Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Life Before Electricity

Noted ghost storyteller Roberta Simpson Brown recalls what it was like growing up without electricity.
As a child growing up in the country I had no problems with road conditions, school closings, food supplies, home activities, or entertainment. We lived on a dirt road about a mile off the main highway. If we needed something from the nearest  store that we could not carry, Dad hitched our mule or horse to the wagon in the summer or sled in the winter.
Our sled was handmade of wood with runners carved from small crooked trees. Most of the traveling was done by foot, by wagon, or occasionally by horseback. Few farm families had cars and for those that did during World War II gasoline was rationed and was only used for travel in dire emergencies.
In the winter we did not have school closings because of the weather. We used "shanks mare" transportation, which meant we walked in all kinds of weather and didn't think a thing of it. Our one room school had a wood stove for heat and light came in from outdoors through large windows so we could see to do our work.
We always had plenty to eat as we grew most of our own food during the summer month and preserved it for winter meals. Before our root cellar was dug, we buried beds of turnips, carrots, and potatoes for winter consumption. The orchard provided, apples, cherries, pears, and peaches, while our supply of nuts came from the wooded areas around us.
My mother kept chickens, so we had lots of eggs for breakfast and chickens to fry for Sunday dinner. My father raised hogs for hams, side-meat (bacon), sausage, and other cuts of the sweet meat. It was smoked in the smoke house for later usage.
Our cow provided us with milk, cream, and butter. Summer month were the hardest times to keep our food from spoiling. My father made a spring box that kept the milk and butter cool in its fresh, running water. We also had several hives of bees that provided us with honey for eating with butter on hot biscuits and for the homemade desserts Mom created. She used both the fireplace and the iron kitchen range to fix our meals.
After supper, we did our homework, read, or wrote by kerosene lamps. We often gathered around the fireplace or wood stove to share stories if neighbors or relatives came by. It was fun to talk and listen. Sometimes we played music and sang. We had a battery-operated radio, but we had to select favorite shows. If we used the radio too much the battery ran down. Hand cranked record players were called victrolas.
Air conditioning was unheard of, so much of our time was spent outdoors. By bedtime the house would cool off enough for us to sleep inside. You can still see many old farmhouses that had open or screened second story porches for sleeping.
My mother used a washboard, hung the clothes outside to dry, and ironed them with a flatiron heated on the kitchen range. In the summer iron kettles of water were heated over open fires for doing the laundry. The last load was usually the children so their mothers didn't have to carry extra water from the spring for baths. It wasn't unusual to see women using a board across the backs of two chairs and ironing outdoors. This was also true for those who had a second wood kitchen range to do their canning in the cool shade of the trees.
We've come a long way from those days and ways of thinking. Now we take electricity for granted. We walk into our homes, flip a switch, and expect a light to come on. We press a button on a remote control and expect to operate a TV or DVD player. We are comfortable with our refrigerator, microwave, washer and dryer humming along.
Then a storm takes down the power lines. Without a time machine to transport us, we suddenly find ourselves back in time. All the conveniences that we have grown accustomed to can be snatched away in a moment, leaving us fairly helpless unless we have a store of self-reliance to see us through the rough times of life without electricity.

Roberta Simpson Brown, grew up in Russell County, KY during World War II before electricity was brought to their rural farm. She graduated from Russell County High School in 1958, Berea College, and taught English in the Louisville, KY Public School System until her retirement. She and her husband have been publishing and telling ghost stories for nearly forty years. Their next collection is Holiday Hauntings: Twelve Months of Kentucky Ghosts which will be published by the University of Kentucky Press.

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