Column – After push by Ruritans, electricity came to IW in 1939

Published 6:59 pm Wednesday, June 26, 2024

As country living goes, I was privileged growing up because I didn’t have to use an outhouse — at least, not as a rule.

The farm my parents bought in 1939 on Red Point Road (now known as Benns Church Boulevard) had access to electricity because Virginia Electric and Power Co. had run lines along that road years earlier as the company connected Smithfield and Suffolk. 

Thus, as soon as they felt they had the money, they built a pumphouse, ran a half-inch galvanized line to the house, built a bathroom and supplied pressurized water to the kitchen. By the time I came along, we were already “modern” with respect to electricity.

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That’s not to say we didn’t have an outhouse. Old habits die hard. Whenever the power went out, we were instructed to use the outhouse. As it became more and more dilapidated, though, it made me nervous. It seemed to be a favorite hangout for black snakes, and I just plain didn’t like them.

Actually, by the time I was born, electricity was being carried into rural areas of Isle of Wight. but electrification for rural areas, including here, was in its infancy.

It’s hard to imagine today just how important electrification was to the modernization of rural America. Everything from indoor plumbing to a heat lamp to keep baby chicks alive in early spring depended on electricity. The distribution of usable electricity was simply one of the most important scientific advances in the industrialized world, and it was destined to change the face of rural, as well as urban, America.

Virginia and other states recognized the value of electrifying their rural areas. In 1929, a full six years before the Rural Electrification Administration was created by Congress, Virginia Gov. Harry F. Byrd appointed a special committee to create a rural electrification plan for the state.

The State Corporation Commission promulgated rules to manage electrification, including Rural 18, which specifically anticipated electric lines extending into rural areas.

Not long after that, an important appointment was made affecting Isle of Wight. A young man by the name of Pat DeHart was assigned here as the county agent. DeHart remained in the county for seven years and gained a reputation as an aggressive advocate for local farmers. Among the initiatives he focused on was rural electrification. He called countywide meetings of rural residents to talk about how the county might approach electrification, and he urged a unified front in favor of modernization.

Ruritan Clubs, which had been founded in Nansemond County, became leading advocates for electrification. In 1937, the Ruritans from across Virginia held a convention in Richmond and set electrification as a major initiative for all Ruritan Clubs.

The benefits of electricity seem to have been something that everyone agreed on back during an era when the common good could still actually influence public policy. Congress, strongly pressed by President Franklin Roosevelt to act, enacted legislation creating the Rural Electrification Administration and committing a total of $1 billion over 10 years to make loans to local cooperatives and even individual landowners in order to build a viable electrical network.

Then, in 1939, Community Electric was formed as the nonprofit corporation that would administer an REA program in Isle of Wight, Southampton and Nansemond. The fledgling organization was planning to run 176 miles of electric service cable and was looking for customers. The REA required a commitment from three customers for every mile of electric cable.

Customers had to pay a membership fee of $5 to Community Electric and commit to use a minimum of 40 kilowatt hours of electricity a month. 

Within two months, the cooperative had the necessary prospective customers and had received a telegram from REA that $220,000 had been appropriated as startup money for electrifying Isle of Wight. 

The local cooperative began stringing wire, and within five years was serving 920 consumers. It took a while to pick up some outlying farms, but electricity had come to Isle of Wight and life here would never be the same.

John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is