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Power to the People: The Electrification of Rural Texas

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of photos from the era

 

The exhibit, Power to the People: The Electrification of Rural Texas, is a uniquely Texas story of dark times in rural Texas in the 1930s, the efforts to bring electricity to the region, and the impact rural electrification had on families and the landscape of Central Texas. Lyndon Johnson grew up without electricity and worked diligently with local officials and Congress to bring electric lines to this region, an effort he called one of his greatest achievements.

The exhibition Power to the People: The Electrification of Rural Texas will be opening at the LBJ Library on September 2, 2006, and will run through May 28, 2007.

Power to the People tells the dramatic story of one of the most important events in the history of modern Texas: the coming of electricity to the Texas Hill Country and other surrounding areas in the central part of the state. The exhibit also chronicles the early political career of Lyndon Baines Johnson showing how, as a young, newly elected congressman, he was able to overcome nearly impossible barriers to make the vision a reality.

The first sections of the display tell the story of the early settlers who came to the Texas Hill Country greatly impressed with the beauty of the land, yet unaware that beneath the pristine scenes of lush foliage, knee-high grass and scores of wild game lay an impenetrable limestone surface impossible to farm. The early settlers and their families were soon relegated to a perpetual life of extreme poverty made even worse, as time went on, from the people’s inability to improve their lives and the lack of electrical power which could have enabled them to do so. As the rest of the United States progressed and moved forward, the people of the Texas Hill Country remained behind.

It was in this environment that Lyndon Johnson was born and raised…and why he considered it a personal mission—once he obtained political power—to see that it changed.

The early sections of the display will feature stunning graphics of the Hill Country and original photos, documents and artifacts of LBJ’s early life and first congressional campaign. In his initial run for congress, the visitor will get an impression of LBJ’s unmatched campaign style, which featured a focused intensity that he would later apply to his efforts to secure electricity for his district.

The signature part of the first half of the exhibition will be a vivid recreation of life in the Texas Hill Country circa 1935. The visitor will walk through a center path and on each side will be realistic displays of Hill Country chores such as washing, ironing, hauling water, hauling wood, milking cows, feeding livestock, cooking and canning. All of these necessary tasks were done without the use of electricity. Several loads of heavy clothing were washed by hand on scrub boards while kneeling for hours at a time. Hot burning irons with no handles were used. Cows were milked and animals fed in the dark because there was no light. There was no refrigeration. There were no fans. No electric stoves, either, so all cooking had to be done on a hot, wood burning stove compounded by the brutal heat of the Texas summer. Heavy buckets of water and cords of wood were carried by hand from long distances for the cooking and washing, mostly by women. The display will show and describe this life in the starkest possible terms with atmospheric elements, and period music that will add greatly to your experience. Throughout, the point will be made that electrical appliances—available to most Americans for about 30-50 years—could have eased the burden significantly. But the Hill Country had no electricity.

The beginning of the second half of the exhibit discusses the strategy that Lyndon Johnson used to get electrical power for the Hill Country. This was a duel challenge: for not only did the (Northeastern based) power companies refuse to provide lines in the Hill Country—believing that it would not be profitable—but the locals, themselves, were terrified to sign agreements with corporations that could possibly result in them losing their houses and farms if they could not pay (a common occurrence during the Great Depression). LBJ immediately targeted the publicly funded LCRA as a source for Hill Country residents to buy electrical power following the completion of the Buchanan Dam in 1937. But first, he had to #1 convince Hill Country residents to join “cooperatives” in order to receive low interest loans from the Rural Electrification Administration (a New Deal program set up by President Roosevelt to assist rural Americans in getting electricity), and #2 personally appeal to President Roosevelt to relax the “density requirements” for REA loans, since the Hill Country was so sparsely populated. Most importantly, Congressman Johnson worked to obtain the complete trust of his constituents, who eventually followed his lead and organized municipalities to vote for electrification. This section of the display features vintage artifacts such as a large, lighted art deco style sign from the Pedernales Electric Cooperative, vintage REA demonstration appliances, period posters, correspondence between FDR and LBJ, and period sound recordings of radio interviews and speeches in support of electrification.

Once an agreement was secured for rural electrification, the final portion of the exhibit begins by detailing the challenge of building the power lines on the Hill Country’s limestone surface. The section features displays of antique electrical equipment and fast action film clips played to up-tempo music showing the building of power lines. The display culminates with an interactive exercise in which visitors pull a vintage lever in a dark house enabling the lights to come on. The visitor also hears the sounds of modern appliances operating and vintage radio programs playing in the background. There will be a large photographic display showing the uses of electricity. Also, in this section will be a famous bit of dialogue between Hill Country resident Evelyn Smith and her daughter: returning to their house one night in 1939, Evelyn’s mother gasps, “Oh my God, the house is on fire.” “No mama,” says Evelyn, “the lights are on.”

The last part of the display summarizes LBJ’s overall career as a U.S. congressman (1937 -1948). The section will be highlighted by a wonderful home movie narrated by Lady Bird Johnson showing scenes of the era with her own “personal” recollections. In the theater, there will be a fifteen minute film telling the entire story of rural electrification by KLRU Producer Lynn Boswell. Opening and ending “splash” panels will feature an eye catching design incorporating the major themes and display elements of the show.

The new exhibit opens Saturday, September 2 but reserve Sunday, September 10 on your calendar for an exciting Grand Opening! The LBJ Library and Museum will host Johnny Gimble and his band, the Salt Lick will provide bar-b-que and everyone will have a great time.

Schedule a tour for your students and receive curriculum for Texas History, the Great Depression and New Deal along with a short DVD film to introduce the exhibit to your students. To schedule a student tour, contact the LBJ Library Tour Coordinator at (512) 721-0184. The exhibit runs through May 28, 2007 so book your tour early; our spring dates fill up fast.


 

Last Updated Aug. 16, 2006