Today as we continue to struggle with our new status in Texas as the laughingstock of the electricity industry, we are led by no-name state lawmakers like Paddie, Hancock, Phelan. Names that will never make it into history books as our saviors.
These men struggled to jump high hurdles. As the Texas Legislature ends its regular session, do you feel safe and protected from future blackouts in summer or winter? I don’t. Not enough was fixed.
Don’t think for a moment, though, that a no-name Texas politician could not fix this kind of problem. Once upon a time, some 80 years ago, one did. He was a rookie congressman from the Hill Country who refused to accept the word no. It was a trait that helped carry him to the White House.
Lyndon Baines Johnson knew how important it would be to bring power to the people. That was his first big promise, but everything and everybody was against him ever succeeding.
The biggest opposing forces were the owners of electricity companies such as Texas Power & Light who looked at Johnson’s congressional district and saw that homes were so remote, stringing wires wouldn’t turn a profit. Another force against him were Depression-era farmers, who didn’t trust anybody, didn’t want to sign a legal document they didn’t understand, and couldn’t afford the $5 fee to register for electricity.
‘Most powerful, dangerous’
Like today, utility industry lobbyists back in the 1930s were ultra-powerful. Future House Speaker Sam Rayburn of Bonham would call them “the most powerful, dangerous lobby … that has ever been created by any organization in this country.”
The Texas Legislature would offer no help expanding electrification. As LBJ biographer Robert A. Caro writes in his landmark biography, The Path to Power, state legislators, like ours today, wanted no federal intrusion into their electricity marketplace.
Meanwhile, their constituents suffered in ways unimaginable today. Every chore inside the home and outside on the farm was drudgery. Electricity was available in congested cities for two generations, but not in LBJ’s district, where his farmers were left in the dark.
Without the benefit of inventions fed by electricity, these Texans farmed using mules like peasants did during the Middle Ages. Women were hunched over from carrying buckets of water from a nearby river too many times a day. Wood hauling and chopping was a constant. Everything they did, they did the way their great-great grandparents did.
Cook on a wood-burning stove. Hand wash clothes in a vat of boiling water. Iron with irons heated on a hot stove. Refrigerate food with blocks of ice buried in the ground.
Of course, there was no plumbing, which depended on electricity to pump water. Vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, toasters, waffle irons and electric stoves were unknowns. Cooling fans? Forget it.
“The one almost universal characteristic of the women,” Caro writes, “was that they were worn out before their time, that they were old beyond their years, old at 40, old at 35, bent and stooped and tired.”
Farmers lacked cow milking machines, augers, grinders, electric saws and, most basic, light.
With a bad back caused from carrying water and blistered hands from rigorous chores, even nighttime offered no escape. Reading by kerosene lamp was hard on the eyes. A radio would not work. They would read about President Franklin Roosevelt’s wonderful fireside chats, but they never got to hear them. Even a movie theater was an impossibility. Talk about remote.
People were so poor that in 1937 Johnson City High School nearly missed playing its entire basketball season, Caro found, because the school could not afford a basketball.
That was the year LBJ went to Congress.
No return on investment
Delegations of farmers ventured to meetings at electricity companies and pleaded for power lines. They were told the cost of the lines to the forgotten people was too expensive. These poor farmers were told they were likely too poor to pay their monthly bills.
“Fairness — or social conscience — was not the operative criterion for the utilities,” Caro explains. “Their criterion was rate of return on investment. As long as the rate was higher in the cities, why bother with the farms?”
Johnson moved it to the top of his to-do list. “I’ll get it for you,” he said. “I’ll go to the president if I have to.”
First, though, he had a rough time convincing his weary constituents to sign on. They weren’t sure what to think about something they’d never experienced. LBJ went door to door. He explained how the Pedernales Electric Co-op would work and how the monthly fee for 25 kilowatts would be $2.45, which seemed exorbitant for people who couldn’t rub two pennies together.
Johnson, as would become more widely known, was most persuasive. He showed empathy by recalling his own mother’s hardships and showed folks how electricity would pump their water and wash their clothes. With refrigerators they wouldn’t have to “start fresh every morning with the cooking,” he explained.
“You’ll look younger at 40 than your mother,” he promised the ladies.
At the White House, the future president stood before President Roosevelt’s desk and made his pitch. When he was halfway through, FDR interrupted, picked up the phone and issued an order to make the bureaucratic machinery turn around and help the forgotten. It was time to “bring the lights.”
‘The lights are on’
The hole diggers with their half sticks of dynamite busted through hard rock. They were followed by pole setters who placed 35-foot East Texas pine poles into the ground, then by framers who attached insulators and lastly the stringers who unfurled the wires.
It took so long some customers couldn’t remember if the new switch to the waiting light bulb was left on or off.
Then one night when the project was completed, the Hill Country was linked to the rest of America. Caro tells the story of a family coming home that night and seeing a bright light from inside their home.
“Oh my God,” the mother said. “The house is on fire.”
“No, Momma,” her daughter said. “The lights are on.”
All over the Hill Country! “People began to name their kids for Lyndon Johnson,” Caro writes.
That’s how you do it. You don’t take no. You jump the high hurdles.
We remember the name Johnson, but not Paddie or Hancock or Phelan, all state representatives whose criterion was rate of return on investment, who couldn’t or wouldn’t stand up to “the most powerful, dangerous lobby … that has ever been created by any organization in this country.”
Add to that list the names of Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov Dan Patrick. Sadly, they, too, don’t know how to tell us, “I’ll get it for you.”