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Lighting Up The Night

I guess the first provider of light, outside the sun, moon and stars, was fire. Fire was a
valuable resource to early man. Fire was used to cook his food, keep him warm in cold
weather and provide light at night. Next, man learned what kind of wood burned
longest and brightest and used sticks of this wood as torches to carry a light with him.
By using various kinds of oil; whale oil, animal fat, etc., man made several different
types of lamps. The earliest were nothing more that a shell or hollowed out rock to hold
the oil with a reed for a wick to provide light. The next step was the making of candles,
but they were more expensive.

The early settlers in America built mainly one room log cabins with a fireplace in one
end. With this one fireplace they were able to cook their meals, heat the home in winter
and provide light for the whole house. As often was the case on the early frontier, oil
was not always available for the lamps and candles were hard to come by.

In warmer weather, when a fire was not needed for heat, after breakfast was cooked,
ashes were scooped up from the side of the fire and put over the log to kill the fire. By
keeping the log covered with a thick layer of ashes you could keep hot coals for 12 to 14
hours or longer. Then, whenever you got ready to cook the evening meal, you would
rake the ashes to the side and place some kindling, small twigs or leaves, on the hot coals
to restart the fire. Matches were a rarity on the frontier and you didn’t want to let the fire
go completely out.

I can remember stopping by my grandparents house for short visits and when I would
start to leave they would always ask, “What’s the matter, you just come by for a coal of
fire?” meaning, ‘what is your hurry.’ The origin of this question goes back to the frontier
times. Whenever anyone let their fire go completely out they would get a bucket and go
to the neighbors house and ‘borrow’ a coal of fire. They would put some ashes in the
bottom of the bucket with two or three good sized coals on that and more ashes over the
coals. It was nothing unusual for neighbors to live several miles apart and they had to be
able to keep the coals until they got home to restart the fire in their fireplace.

Finally, in 1879 Ben Franklin invented the electric light bulb. This made a big change in
the way things were lit up at night. However, it wasn’t until after 1900 that electric lights
began to be used much outside the larger metropolitan areas. As the smaller towns began
to get electricity, the people on the farms began to want to tap into this new source of
energy, but the houses were so far apart that it was uneconomical for the power
companies to run the lines to them and too expensive for the farmers to pay to run them.
Therefore the farmers had to wait to get electricity.

In 1935 Franklin D. Roosevelt established the REA, (Rural Electrification Administration),
which provided low interest loans to the utility companies so they could
provide electricity to people in the rural areas. When the REA was established only
about 10% of the people in rural areas had electricity. By the early 1970’s 98% of the
people in rural areas had electricity. We moved to town in 1947 before they got
electricity to the area where we lived.

We always had the old kerosene lamps for light. These had the glass globe, or chimney
as some called them, which you lifted off to light the lamp and then set back down on the
lamp. Whenever you got ready to ‘put the light out’ you just bent over the glass chimney
and blew down it to put it out. When I was small I always wanted dad to hold me up
over the lamp so that I could ‘blow the light out.’

I still remember dad telling about his first experience with electricity. This would have
been sometime just prior to 1920. From where dad was living, it was a good 5 or 6 hour
ride into town by buggy. To make the round trip in a day you would have to leave home
before daylight, take care of your business in a hurry and head back home and usually
get in well after dark. Most of the time dad would spend the night in town and go home
the next day. For about $0.75 dad could get a stall and hay at the wagonyard for his horse
and he would lay down on the hay in the corner of the stall and spend the night.

One day when dad was in town he had a little extra money and decided that he would
stay at the hotel. The hotel was new and had electric lights. He went that evening and
got a room and spent the night. The next morning when he went to check out the clerk
asked him if he was sick last night.

“No” dad replied, “why do you ask?”

“I just noticed that your light was on all night,” the clerk said.

“Oh, that,” dad replied. “Well, I couldn’t find a way to blow the darn thing out.”


The old Cleburne Hotel where dad had his first experience witrh electricity.


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Over The Backfence
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