Carl Olson hauled milk for those in the Bergen area along the Illinois state line in the 1940s for those who no longer hauled to the local cheese factory but rather to Clinton or Sharon, Wisconsin. Submitted by Charlotte Heikkinen.

While journeying throughout the Midwest and southern United States recently, I couldn’t help but notice the towering power lines extending from pole to pole across the corn and soybean fields of Illinois, the rolling hills of Missouri, the unique rice fields of Arkansas, and the cotton fields of Mississippi.

Hundreds of massive wind turbines stretched across the horizon near LaSalle and Peru, Illinois, while silhouettes of nuclear power plants could be seen in the distance. Long flat barges slowly made their way down the hard-working Mississippi River while behemoth semis carrying huge stashes of goods dwarfed my small SUV as we rolled along the wide, constantly under construction, concrete highways. Cellular towers rose high above and I felt small and vulnerable as we rolled up and down highways I-39, I-240 and 255.

All these new methods of transporting our goods, services, and our communication from one area of our massive country to another has happened in the past 80 or so years. The changes in our landscapes as well as in our homes and communities is something to behold.

My father once shared a quote from Thomas Alva Edison, who said, “We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.” Well, I do burn some candles, occasionally, but mostly LEDs; however, my electric bill still seems to cost me enough each month.

Electricity makes life easier

Lately, I have come to the realization that I would not do very well without electricity. I do not know many housewives who would want to go back to washing clothes on a washboard. I actually was quite delighted when I got my first Maytag wringer washing machine in 1969, and I loved the smell of freshly line dried sheets; however, I don’t wish to go back to frozen stiff laundry in the winter anymore. Nor do I want to go back to coal and woodfired furnaces either. I really do like having heated water anytime I want, a microwave oven, slow cooker, television, and radio, as well as an alarm clock, toaster, refrigerator, and flush toilets.

My father, A. Vernon Johnson, and Grandpa, Herman R. Johnson, were happy to have electricity come to their Stateline dairy farm when they were milking 25-30 cows by hand morning and night. It was a “heck of a job” keeping the milk cold and getting the warm fresh milk to a temperature of 60 degrees or it would spoil. Cleaning manure filled gutters was also a major chore along with getting the silage out of the silo, especially in the winter.

Power and Light vs REA

My father remembered a time when, “In 1936 Power and Light held a meeting at the Jefferson Prairie Lutheran Church which was only ¼ mile away from our farm. Power and Light was interested in bringing electricity to our small community of Bergen, but it would cost $1,000 to bring the lines in. At that time church members thought that was a terrible price. Soon thereafter everything became mapped out for REA (Rural Electrification Association.)

“In 1937 Power and Light stole through Bergen during the night after electrifying the village of Sharon, Wisconsin, to the east. Poles were put in rapidly, literally overnight, and they continued through Bergen all the way to the Gunderson farm west of Bergen a couple miles. The Gunderson and Egrees and the Meech farms were strong REA supporters, and Power and Light did have to remove poles from these three farms. The rest stood as the poles had been placed.

“The local community’s biggest objection to Power and Light was that this company was selective in where it would go, while REA would go anywhere and to anyone,” reflected Vernon.

Machine milking comes to the farm

Once electricity was in the barn, Vernon and Herman looked for a more efficient method for milking. They started out with 2 double unit Empire milking machines but found them to be hard to use and frustrating at best.

Goodall from Capron, Illinois, talked the dairy farmers into a double Universal milking machine unit, and he assisted by milking at the farm with the units for the first four days. My father manned the milkers, and things went well. Eventually they purchased a De Laval milker set-up, and Goodall came back to supervise the first milking. The last thing he said to Grandpa Herman was, “Get up from the milk stool and don’t strip the cows!”

After that final directive, my father, Vernon, and his brother, Harold, manned the milking machines, but Herman never milked with the contraptions again. Still, I do remember Grandpa stripping the last cow, a Guernsey, and the third cow, a Holstein, on the West side, anyway.

From the invention of Edison’s first lightbulb to our present day dependence on batteries, cooling and heating elements, numerous household appliances, to plug-in cars, we have become dependent upon our nation’s electric grid, and right now, I am not willing to give this up. So, I will continue to burn a candle every now and then and will pay my electric bill on time.