Looking at farm electricity in a different light

Thursday, September 20, 2012
Norm Barker, a long-time Plymouth County farmer, explains that early-day power generators, such as this Delco-Light Electricity Plant used on his family farm and now displayed at the Plymouth County Historical Museum, in Le Mars, were once the source of added ease and comfort to farm families.(Sentinel photo by Jolene Stevens, Contributing writer)

Today's media is abuzz about renewable or alternative energy, including wind energy.

This is especially true in light of delay in congressional action to continue a 2.2-cent wind energy credit and the resulting loss of jobs.

It has been estimated that in Iowa alone upwards to 7,000 jobs related to wind energy could be affected if the credits are eliminated.

The DELCO battery system, available as "a complete power system for flameless lighting," and similar systems such as that provided by Wincharger, in Sioux City, were the power lines of yesteryear for rural families across the nation. This poster is displayed at the Plymouth County Historical Museum. (Sentinel photo by Jolene Stevens, Contributing writer)

Many of those embattled in the alternative energy conflicts of today -- whether within the wind energy industry or on the sidelines -- are unlikely to recall the earlier innovation necessary to bring fossil fuel-generated electrical energy to many rural areas across the country.

A part of this history can be found in the Plymouth County Historical Museum, Le Mars, and among memories of a long-time Plymouth County farmer.

Norm Barker, standing near a small generator in the museum's farm exhibit area, pointed to a news advertisement on the wall.

Norm and Ruth Barker, of Le Mars. (Sentinel photo by Jolene Stevens, Contributing writer)

"Delco-Light, Electricity for Anyone Anywhere," it announced.

The Delco-Light Electricity Plant prices started at $250 for a 16-volt, 300 watt generator, according to the ad.

He recalled the gasoline powered-unit that had been in the home of his parents, the same farmhouse that would be home for him and his wife Ruth prior to their move to Le Mars in 1987.

In 1916, the Domestic Engineering Company introduced a battery system that would introduce electricity to farm homes "with all the modern conveniences" of those in cities -- the Delco-Light Electric Plant.

Historical references on the Internet credit the Domestic Engineering Company founder, the late Charles F. Kettering, an Ohio native, with "inventive genius and immense humanity."

The Delco system, described as a "complete electrical power system for flameless lighting," would provide power for running water and "convenient labor-savings equipment and appliances" on the rural farmsteads across the country.

Later, in 1927, John and Gerhard Albers would also begin experimenting with wind-driven "Wincharger" generators at their Albers Propeller Company in Cherokee.

With Cecil Parris and Ernest Arndt, the Albers brothers began their manufacture of the generating units in their Sioux City plant, the Wincharger Corporation.

It, too, was to become nationally known for providing readily available electricity on the farm.

Barker pointed to the generator at the museum.

"This Delco generator was available when my father, the late William Edward Barker, built our family's home in 1923. It was a 32-volt system that took 16 batteries each with two volts charged by the gasoline-operated generator," he recalled.

Not only did it ease the load for his mother on wash day, but the unit also made it possible for replacement of the family's old ice box with a refrigerator.

"You depended on the generator whenever there was a higher than usual demand for electricity. It was used principally for lighting our home and some outbuildings when there wasn't enough energy to run water pumps," Barker said.

Up until this time, the available home generator batteries had provided enough current to only allow the lighting of a few light bulbs in the family's home in the morning and evening or when his mother was washing or ironing.

The farm windmill served as the energy source, but only when the wind was blowing, Barker added.

Electrical power lines were later strung by private companies between Le Mars and Struble with some of the energy generated in Le Mars, Barker said.

"If you were fortunate enough to live on a road with a line at that time, in the late 1920s, you had a new electrical option provided permission was given by the property owner to place the necessary poles at the farm site," he explained.

The advent of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) in 1935 would add a new chapter to facilitating electricity to farm areas. However, it contributed the subsequent demise of companies such as Wincharger.

The later 1930s and early 1940s signaled the increase in the REA's electrical supply.

Barker recalled that in 1946, REA power first began flowing into his family's farm.

The impact of new power lines spread throughout rural Plymouth County.

Local dairymen were possibly the first to benefit with the availability of electricity to eliminate the hand-milking of cows in their dairy barns, Barker said.

For others like himself and his father, the new electricity allowed for the capability of using light bulbs to warm newly-farrowed baby pigs and the opportunity for additional farrowing in colder weather.

The electricity would also be a means of providing water to livestock.

Barker said prior to this time farm cisterns were used to store water for livestock.

This meant water was pumped from the cistern to livestock tanks and other needed areas by windmill-powered energy.

This method still exists today in areas such as the Nebraska Sandhills, he said.

Barker's farm history casts a light on how things used to be for local farming and today's progress, coming years later, fostered by innovation of today's farmers and their partners in the related agri-business industries.