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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
"Letters from Central Texas"
September 10, 2010 Column