Dunkerton resident remembers how rural electric cooperative lit up Buchanan County 1939
By Tari Robertson, Independence Bulletin Journal
Seventy- five years have passed since ECI REC first came on the scene, lighting up the night in rural northeast Iowa. Longtime Cooperative member Bob Nuebel, 79, of Dunkerton, remembers its arrival like it was yesterday.
“I was just a little guy back then, but I still remember the impact the REC made on our lives and our household when we finally got hooked up to electricity in the late 1930s. It was literally a whole new world.”
In town, people had been hooked up to electricity through Iowa Public Services for several years, Nuebel said. “But,” he continued, “People out in the country, like my folks, were still using kerosene lamps and/or a battery-operated power station to generate electricity. Dad had one down in the basement. It was about 24 volts as I recall, and only had the capacity to run a couple factory light bulbs at a time. Batteries were charged by a small, gasoline-powered engine. I remember my mom having a flat-iron that had to be run by electricity, and dad would use the power station to run the milk separator.”
When an REC was being considered as the electrical supplier for the rural Dunkerton area, county residents had to sign a petition to get the ball rolling. Bob’s dad helped to circulate that petition. On August 16, 1938, Buchanan County REC was incorporated.
“He went all over getting needed signatures from surrounding areas, and shortly after we found out we would be tying in with the REC, power lines and electric poles went up pretty quickly. We finally got hooked up to electricity in the fall of that same year.” Nuebel says he remembers an amusing incident prior to final hookup.
“Well, the REC utility poles were up, but we still weren’t wired for electricity in our home. We had a few plugins around the house, but those were powered by the little power station down in the basement. So this vacuum salesman stops by, wanting to give my mom a demonstration on how great the vacuum cleaner worked, and dumped a whole pile of dirt and dust on my mom’s nice, clean floor. Boy, was he ever embarrassed to learn that we weren’t hooked up to electricity yet. He was bald, and I swear, he got red from his eyebrows to the back of his head. It was hilarious, really. My mom just handed him a broom and dust pan so he could clean up his mess.”
Although rural Dunkerton would finally have access to electrical power through Buchanan County REC, homes still had to be wired prior to hookup. Wiring, Nuebel said, was done by a couple neighbors.
“There weren’t too many electrical contractors around in those days, so most of the electrical wiring was done by friends and neighbors who had some knowledge about electricity. I remember being fascinated by the process, and followed them all around our property as they got things wired for electricity. And when the switch was thrown in the fall of that year, lights lit up all over the house! It was literally a brand-new world, and life quickly got a whole lot easier.”
All kinds of changes took place after that. Nuebel’s family quickly replaced their old cook stove with an electric range, and their ice box with a refrigerator.
“We gave our icebox to a neighbor. That’s kind of a funny story too. He was pretty well-to-do, but when we gave him the icebox he said, ‘My, that’s nice . . . but who’s going to buy the ice?’ We still laugh about that. We also got indoor plumbing and running water after that. Before we had to haul water in and heat it on the stove. My mom had an old gasoline-powered Maytag down in the basement. We’d heat the water on the stove and then carry it to the basement for the washer. All clothes were washed in the same water; whites first and men’s overalls last. Then, we had to carry the wash water outside again, and dump it. So having electricity allowed us to not only pump water into the house, but to heat it as well, with an electric water heater.”
Another improvement, he said, was the capacity to run an electric coal-stoker for the furnace.
“We would have to manually add coal to the furnace, and make sure the fire was banked before we went to bed. The electric stoker was a real improvement.”
“People complain about the cost of electricity, but I tell you what, I still consider it a real bargain. When we had that ice storm a few years back, we were without electricity for several days. I would run a generator to keep things going, and with the price of gasoline that was not cheap. The REC has always done right by our family, and having access to electricity in rural Iowa is just plain wonderful.”
Bob continues to reside in the home he grew up in, and farms the land that has been in his family for over a century. Now retired, he remains a loyal customer and member of the ECI REC.