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News :: Life before electricity: County native recalls the day the REC changed her life
· 9:53am March 5th, 2012
Lula Perkov still owns the wood-burning oven her mother used for baking pies and cakes a century ago. Lula still remembers well her mom taught her to keep that stove at an even temperature by increasing or decreasing the number of corn cobs in the fire.
Those are the kind of things women learned before electricity came along. Lula learned a lot of those lessons as a young girl during the first years of her life in a home that did not yet have electricity.
Lula's parents, Roland and Genevieve Osborne, lived west of Walker in the area known as Spencer's Grove. Roland was one of the leaders of the effort to get rural electricity. But not all of their neighbors agreed.
"I don’t know why some people opposed it," said Lula. "Maybe they were just against change."
Later, when the Osbornes had electricity and some of their friends did not, Lula's parents made sure to teach her not to ask about the unusually-shaped gas and kerosene lanterns in her friends' homes.
"I still remember this all quite well," says Lula. "I was born in 1935, so it was about 1938, maybe 1939. I was 3 years old, maybe 4, at the time. I still remember a little dress that I wore then. I still have that dress."
Lula remembers the men who came to her house, and how that when they punched out the metal circles of the fuse boxes that they gave them to her.
"They tried to tell me those circles were nickels, but I knew better," recalls Lula. She remembers watching the men installing the electrical boxes and lines, and talking to them while they worked.
"I remember them asking my mom if ever shut up, but they told her she liked hearing me talk," she remembers. "I was always underneath their elbows. I don't know how they got anything done."
Lula recalls watching (and talking to) the workers as they installed outlets and ceiling lights in each room of the house.
"They did a good job," she said.
Life before electricity
Many rural families like the Osbornes only knew life without electricity until the 1930s. Lula remembers a wind-powered pump that drew water from the well to fill a cistern, and many trips outside to flip the lever that activated that pump.
"That pump had a sound of its own," she recalls. "It was over the hill, near the chicken house. When wind was good, you turned a handle to take off the brake, and it pumped water into a reservoir."
She also watched as her parents used hand-powered tools to make ice cream or separate cream from the milk from the cows on the family farm.
"My mother helped him with the chores," recalls Lula. "In their early married years she said she helped him so he could have more time in the house with her."
Lula also remembers the thin metal milk coolers placed in the basement, where the metal conducted the cool temperatures to keep the milk cool.
"You didn’t want to drink warm milk," Lula recalls, adding that the advent of electricity and refrigerators led to improvements in the dental health of the mothers; they drank more milk when there were better ways to keep it cold.
Lula vividly recalls seeing her father walking to the house, carrying two pails of milk as well as a brakeman's lantern, marveling at how he could carry all of that without spilling the milk, or tipping the lantern so much the kerosene spilled out.
She recalls how her mother could pour milk from one of those pails into a thin-necked glass milk bottle without spilling a drop.
"My mother was good at everything she did," Lula recalls.
Adjusting to electricity
While they welcomed the convenience and the improvements to daily life that electricity brought, some of the housewives were reluctant to give up the technology they had used all of their lives
"Getting the electric oven was my dad's idea," recalls Lula. Genevieve was content cooking with wood. She could tell if the oven was hot enough by opening the door and putting her hand inside to evaluate the temperature. Lula says she can still do that, and tell within 25 degrees how hot the oven is. Being so confident with a wood stove made some women reluctant to trust the thermostat of the first electric ovens.
Lula still owns that blue enamel stove. It's in the basement of the home where she grew up.
"It was hard to cook on. didn’t get hot fast enough," she recalls. "It had 4 burners, and on the left side, a compartment to put in the corn cobs. You had to light with a match. While the oven did have a dial on the outside to help control the temperature, the women always checked with their hand to see how hot it was.
"If it got too hot, you would take out some corn cobs," Lula says. "Sometimes you put some more back into the fire."
Sometimes, she said, her mom would throw scraps of paper into the reservoir to add to the fire.
Even now, she says, she is amazed at how well her mother's cakes and pies turned out, using that rudimentary system of temperature control. She also remembers the cozy feeling of seeing her mother cook roast and potatoes in a cast iron skillet on the stove as she waited for her father to come in from doing chores.
"And her mulberry pies were wonderful," she adds.
Lula also had an aunt, a very religious woman, who made applejack (an alcoholic drink made from apples).
"She said it was for one of our neighbors," Lula says, with a laugh.
Also, it took some people a while to get used to how electric refrigerators are different from the old ice boxes.
Some women, said Lula, were convinced that they could not put something that was warm into a refrigerator, without cooling it first.
"They thought it would spoil, like it would have in an icebox," she recalls.
Washing clothes also became easier.
"Mother no longer had to wash on the board. It had not been fun to wash diapers on the board," she said.
Love of Aladdin lamps
Among Lula's favorite memories of the days without electricity are those involving the kerosene-fueled Aladdin lamps.
As a child, Lula loved the days when the electricity went out (a more common occurrence in the early days of electricity). That meant more time to enjoy the Aladdin lamps.
"My mom always made sure we had kerosene for those lamps," Lula recalls.
Genevieve would hang a lamp high in a broom closet (so the girls wouldn't knock it over), recalls Lula.
"My sister would tell me scary stories as we sat in the flickering light from the lamp," she says. "I still have a fondness for those old Aladdin lamps. I have collected quite a few of them."
"You can still buy them from the Amish," she said, adding that she loves how brightly they burn. She has a friend who shares her love of those gas lamps, and how the light seems to fill every corner of a room.
New ways, and many firsts
Lula recalls the excitement with which her mother picked out her very first electric light fixture.
"It was translucent, like a reflector, rose-colored and ribbed," says Lula, recalling how her mom was always cleaning that fixture, and how she was always asked to help.
The family's first refrigerator was a Crosley with a very small freezer compartment.
"It had a little shelf that would hold maybe two ice cube trays," Lula recalls.
The family's first radio was a curved-top Philco, approximately three feet high with four buttons.
"I kind of looked like a juke box," says Lula. "I still remember my father sitting there, listening to the news."
Telling the stories
Lula became a school teacher in Iowa and California, teaching foods and history classes. She taught in
Like many teachers, Lula loved to tell stories about her childhood, especially about living before electricity. While the students seemed uninterested at the time, many of them, years later, told Lula that they still remembered those stories.
Monday, she recalls, was wash day. She would wake up to the sound of the washing machine.
"One Tuesday, you ironed," she recalls. "Thursday was a free day, but on Friday and Saturday, you started on dusting because someone might come on Sunday.
Genevieve also made sure to hang the laundry on a clothesline so others could see how hard she worked, recalls Lula. However, the blackbirds seemed at times to make a target of the freshly-cleaned clothes, she adds.
Running water and indoor toilet facilities also became possible only after electricity came to their house, recalls Lula.
First phone service
The Osbornes were also among the rural residents petitioning for phone service, although there were some neighbors who also opposed it. Like most others at that time, they first had a party line. Lula recalls one night when she was home alone, in the bathtub, when an intruder tried to break-in. She quickly called a neighbor, who hurried across the field. The intruder never made it in the house, but was never caught.
"It was a good safety factor," she said. "If you knew someone was ill, you would check on them."
Editor's Note: As the East Central Iowa REC marks its 75th Anniversary this year, Vinton Today will share some of the stories of the history of electricity in rural Benton County.
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