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Saving the Good Earth: The Mississippi Valley Committee and Its Plan

by Harold L. Ickes

Secretary of the Interior and Public Works Administration

February 1934

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In modern American life, streams probably play a more important part in developing electric power than they do in their ancient role as highways. Even a cursory study of the Mississippi Valley discloses the need to bring electricity to the largest possible percentage of its rural population. In comfort and convenience as well as efficiency, farm living is heavily penalized by lack of this modern Aladdin's lamp. A water pump—to make possible the kitchen sink and the bathroom that the city-dweller takes for granted—electric lights, relief from household drudgery by electric-washing-machine, electric iron and mangle, mechanical refrigeration, electric churn, a continuous supply of hot water—these are only a few of the means to easier and more satisfactory living that electricity could bring to the farm home. And if Ireland, Bavaria, Alsace. Lorraine, Norway and Ontario can take cheap electric current to the farms, then the farmers of the United States can have these modern conveniences too.

In the Middle-west, where "hard times" have forced severe economies, the well-equipped farm has usually given up the telephone before turning off its home-made (and relatively expensive) electric lights. This fact often surprises city people, but it surprises no one who knows at first hand the danger and inconvenience of kerosene lamps in an isolated farm home, particularly a home where there are little children.

At present, rural electric rates are almost prohibitive. President Roosevelt is leading the effort not only to make cheap current more widely available, but to lower the cost of its distribution and of the electrical appliances needed for its functioning.

The dominant factor in rural rates has been the cost of the distribution lines. In a city there are thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of domestic customers per mile of line; in a farming country there are almost never more than five. This fact has heretofore made distribution costs prohibitive. Today we can put in pole lines at unprecedentedly low costs for materials, with plenty of local labor available.

President Roosevelt recently set going another experiment in the farmer's behalf when, by executive order, he directed the establishment of the Electric Home and Farm Authority, Inc. This Delaware corporation with capital of a million dollars will extend "cheap credit" to householders within the Tennessee Valley area who wish to purchase electric equipment. The plan is to encourage large orders for appliances which, eliminating unnecessary "gadgets," will be designed for maximum performance and wear.

In a press statement, David Lilienthal of the TVA thus explained the program of the new corporation, a scheme that can easily be extended to other areas: The objective . . . is a wider and greatly increased use of electricity in the homes and on the farms.... In order to carry out the program there must be a broad-scale distribution of very low cost, standard quality electricity-using appliances, and concurrently a revision downward of electric rates. The new agency is based on a cooperative program in which the federal government, the electric utilities, both publicly and privately owned, the electric manufacturing industry and dealers will participate.


The federal government, he stated, will participate: By assisting in financing the consumer in purchasing standard electric equipment at very low prices; by securing reductions in electric rates . . . so as to make the use of this equipment feasible for the average householder and farmer, by engaging in educational work and research further to lower the cost of electric equipment and to make it better adapted to the needs of the average home and farm.

The enormous demand for refrigerators, washing-machines, plumbing fixtures, water pumps, electric irons, sewing-machines and so on that will follow should such conveniences actually be put within reach of householders and farmers now lacking them will, many enthusiasts believe, give industry a "boost" similar to that supplied by the expansion of the automobile industry after 1920. But to many of us, and I think that group includes the President, to bring farm and village homes up to a higher standard of wholesome and comfortable living, looms even more important than an increase in business activity. If any such dream is to become a reality, it will be under government leadership and supervision, insuring a development planned and carried out with advantage to the consumer, rather than to the power companies, as the first objective.

In this quick chalk sketch, I have tried to show not the details but the broad outlines of what this vast regional plan will cover, how it will attempt to correlate the common. problems of these twenty-seven states, and the most promising lines of effort for solving them. Like the bridge-builder's profiles of the setting for his bridge, the shape and direction of the committee's work is determined by those first essentials for the Mississippi Valley—the conservation, use and control of its water, and, linked with that, the conservation and use of its soil.

But I shall have failed in the task I set myself in attempting to show how vital is planning to navigation, flood control, erosion, agriculture, power and forestation, unless I have at the same time shown the larger considerations that called the committee into being and that inspire its own effort and the effort of all the governmental agencies cooperating with it, or working along similar lines in other areas. Here we have the reverse of private industrial planning. Here, within the framework of a democracy, we have a tremendous common effort toward a better distribution of the products of our Machine Age, a striving for social as well as economic dividends, for a better basis of life for the men and women of the Mississippi Valley and for their children.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003