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Lighting America's Farms in the 1930’s: The Legacy of Senator Norris

By The Norris Institute | August 9, 2023

In the 1930s, the modern promise of electricity was lighting up cities across America. But on the outskirts, in the sprawling farmlands, nights were still punctuated by the faint glow of candles and oil lamps. One of Nebraska’s finest statesman, U.S. Senator George W. Norris (1861-1944) saw the divide and envisioned a brighter future for rural America.

Having experienced the "grim drudgery" of farming life himself, Norris knew what it meant to labor in the dim glow of a lantern, battling the cold winds and muddy rains of winter. He believed that every American farmer should enjoy the benefits of cheap electricity, just like their urban counterparts.

This belief led to the creation of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) through an executive order by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936. With a significant $100 million of work relief funds allocated, the REA's mission was crystal clear: bring the gift of electricity to every agricultural corner of the nation.

In the US Senate, Norris became the champion of this cause, proposing a bill that would solidify the REA as a permanent agency. His vision was straightforward yet revolutionary: build transmission lines to deliver electricity directly to farms. To make this possible, he proposed that local farm organizations borrow from the federal government and repay the loans at an interest rate no higher than 3%.

However, electrifying rural America wasn't without its hurdles. Differences in the House of Representatives emerged, with some representatives proposing higher interest rates that could jeopardize the project's success. But Norris, with his unyielding spirit, navigated these challenges. After intense negotiations, a middle ground was reached, ensuring the benefits of electrification reached farmers without financial strain.

Still, hurdles persisted. Private power companies, viewing rural electrification as a potential threat, erected "spite lines"— meant to undermine the REA's goals by running lines through the middle of the proposed REA districts, cutting up the territory and leaving farmers unserved. These companies contended that the associated costs of rural electrification were too steep. Yet, Norris saw beyond these challenges, imagining a connected network that ensured every farmer had access to the power they needed.

By 1945, Norris's vision had developed into what he called a “wonderful success” and “one of the largest organizations of a governmental nature ever undertaken in the United States.” It was true: The REA had transformed the American countryside. Over a million farmers now had the means to light their homes, pump water, and more. The once-distant dream of accessible, affordable electricity was now a reality.

In 1942, Norris was honored with a plaque from the National Rural Electric Cooperative, a symbol of his unwavering commitment to progress. In his autobiography, Norris recalled of the event that, “[T]here were kind words for my ‘independence of partisan politics, the fight for political and economic freedom for all human beings, the suppression of monopoly and special privilege, and the quest for honesty, efficiency in government, and the elimination of racial and religious prejudices.”

Norris's vision transcended mere electrification—it was a passionate endeavor to bridge the chasm between urban and rural America. As Nebraska's farms began to glow under the warm embrace of light, it heralded a new era. An era where every home, be it in a vibrant city or a serene farm, stood as a beacon of progress and equity.

This article is based on the recollections of the late Senator Norris in his 1945 autobiography, "Fighting Liberal." This post was created for the Norris Institute, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit founded in 2006 in McCook, Nebraska to "promote and improve the social, cultural and economic strengths of rural communities located in the Great Plains." The Rural Electrification Administration poster image was retrieved online 8/10/2023 from the Library of Congress.

Written by Laurie Sinner of McCook. Edited and revised by Nathan Leach of Kearney with the assistance of OpenAI's ChatGPT.

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