Electricity forever changed life on the farm

The prosperity of 1950s allowed farmers to look toward an easier life as electrical appliances became commonplace

SASKATOON — We take electricity for granted today. Our hands move to the switch to turn on the lights almost automatically when we enter a room.

But electricity wasn’t always taken for granted on our farms. In fact, in the 1930s, it was taken for granted that farms wouldn’t have it. The cost to install widespread power to prairie farms when farmers had limited finances seemed ridiculous.

Many farmers, too, were reluctant to pay for power, feeling that the labour-saving appliances were luxuries they couldn’t afford.

The prosperity of the 1950s allowed them to look toward an easier life as electrical appliances became commonplace.

Manitoba was the first prairie province to connect farms to power, almost completing its hook-up program to all of its 50,000 farms by 1955.

From 1949 to 1953, the Alberta government worked with farmers in co-operatives called Rural Electrification Associations (REAs) to bring power to farms.

Saskatchewan, the last province to deliver widespread power because of its geographic and economic elements, has the most colourful story of its rural electrification because of the personalities involved: Tommy Douglas and Father Matthew.

In 1948, before the passage of Saskatchewan’s Rural Electrification Act, Father Matthew Michel of St. Peter’s Colony was donning overalls to help bring power to farms in the Annaheim district.

His “self-help” pilot project played a key role in the expansion of service by the Saskatchewan Power Commission, renamed Saskatchewan Power Corp. in 1949.

In his travels as parish priest, Father Matthew grew concerned about the lack of power on farms in his district. Towns and cities in Saskatchewan took electricity for granted while farmers used lanterns to light their way at night. He organized a delegation to meet with officials of Sask Power in Regina. Impressed with Father Matthew’s idea chair H.F. Berry authorized him and his men to build Annaheim’s power line.

“I called a meeting of farmers between St. Gregor and Annaheim…,” recalled Father Matthew in a 1962 interview for National Archives. “Furthermore, I went to each home, 55 in total, for private discussions. Personally, I surveyed the whole area, with an assistant, down to the fraction of a foot. Many details had to be noted for accurate estimates of materials needed.”

Most of the work was done by farmers, hired by Father Matthew and paid 60 cents a day and covered by insurance.

“I was out there in my overalls day after day, every morning and in the evening, I recited my breviary, then attended to parish matters,” he said.

“There was no curling for me that winter. I hired Brockman’s snow-clearing outfit, but even he was unable to open some of the heavily drifted roads.”

He then had to ask for farmers’ teams and sleighs to drag the materials to the site, in the cold winter weather.

By Feb. 8, 1949, Annaheim had electricity and Father Matthew and his crew of about five Power Commission men and eight local men began the work of taking the lines to farms. He made an appointment with each farm the day before the crews arrived.

“Every farmer whom I’d called — they treated us to a banquet the best of hotels couldn’t compare with,” he recalled. “It was a relief — we worked so hard.”

The success of the pilot project in the Annaheim district led to more line construction projects in the Humboldt area, including farms around Muenster, Englefeld, Leroy, and Naicam.

Father Matthew’s role continued as principal organizer. He helped the local communities to draw up detailed maps; arranged prospective customer signups; appointed local help when needed; acted as the liaison between Sask Power and the farmers, keeping the farmers informed about corporation policies; saw to it that roads were open; and generally kept all moving smoothly.

As an expression of their gratitude, the people of Annaheim made donations to the parish treasury to help defray expenses of rewiring the church and rectory.

Then Premier Tommy Douglas and his Co-operative Commonwealth Federation government made an election promise: “40,000 farms electrified in four years.”

It meant an average of 7,000 farms would receive electricity each year. He wasted no time in pursuing his goal after winning the election in 1952.

The introduction of aerial surveys accelerated the process. Elements such as topography, potential problem areas and habitable dwellings were pinpointed. Promotional activities were implemented, such as rural electrification field days and a $50 discount for signing up in the initial program.

By the end of 1956, Douglas’s election promise had been achieved, right on time.

After that initial push, expansion slowed but remained static with about 1,000 farms electrified per year until 1966.

Through all of this, farmers were expected to take an active part. Sask Power’s annual report for 1955 explains: “They were urged to get together and form local committees to recruit individual farmers, prepare mappings of an area, assist in arranging easement right-of-way for transmission lines, and work in close co-operation with the utility in every phase.”

The farmers’ committees also assisted in the collection of initial contributions from farmers for power-line construction costs.

In her research for the Western Development Museum, Joan Champ sums up the change in the life of the farm family achieved by electricity:

“Wash day on a Saskatchewan farm: a tired mother hauls water in buckets from the yard well, stokes up the kitchen stove, and fills the wash boiler. She struggles with the family wash over a steaming wash tub and scrubbing board, or rhythmically pushes and pulls on the handle that turns the wooden sloshing paddle in the tub.

“Supper for a harvest crew. Cream to separate. Butter to churn. As night falls, there are coal oil lamps to clean and fill; wicks to trim.

“Baths for the whole family. More water hauled to fill the wash boiler on the stove. Stoking the fire to ‘lift the chill’ from the air. Tired beyond exhaustion, and so to bed.

“Fifty years ago, before the arrival of electricity, life on Saskatchewan farms offered few conveniences, comfort or leisure. With the inauguration of (rural electrification), all this changed. Gone was the isolation of the long, dark night, lit only by the bobbing lantern carried from chore to chore. With the flick of a switch, the central yard light lit up the farmstead; electric lights shone in the house, the barn and all other buildings. Radio, and later television, brought the outside world to the farm.

“Electric power in dairy barns enabled ventilation, livestock watering systems, milking machines, clippers, sprayers and other aids to cleanliness so important in milk production. In poultry farming, electricity provided automatic regulation of drinking water, the lighting of poultry houses in winter to increase egg production, feed crushing, and electric incubators and brooders.

“In short, rural electrification produced a revolution on farms — one that, before its arrival, few farm families had ever even dreamed of. It was not long before people could scarcely imagine having lived without the advantages of electric power — advantages that quickly became commonplace.”

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