The Decades-Long Struggle to Electrify Rural Hoosierdom

The Daily Banner, September 30, 1936, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

On Wednesday September 30, 1936, The Greencastle Daily Banner heralded the announcement that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt officially started his reelection campaign the day before. On the same page came news of another federal concern, the allocation of over $800,000 to projects of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). The news was an important victory for Indiana’s rural electrification projects, which had received a boost in the previous year.

IHB historical marker.

Indiana has a long history with electrical power. In March 1880, the Wabash County Courthouse installed electrically powered lamps, reportedly becoming the First Electrically Lighted City. By the late 1880s, companies were providing electrical services to Indianapolis proper. In 1887, Purdue University hired its first Head of the School of Applied Electricity, and the next year formally opened its School of Electrical Engineering. These engineers continued pursuing the development of better systems for electrical use during the era of Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla.

According to Hoosiers and the American Story (2014), in 1900 the creation of a massive electrically-powered interurban train system carried Hoosiers throughout the state, linking towns to Indianapolis and other areas with close to 400 trains running on a daily basis. In 1912, one of Edison’s former employees, Samuel Insull created the Interstate Public Service Company by combining the resources of several predecessors into a single Indianapolis-based company (the company would eventually come to be known as Duke Energy). By this time, the interurban system began to recede in light of the introduction of automobiles.

Around the same period, Purdue began doing outreach to rural communities through the Co-Operative Extension Service (Extension) first through state funding, and then as a part of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914. These programs were facilitated by County Extension Agents who served as journeymen experts, arranging workshops and showcases to spread agricultural, and eventually home-economics, lessons from techniques developed at Purdue. It took until the early 1920s, though, before research literature began to tackle the question of rural electrification.

Ad, South Bend News-Times, November 30, 1915, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

This is not to imply that efforts were not consistently underway to encourage electrical use. On the contrary, the Indiana & Michigan Electric Company hosted an Electrical Prosperity Week in November 1915; their advertisement on page four of the November 30, South Bend News-Times announced “You can spend a couple of hours most enjoyably—and very profitably—at the Electric Show, and it will cost you nothing.” Beyond the showcase, the next page announced a $10.00 prize for the best 200-word essay on the utility of electricity. The Swartz Electric Company ran a promotional train with examples of the modern conveniences provided by electricity, “under the auspices of Purdue University, with equipment suggested for modern farm homes.”

Ad, Indianapolis News, May 29, 1920, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Yet, with all this promotion, the vast distances and relatively low potential for return on investment limited most electrification to cities and larger towns. As late as 1925, one researcher noted this problem in “Electrifying the Farm and Home,” stating “in order to make a profit they [power companies] have charged the farmers so high a rate that it has kept them from using the service.” Indiana had begun to reach out to their rural communities, just not with power, yet.

Historian Audra J. Wolfe’s “‘How Not to Electrocute the Farmer:’ Assessing Attitudes Towards Electrification on American Farms, 1920–1940,” tracks the process and problems of making this rollout happen. Several early research reports document the hazards of incorporating electrical equipment, particularly generators and batteries, into farming homes, as Wolfe notes, “many women avoided them [substations and gas-powered electric appliances] as they had a tendency to explode.”

Muncie Post-Democrat, June 5, 1925, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

On June 5, 1925, The Muncie Post-Democrat carried news of an announcement by researchers at Purdue that they would be undertaking the experimental electrification of two farms, one in northern part of the state run by the Calumet Gas & Electric Company and one in the southern part of the state run by the Interstate Public Service Company. These experiments would include checking on the efficacy of implementing electrical components into crop, animal, and household farm operations, as well as to begin developing the resources necessary for statewide electrification. Starting in January 1927, the Daily Banner announced that Purdue would be sending out a “traveling school on wheels” via the interurban system to “demonstrate the employment of electricity” and included experts in agriculture as well as presentations by a home economist, “to attract the feminine eye.” In 1933, Extension published and distributed Leaflet No. 187, “Care and Operation of Electric Household Equipment.” In it, the author outlines some of the variety of electrical appliances and tools which were becoming available to rural homemakers, and notes that “More than 30,000 Indiana farms are now using electricity . . .” Certainly, the university believed that rural electrification was a matter of probability and time, not a question of possibility.

The Daily Banner, January 18,1927, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

More assistance was needed though for rural electrification to become a reality in the homes of Indiana farmers. Researchers continued to push and though it took some time, by the middle of the next decade, Hoosier lawmakers decided that the time had come to intervene. In 1935, Indiana became part of a growing number of states to enact legislation aimed at developing electrification capacity. According to statistics from the Indiana Law Journal, when Indiana passed its act allowing for the incorporation of rural electric membership corporations who could seek federal financing, almost 150,000 farm homes lacked the ability to access electric power.

The Daily Banner, August 6, 1935, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

On July 22, 1935, the Boone County Rural Electric Membership Corporation (REMC) became one of the first funded federal electric projects in the country, and the first in the state. On August 6, the Daily Banner announced the creation of the Indiana Statewide Rural Electric Membership Corporation. In January 1936, Boone County REMC ran its first 5 miles of power lines to the Clark Woody farm.

This legislation was given an important boost when in 1936, President Roosevelt established the REA and began allowing for distribution of public support dollars. In Indiana, the process of establishing REMCs and encouraging electrification fell to the Extension Service. Over the next four years, Extension Agents helped to form numerous REMCs across the state. In 1937, Extension began distributing Bulletin 215, “Selection, Operation, and Care of Electric Household Equipment,” an update to their 1933 publication which boasted “More than 35,000 Indiana farms are now using electricity . . .” This progress was not always consistent, but it was certainly effective. According to Dwight W. Hoover, between 1930 and 1940 electrified Hoosier farms went from 1-in-10 to 1-in-3. According to Teresa Baer, “By 1965, nearly all Hoosier farms had electricity.” Thus, it took nearly eight decades of sustained effort for most rural Hoosiers to gain access to one of the utilities that we so often take for granted today.

Suggested Reading:

D.L. Marlett and W.M. Strickler, “Rural Electrification Authorities and Electric Cooperatives: State Legislation Analyzed,” Journal of Land and Public Utility Economics, 12, no. 3 (Aug. 1936), pages 287–301).

Barbara Steinson, “Rural Life in Indiana, 1800–1950,” Indiana Magazine of History, XC (1964), pages 203–250.

Audra J. Wolfe, “ ‘How Not to Electrocute the Farmer:’ Assessing Attitudes Towards Electrification on American Farms, 1920–1940,” Agricultural History, 74, no. 2 (Spring 2000), pages 515–529.

Before Rosa Parks: Laura Fisher’s 1927 Fight Against “Jim Crowism”

Greyhound Bus, 1929, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society, W.H. Bass Photo Company Collection.

On November 19, 1927 Laura Fisher boarded a Greyhound Bus at a station in Richmond, Indiana. The African American passenger, destined for her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, felt ill and took a seat at the front of the bus where it was warmest. This infuriated the Cincinnati bus driver Glen Branoski, described in the newspapers as “of foreign descent,” who demanded Fisher sit in the back of the bus in the section he had designated as “negro.” After refusing to move, Branoski ejected Fisher from the bus. According to a November 29, 1927 article in the Richmond Item, Fisher re-entered the bus, which prompted Branoski to call police headquarters. The Richmond Palladium [originally the Palladium and Sun-Telegram] noted that he demanded that the police remove her, citing that “Jim Crow rule” was “provided by the [bus] company.” Even though Greyhound was headquartered in Duluth, Minnesota, the growing interstate bus line needed to be mindful of the regional laws regarding segregation.

Jim Crow laws “came to mean any state law passed in the South that established different rules for blacks and whites. Jim Crow laws were based on the theory of white supremacy and were a reaction to [Civil War] Reconstruction.” Historian Richard B. Pierce noted that Indiana “did not have as complete a system of Jim Crow” as southern states, although it “did have its own unique brand of discrimination.” In Fisher’s case, the police station cited that “state laws did not legalize such discrimination and the police department had no authority to help” Branoski enforce the bus line policy.

Palladium and Sun-Telegram (Richmond), November 21, 1927, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

The Richmond Item reported that following this refusal, Branoski ejected Fisher a second time “with such violence that she was painfully injured” and then he tore up her ticket. The paper noted, “A considerable crowd collected and trouble threatened for a time, Mrs. Fisher becoming almost hysterical from fright.” Had police officers not arrived in a timely manner, the newspaper predicted, there would likely have been a riot. This unlawful attempt to enforce of Jim Crow segregation led to Branoski’s arrest the day following the incident. An Item article reported that on November 21 he plead “not guilty” to assault and battery and was released on bond, ordered to report to city court the following Monday for trial.

“Local Conditions,” Indianapolis Recorder, September 18, 1926, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Several local newspapers noted that this “Jim Crow” trial was the first racial discrimination case Richmond had encountered in many years. However, Fisher’s experience typified increasing segregation in Indiana during the mid and late 1920s. According to Emma Lou Thornbrough’s Indiana Blacks in the Twentieth Century, in 1927 a wave of racial discrimination led to the authorization or opening of segregated Indiana schools, including Indianapolis’s Crispus Attucks High School, Gary’s Roosevelt School, and Evansville’s Lincoln School. Each of these were barred from membership in the Indiana High School Athletic Association, on the grounds that the schools were not “publicly open to all” (the rule also barred parochial schools from IHSAA membership by the same rationale).  The rule was in effect until 1942, and prohibited all-black squads from competing against white teams.

Segregation also extended to recreation, housing, and medical care. According to historian James Madison, nearly every facet of Hoosier life in the post-WWI era was segregated or exclusionary, including “theaters, public parks, cemeteries, restaurants, hotels, beaches, swimming pools, orphans’ homes, hospitals, newspaper society columns, the state militia . . .” A March 15, 1927 article in the Huntington Herald demonstrates the attitudes of those Hoosiers calling for segregation, alleging “the average negro, given an inch will take a mile” and therefore “it is the negro’s mode of living that has resulted in the passage of all Jim Crow laws.”

Accessed via Hoosier State Chronicles.

However, Madison noted that “Indiana blacks did not accept discrimination and segregation without protest,” evinced by Laura Fisher’s case. On November 28, Branoski reported for trial at the city court, where he gave no testimony and plead guilty to assault and battery (Richmond Palladium). He was fined $50, plus costs, and 20 days in county jail. The bus company, which fired Branoski but paid his fines, settled out of court with Fisher and paid her $500 to sign a “release from a damage action which had been threatened.” According to the November 29 Richmond Item article, Fisher took Branoski to court with the purpose of obtaining racial justice, rather than financial settlement. One of her lawyers stated that:

‘Negro residents of the community were not asking for the imposition of any severe penalty upon Branoski, merely a vindication of equal rights of Negro passengers with white passengers on public transportation conveyances. He several times asked Branoski’s jail sentence be reduced to 10 days.’

Greyhound Bus Station in Indianapolis, 1943, courtesy of loc.gov, accessed iupui.edu, Indiana Farm Security Photographs.

In announcing the verdict, Richmond police judge Fred Pickett stated that “The Indiana law on racial discrimination is clear. It does not tolerate discrimination” (Palladium, November 29). He added “Ignoring the fact that one of the principals in this case is a white man and the other a negro woman it must be viewed solely as an aggravated, unprovoked attack by a strong man upon a woman who was both weak and ill. She was both injured and humiliated.” Judge Pickett made his opinion clear, stating “I want it to be a matter of public record that this court regards an attack made by a man upon a woman a serious offense not to be lightly condoned.”

The Richmond Item, November 29, 1927, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Although his statements seem to emphasize injustice based on gender, rather than race, the Freeport Journal-Standard of Illinois noted “that Indiana does not recognize a ‘Jim Crow’ rule was emphasized by police judge, Fred Pickett.”

Muncie Evening Press, December 9, 1927, accessed Newspapers.com.

While research efforts to locate articles about the fates of Fisher or Branoski following the trial were unfruitful, the case was referenced in a similar bus incident occurring on November 23, just four days after Fisher’s ordeal. According to a December 17, 1927 article in the Indianapolis Recorder, prominent African American business woman Helen M. Dorsey filed suit against the Blue Goose Bus Line when a driver refused to let her board the bus. Unable to make it to a conference in Kentucky on time, she “arrived too late to take care of the matters.” She therefor sought $500 in damages, the amount offered to “a passenger, Mrs. Laura Fisher, at Richmond, Ind. a few weeks ago.” These 1927 cases highlighted Indiana’s increasing segregation and the daily battles African Americans waged-and sometimes won-to obtain equal privileges.

Check back February 16 to learn about Indianapolis Public Schools, residential segregation, and forced busing in the 1970s.