Granny's Notes - the writing of Sue Gerard

It’s hard to imagine not having switches ...

It’s hard to imagine not having switches to turn on lights, cool the refrigerator, pump water for cattle, grind feed, light the way for guests to find their cars at night or even to power a simple radio. But electric lines stopped at the city limits in the 1930s. Coal oil lamps and lanterns were a lot of trouble for a little bit of light.

A few rural families owned Delco light plants, which were private generators powered by gasoline engines. However, they were far from trouble-free. Dad and mom chose a different solution: carbide gas lights.

This involved a huge tank, mostly below ground level, in the side yard near the house. The tank had a floating compartment that contained gas. We bought granular carbide in 50-pound drums and poured that into one compartment. This sprinkled down into water to cause gas. The gas was collected in a large float, which occasionally triggered the release of more carbide into water, thus forming more gas.

The gas was carried to light fixtures through galvanized iron pipes. Instead of a wall switch, each light fixture had a valve to turn to release the gas and a striker to make a spark to ignite the gas. I had to stretch up to open the valve and twist the striker. It was an expensive system to install because gas had to be piped to the milk house and barn, which were a few hundred yards from the carbide tank.

This was far better than coal oil lamps and lanterns. No more filling and spilling that stinky kerosene. There were no smoky chimneys to wash and polish. And it was great to have light that spread out over the entire room. But the carbide system had its drawbacks.

The day the tubes and fixtures were in place and the carbide had formed its gas in the big outdoor tank, it was necessary to vent the tubes before the gas could be ignited. As instructed, we opened doors and windows and turned on the valves to let out the air. Only after all three canaries died did we realize that carbide gas wasn’t the best for human beings either. That taught us to turn-and-strike quickly so no gas would escape into the room.

Our main problem was that the carbide ran out when we least expected. If that happened during late evening milking, the oil lanterns came out, kerosene lamps were dusted off and pressed into service. Of course there was a way to determine when a refill was necessary, but to do that we had to open the big tank and look in, and sometimes we’d forget to do that.

There was a spigot where Mom would attach the flexible tube to a spigot for her gas iron. She would open the iron, turn on the gas and wait for the tube to fill with gas. Then she’d light the match, ignite the gas and close the iron. Soon she was ironing, but I was thinking of those three dead canaries!

When the idea of a farmer-owned cooperative was presented and the Rural Electric Administration was set in motion, Dad was one of the volunteers who promoted the idea. His is one of the names on the plaque at the left side of the main entrance to Boone Electric Cooperative, 1411 Range Line St., in Columbia. Our home and dairy received electrical service 57 years ago.


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