw them on a farm and thought it was magic,” he said.
With a house full of small children in diapers, the dryer was a lifesaver.
“We lived in an old shack, but we had a clothes dryer,” said Myrtle.
In the introduction of the book Country Power: The Electrical Revolution in Rural Alberta, Schwenk wrote: “Electricity broke the dawn-to-dusk shackles of the farm work cycle.”
In the book, a member of the Hays Rural Electrification Association (REA) wrote: “Just think, no more going to bed with the chickens, or using kerosene lamps, gas lamps or even candles.”
Only five percent of Alberta farmers had electricity of any kind in 1941, including gas, wind or electric pumps. The Alberta government wasn’t prepared to spend big money to bring power to the country, and the large power companies said they couldn’t afford to do it.
In 1952, the Alberta government introduced legislation to help small REAs form, and together farmers brought power to their area. Within 10 years, more than 90 percent of Alberta farms were electrified.
Schwenk said it cost farmers in his Coronation REA $1,250 each to bring power to their farms.
In Manitoba, only 500 farms had power in 1945, but the government paid all costs to build lines to farmyards.
In 1947, the Saskatchewan government bought three privately owned utility companies and began bringing power to farms.
THEN: Push button farming
Electricity reduces farm drudgery, saves your time, makes life easier.
Electricity can pump your water, milk your cows, wash and iron your clothes, clean your house, add dollars to your income.
Find out how to electrify your farm. The manager of your local Commerce branch can help you. More than to any other source, Canadian farmers turn to The Canadian Bank of Commerce for loans to mechanize equipment, improve their lands and buildings and modernize their homes.