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University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Looking back at a current event

March 25, 2009

Cow being milked.

It's hard to imagine farms without electricity. But it took the University-led Red Wing project to show the value of rural electrification.

A University-led project paved the way for national rural electrification

By Deane Morrison

They had never seen anything like it, these families who farmed the rolling land near the Mississippi River town of Red Wing.

Bundled up on the darkening Christmas Eve of 1923, they gazed expectantly at a lone pine tree on the W.A. Cady farm in the community of Burnside. Strung with electric lights, the pine awaited the flip of a switch to burst into radiance.

The families were among the first beneficiaries of the Red Wing Project, an experiment to test the feasibility and value of bringing electricity to rural America. A University of Minnesota professor named E.A. Stewart had worked tirelessly with Burnside families to make their new power line a reality. Soon, feed grinders, water pumps, cream separators, grain threshers, and other farm implements would run on electricity.

When the switch was thrown, the Christmas tree lit up as if to symbolize rural electrification's bright future—and the success of the Red Wing Project. The project was commemorated March 26, 2009, at a centennial celebration of the University's Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering (BBE).

Formed in 2006, BBE united the faculties of agricultural engineering and bio-based products (formerly forest products). It traces its ancestry back to the founding of the Division of Agricultural Engineering in 1909 and to the wood technology program of the 1920s.

The Red Wing project stands out as the first great example of service by the academic ancestors of BBE faculty.

"It led to a whole series of developments, one of the biggest of which was making life for people in rural areas more like life for people in urban areas," says BBE professor Vance Morey. "It led to more efficient and productive farms and reduced the drudgery of farm work, which was just as important because it gave people more time to do other things."

Power surge

In early 20th-century America, supplying the countryside with electricity was not a universally popular idea. Private utility companies tended to oppose it because they believed that having long power lines serving widely spaced farms would be unprofitable. Others, according to author D.E. Nye in Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, thought rural electrification "threatened the balance between man and nature."

But the Red Wing project proved them wrong. It brought University agricultural engineering faculty and farmers in Goodhue County together with other parties, including other University faculty and Northern States Power Co. (NSP), in pursuit of the stated objective "to determine the optimum economic uses of electricity in agriculture and to study the value of electricity in improved living conditions on the farm."

Stewart and other engineers had to figure out how to transfer all kinds of machines run by human or horse power to electric power. How were they to integrate motors into a feed grinder? Where to run the wiring in a barn?

It was a tall order, but they got the job done. And once the farm families had tasted electrification, they let it be known they were not willing to give it up despite its cost.

For example, electric milking machines cut milking time and allowed a farm to keep more cows. And not having to pump water by hand, lug pails of it to the house, and heat it over a wood stove to get bathwater? Priceless.

Historians often see the formation of the national Rural Electrification Administration in 1935 as the seminal event in the electrification of the American countryside. But the success of the Red Wing project in the previous decade provided the prime model for the REA's effort.

Although the Red Wing project's power line was experimental, "it arguably provided the greatest impetus to rural electrification of any event prior to the establishment of the REA in 1935," says Xcel Energy (formerly NSP) spokesman Patrick Cline.

"We are proud that some of the most important early developments related to rural electrification occurred at the University of Minnesota," adds BBE department head Shri Ramaswamy.

At the March 26 ceremony, the Red Wing project will be designated as a national historic landmark by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers.