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LBJ and Sad Irons

by Clay Coppedge
In 1917, the all-male voting population of Burnet elected Ophelia (Birdie) Crosby Harwood the first female mayor in the United States. Most rural women of the time didn’t have that kind of opportunity and the reason they didn’t was because they didn’t have electricity.

From those hardscrabble times came Lyndon Johnson, whose first campaign promise was to bring electricity to the Hill Country and rural Texas. LBJ’s grandfather was Sam Ealy Johnson, who bought some land along the Pedernales River in 1882 and settled there with his wife Eliza. The future president would be born in a small white ranch house on that property on August 27, 1908.

Sam Ealy Johnson, Sr. became partners with his brother Tom in a cattle operation after the Civil War. The war had greatly increased the number of unattended cattle running loose all over the state at a time when a steer worth $6 to $10 in Texas was bringing $30-$40 in Kansas City. The Johnson brothers commenced running cattle to Kansas and cashing in on the bonanza.

Lyndon Johnson grew up listening to stories from his grandfather about the rewards and perils of trailing an unruly herd of Longhorns north, of stampedes and dangerous river crossings. He heard how his grandmother, Eliza, paralyzed and bed-ridden when LBJ knew her, was alone in the house with an infant when the Indians came calling. She stuffed a handkerchief in the baby’s mouth to keep its cries from being heard and hid under a trap door while Indians ransacked the house above.

His grandfather died not long after Lyndon and his family moved to Johnson City, where he lived until he left to attend college in San Marcos. Johnson ran for Congress in 1937 to fill the 10th Congressional seat left vacant by the death of James Buchanan. Running on the promise to use electricity from dams being built in the Hill Country to bring electricity to that region, he defeated nine other candidates in a hotly contested primary.

As Johnson biographer Robert Caro pointed out, “Without electricity, even boiling water was work.” Water was hauled by hand from a well or creek and carried to the house. It took about 40 gallons of water a day to run a farm, which meant a lot of trips from the well to the house. Lyndon’s reluctance to help his mother with pumping and hauling water was a source of constant friction between the future president and his father, Sam Ealy Johnson, Jr.

To boil the water, wood had to be cut and hauled to house where it was burned in wood-burning stoves that were notoriously slow to “start up” and were also known for covering the inside of the house in soot and ash. Once the stoves finally heated up, they made the house feel like a furnace, especially in the middle of an already heat-brutal summer.

The stoves had to be lit not only to boil water but for cooking and canning. At least twice a day during canning, the ash container had to be wrestled outside, emptied and brought back. “And when the housewife wasn’t bending down to the flames, she was standing over them,” Caro wrote.

Laundry had to be done year-round. The clothes were washed outside where a huge vat of boiling water was suspended over another fire. Clothes were scrubbed in one tub with handmade lye soap and swished around by means of broomstick or paddle. From there the clothes went into a rinse tub and from there to a bluing pan and then to the starching, which completed one of what was usually four or so loads a week. The tubs had to be changed too, which took about eight gallons of water.

Many of the Hill Country women that Caro talked to told him that of all the chores that befell them, ironing was the most onerous. “Washing was hard work, but ironing was the worst,” one woman said. “Nothing could ever be as hard as ironing.”

Wielding an iron in those days meant tossing around six or seven-pound wedges of iron, often without handles, that had to be heated over a fire, where soot sometimes accumulated and, despite every effort, sent another garment back to the original washing tub. Also despite every effort, women burned their hands from time to time, which didn’t excuse them from hauling six and seven-pound loads of clothes around all day.

“The women of the Hill Country never called the instruments they used every Tuesday ‘irons,’ they called them ‘sad irons,’” Caro wrote.

Life was like that for people in the country because in the 1930s only 2.3 percent of the farms in Texas had electricity. Thirty years later, only two percent were without it. In between came the Rural Electrification Act of 1938, part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program, and electricity for rural America. Life would never be the same again for Hill Country women, and that was a good thing.


© Clay Coppedge

"Letters from Central Texas" September 10, 2010 Column
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