Don Sanderson: A Non-Electric Future, A Non-Electric Past


The recent article by Sharon Astyk on life without electricity brought back memories. Until I was nearly in high school, each home in which I had lived was without electricity. This was during the later depression and WWII. My first school house had maybe twenty students. It was lighted by the windows and kerosene lamps and heated by a pot belly stove. It had outside two holer toilets and a water pump. The desks were wrought iron and wood heavily carved with names, initials, and comments, two students per with ink wells. This was in Iowa where winters could be very cold. I walked a couple miles to school, much of it over a dirt road that in the spring turned to a deep sticky mud over which no car could drive. Along the way, I passed a simple old house where John L. Lewis had been born, the one attraction of the area.

Our home, in fact the entire farm, had three modern conveniences in addition to the lamps, a kerosene space heater, a washing machine powered by a two-cycle Maytag kerosene motor, and a battery powered radio. One December 7, 1941, I was home with the measles and heard Roosevelt’s announcement about the Pearl Harbor bombing. We had a pickup, but Dad still farmed with horses. My folks had very little money and mostly traded, as they called it, eggs and cream for the few groceries they needed at a tiny country store. Times were poor, but was there hardship? I was never hungry or needed to be cold, never felt deprived, maybe because no one was constantly harping that I was.

The next year, we moved to what was thought of as my great grandparents’ home place. The house was much bigger – they had had a large family. My folks brought their modern conveniences along, but the world before those were invented was pretty evident. The house had been constructed in the mid-eighteen eighties. Big fireplaces, now blocked, were scattered about fueled in earlier times without chainsaws. In the winter we mostly lived and slept in one room clustered around the space heater, because the rest of the house was so cold. The wood-fired kitchen stove would warm up the kitchen for awhile each day.

On the hill above the house, a well had been dug from which water was pumped by an old-fashioned windmill into a cistern. A pipe led from the cistern into the kitchen, so Mom had running water of a sort, one faucet. Most farms could only dream of that luxury. Baths were Saturday night affairs in a tin tub in front of the wood stove on which a kettle of hot water perked, except in the Summer when we sprayed off outside. The toilets were still a ways outside, which was always a bother in cold and wet times.

East of the house was an icehouse with thick straw-filled walls. In earlier times, Grandmother told us, the men would cut ice from an oxbow pond lying below the hill and haul it to be stacked there with layers of hay between. My parents were more modern, They had an icebox cooled by blocks of ice they purchased in town, thanks to an electrically powered water freezing facility. What fun to ride home seated on the ice on a hot day.

The farm buildings were remains of earlier times. A big horse barn with a dozen stalls or so and a vast old hay barn built with big beams tied together with mortise and tendons dominated. The basement of the hay barn had been used for milk cows and to shelter beef cattle. A team of horses with hay rack could be driven onto the first floor and hay then lifted to a second. There were many other smaller buildings scattered about, mostly no longer used. I had the run of all those “ancient ruins” and the surrounding several hundred acre farm, big hilly wooded pastures, and a creek. My wilds. Hardship? I still look back on those days as the best of times.

I never knew my great grandparents. He died before I was born and she was senile by my early teens. There were lots of tales told by their children of the old times when they were raising their family and before. There were indefinite stories about his parents coming from the Isle of Jersey off the French coast with a stopover on the Gaspè peninsula, which definitely wasn’t Jersey. I was to learn very little more than dates on gravestones until I began to research my ancestry in the past few years. Great, great grandparents Elias and Jane were born in the late eighteen thirties and moved with his parents to the Gaspè in the late eighteen fifties – he went first and then returned to Jersey to marry and fetch her.

In 1869, the railroad came through southern Iowa and opened up the area for settlement – the railroads needed the business. In the following year, three sets of my great, great grandparents moved to farms in not too distant areas. Elias and Jane brought his parents. His father, who had been a blacksmith and who was in his sixties, died not long after arrival. When we moved to their home place, I appropriated as my own an old shack to the south of the big house and connected to it with a series of increasing larger buildings. I now realize that that shack had been their homestead house likely build sometime in the eighteen seventies. It had two floors with a single room on each with quite low ceilings. My great, great grandparents had two sons, raised a niece, and provided a home for his mother well into the eighteen eighties beginning in that which had become a shack.

I had thought my great, grandfather had been an expert woodworker and carpenter and had build the farm and a house in which I subsequently lived. But, other information came to light and that didn’t fit. He simply was too young, in his very early twenties, to have done so. As surely as he built that shack, Elias also constructed the big house and farm buildings. He was evidently quite skilled, maybe from apprenticing as a boat carpenter on Jersey, which was a boat building center for fishermen headed toward the north banks. One of the buildings was his workroom with the remains of a lathe and a blacksmith’s forge where he may have constructed his tools. He was doing all this building for his family and for others as well as running a large farm with apparently little family help. In addition, he and his mason brother-in-law ran a brick kiln. Jane’s duties likely required as much skill and surely included a large garden and preservation of the harvest on a wood stove and constructing, washing, and maintain clothing. Guess how she did the washing? No electricity anywhere. No motors or kerosene until decades later. Do you think they didn’t live well? Surprising to me, their library, some of which I inherited, had been pretty sophisticated.

Elias built those large complex buildings and cultivated a large farm without any electricity or petroleum-fuel machines. Every board was hand sawn and planed, every ear of corn picked by hand. Not until late in his life did horse drawn farm machines such as McCormick’s binder became available. Until that time the hand scythe and rake were used to harvest grain and hay. Jane’s situation was the same. Washing and sewing machines, ice cabinets, and canning jars were decades in the future. The horses were valuable in drawing buggies, wagons, and plows, but hand work was the rule in almost all things. There was surely a general store a few miles away at the railhead; I don’t know the details, but I remember my Dad’s uncles’ village store from the thirties, with all merchandise behind the counter on high shelves and with no groceries. Anyhow, going to town was a production. Fresh meat was available at time of butchering. Otherwise, unless one had an icehouse, which most didn’t, meat was preserved by salting. Yet, their buildings were masterpieces of craftsmanship, which I assume was true of the remainder of their lives. Somehow they appear to me to have been more elegant, more skillful, more real. I find our lives are so shabby compared with theirs. Not all the wires laying everywhere, not all the specialized contraptions to do this and that usually poorly, not all the shopping, shopping, shopping. Of course, they worked and worked hard physically, but what is wrong with that. Instead, we go to the club and attach ourselves to machines, which seems so much less elegant.

I have clues from my own life as to how their lives were. Until I was nearly in my teens, we had no electricity. Dad farmed with horses until the end of WWII. I was regularly hand milking several cows by the time I was ten or eleven as well as performing other chores such as feeding the pigs and tossing hay down to the cows, all after returning home from school – that was my homework. The barns needed to be cleaned on the weekends. In the summer, I worked in the fields. I remember stacking grain shocks and carrying water to harvesters when I was eight or so. Later, I worked long days cultivating corn and loading baled hay among other tasks. Farming then was a seven day job working as many hours as necessary to get things done. But, it was always a team affair; there were no bosses and no commuting; we were working for ourselves. I assume this was the way it had been seventy and more years before in Elias’ and Jane’s time. Elias died an old man 28 years before I was born and Jane several years earlier, so I never go to ask them about their lives, which I much regret.

Somehow, there was always a rhythm to that old farm labor. There was much repetition, yet only approximately. For instance, in cleaning horses stalls, every forking action is much the same as any other, and yet each is different. If one is aware of the moment, somehow it never gets boring. As an example, I think of walking on a somewhat untended trail for several miles. If I look ahead, it seems impossible that I shall ever finish taking one tiny step at a time. But, by being with each unique step, the miles melt. So I found farm work and still find gardening. Work just gets done and done well without the overhead of thinking one is working. It just happens. And, life is so satisfying when you have finished; no matter how tired physically, you are rested mentally. The food was always plentiful and flavorful. In those times, distractions were few and not wanted or needed. I suspect that those Chicano laborers who work so hard in the fields may feel this, but I don’t think most of you working in offices and stores and under the constant oversight of bosses have such rewards. I didn’t when I was in those situations. How many of you think of your jobs as crafts of which you feed good of doing well?

Yes, of course, without electricity and petroleum, all those electrical and mechanical toys go away. In contrast to those ancient ways, our modern, labor-saving conveniences seem tacky, Bauhaus utilitarian. For instance, plugging those fascinating and so-warm fireplaces and replacing them with kerosene stoves and stove pipes seems to have been thoughtless acts. Humankind lived quite well for, what, at least 200,00 years and some think 2 ½ million years without them. The lives Elias and Jane lived for much of their life was little different than others so blessed had lived for a thousand years before. Electricity and petroleum disappearing? What will we do? Actually, with a little thought, we will do quite well.