Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Arkansas's Dark Ages: The Struggle to Electrify the State

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Arkansas's Dark Ages: The Struggle to Electrify the State

Article excerpt

UNTIL THE MID-TWENTIETH CENTURY, Arkansas lacked sufficient electrical power for many of its residents to enjoy modern conveniences. As citizens of a rural state, most Arkansans lived on farms. Performing laborintensive chores without power required family members to work long hours, mirroring their ancestors' lifestyles over the preceding two centuries. Women washed clothes by hand-scrubbing them on washboards, using water drawn from wells and heated in kettles over open fires fueled by hand-chopped wood. With no refrigeration during the hot summer months, many rural Arkansans' diets consisted primarily of fatback, cornbread, and molasses. During the dark hours, kerosene lamps and coal-oil lanterns provided light for homes and schools. The poor illumination often caused sight problems that hindered children in reading or doing homework assignments. 1

Harvey Couch established what would become Arkansas Power & Light Company (AP&L), the state's first major power company, in 1913, but for many years only a small percentage of Arkansans living in municipal areas could afford AP&L service. Although Couch intended to bring electricity to rural reaches of the state, progress was slow because the costs were exorbitant. Couch developed a plan to assist farmers in obtaining power at about the same time that President Franklin Roosevelt established a federal agency to promote rural electrification in 1935. But frequent flooding, the Depression, and World War II hindered progress. Advancement was also delayed, however, by squabbling between public power advocates and private utility magnates. Federal and local entities needed each other's cooperation, but, instead, competition for customers and territories consumed their energy and resources. In the end, Arkansas would be one of the last states to become fully electrified. In the early 1940s, Arkansas ranked near the bottom in number of farms and residences receiving electricity. Less than 10 percent of Arkansas's 1.95 million people, mostly in largest cities and towns, had power.2

By the time Harvey Couch established his company in 1913, forty-six independent power plants served forty-eight communities using approximately twenty miles of small transmission lines. Towns with three to five thousand residents generally owned small generators that served several hundred people for a few daytime hours. Often local businessmen owned generators to operate a mill or ice plant and sold excess power to people who could afford it.3

Couch began building Arkansas Power and Light Company with little more than a vision and the power of persuasion. Aware of Couch's interest in the hydroelectric possibilities of the Ouachita River, Flave Carpenter, a steamboat captain, recommended several potential sites for dams with water-powered generators. Couch subsequently purchased land on the Little Missouri, Caddo, and Ouachita Rivers and hired engineering firms to study the area's rainfall, drainage, stream flow, and the type of dam that should be constructed. All the engineers suggested that Couch build a series of three dams on the Ouachita, with the smallest one being completed first. Couch developed a plan to electrify much of Arkansas based upon these recommendations and struggled to build a company reputable enough to obtain the funds necessary to achieve this end.4

In 1919, Harvey Couch hired Hamilton Moses as general counsel for his power company, primarily because Moses had two things Couch lacked-a college education and great oratorical skills. By Moses's account, Couch told him, "I need a front man; a man who can stand before a crowd and interpret the things which are in my mind, as I envision the possibilities of the future. Personally I cannot make a speech. Besides I do not have much of an education. Suppose you join me and aid in selling my ideas of expansion to the people of the State and nation. We will build a great power company." Moses brought considerable assets to AP&L. …

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