Phones, power, water meant big changes for rural areas

Farm Forum

One hundred years ago, life on the farm looked a lot different than it does now.

Those living in rural areas didn’t have access to electricity, indoor plumbing or telephone lines, unlike their city-dwelling counterparts.

The American News sat down with a group of women, ages 78 to 95, who either grew up on a farm, were the wife of a farmer, or both, to hear their stories and give a little perspective on modern life.

“I got to thinking about — it’s really a major change in the farmsteads themselves,” said Lola Dixon, 95. “There was always a house, a chicken coop, a pasture for the cows …”

“An outhouse,” Hazel Swenson, 95, added.

“I’ll bet you most farmsteads had a lilac bush,” Dixon said. “And always a garden. If nothing else grew, you always had potatoes, maybe, and rhubarb.”

“How did our grandmothers and mothers can all the stuff they did?” Dixon asked. “The meat, the pickles.”

Electricity and phones

By the beginning of the 20th century, modern conveniences were coming to bigger cities, places where the companies could make a profit. But there was little incentive to string miles of electric line to serve one farm, and farmers couldn’t afford to pay for the access themselves, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development.

The Rural Electrification Administration was created in 1935, part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal domestic programs to bring rural Americans some of the same amenities and necessities city dwellers had.

The government subsidized rural electric cooperatives through low-interest, long-term loans, according to Rural Development.

In 1949, Congress amended the Rural Electrification Act to provide telephone access to rural Americans.

The first telephones were party lines, with several neighbors sharing one line.

“We had, on our line, there were eight families, and they were all — all of us were active in church,” Dixon said.

“I think we had 24,” Vivian Locken, 92, said of the families on her party line.

“I distinctly remember in 1979, when we finally got a private telephone line,” Dixon said.


Beginning in the late 1960s, rural water systems began in South Dakota, providing treated, safe drinking water to rural areas, according to the South Dakota Association of Rural Water Systems. Expansion of rural water systems in South Dakota continued through the 1990s and beyond.

Before rural water systems, people living outside of towns had to rely on wells. In some places, the water was deep and the well had to be drilled thousands of feet, those were referred to as artesian wells.

“It was fine for drinking if your system got used to it,” said Maxine Holmes, 86. “But you couldn’t use it on watering gardens because it would get so much salt.”

Locken said she would filter the artesian well water with a towel to help get some of the rust and salt out of it.

Phyllis Halvorson, 78, said when her children left the farm, she had special diapers for them that weren’t stained from the water.

“It would yellow the clothes like you wouldn’t believe,” Dixon said.

“And a lot of teeth, people’s teeth were stained,” Halvorson said.

Today, rural residents have access to the same hundreds of television channels, streaming video options and merchandise as their in-town friends, on top of electricity, telephone lines and quality, treated water. They shop at the same stores and attend the same events.

When she was growing up, Swenson said store-bought goods were a luxury. All of her family’s clothes were homemade, and her mother would make quilts out of gray flannel.

When they were children, her older brother looked forward to growing up and living alone and eating store-bought bread and pork and beans, Swenson said.

USDA Rural Development — which began as Rural Electrification — has been providing grants and low-interest loans to telephone cooperatives to improve broadband Internet access throughout small towns and rural residences.

“Lack of access to broadband is a barrier to economic growth, not just for rural areas, but for the entire U.S. economy,” wrote South Dakota Rural Development Acting State Director Bruce Jones. “Broadband connects rural areas to the rest of America.”

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