Sherburne History Center

Sherburne History Center
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Thursday, May 28, 2020

Sherburne County Before Electricity

Electricity in Sherburne County generates a variety of unique stories about living and growing up in the county.  Providing electricity to the entire county stretched, in time, for over forty years.  Electrical power first arrived in Elk River in 1917.  In other areas, isolated farms, in the county, electricity came available in the 1950s.  Stories of electricity and the times before electrical power provide a unique perspective on life in Sherburne County.  The edited oral history of Angela Goenner. of Clear Lake, is one of these unique stories.  

Born in Nebraksa, Angela (Eikmeier) Goenner found her way to Minnesota as a child.  Her parents operated a general store in Stearns County before moving to Sherburne County.  Angela married Ernest Goenner in 1933.  She lived on the family farm, in Clear lake, until her death in 2001.  She remembers her family getting electricity in 1948.

I can remember a lot about what it was like before electricity, I'll tell you.  The icebox with a little pan underneath for the water that you had to drain every so often.  We were lucky to have the ice because we lived right next to a lake here, you know.  We made our own ice. 
The first thing we got was an electric refrigerator.  That was my prime thing that I wanted was a good electric refrigerator because I was sick and tired of dumping that water all the time for keeping things.  It kept things so much cleaner and also cooler.  It was so much more handy.  We put a motor on the cream separators so we could run that by electricity.  Then we had lights in the barn and lights in the house.  Before that our lights were Coleman gas lamps, gas lanterns.  The boys used lanterns out in the barn and we had what they call the gas lantern.  I don't know if you have any idea what they are like?  It was so nice just to be able to flick that little thing over there and get the lights in the house.  It was really, really wonderful.  Then, the ironing.  I got a nice electric iron.  Before that I had a gas iron.  I don't know if you remember what they were like.  They were an iron with a little bulb on the end of it that you put gasoline in.  It had to be white gas, you know, real good gasoline.  Then, you pumped the pressure in there, and then that would force the thing, and you lit it, and then that would keep the iron hot, and you could iron with it—rather than wait till bread baking day so you could get your irons hot on the stove.  We used to do it that way.  We had irons that you heated on the stove and did the ironing with that.  Then when I got that little gas iron, oh, I thought I was in seventh heaven, you know, because that worked so slick.  You could keep right on going.  But then when the electricity came along, all you had to do was just plug that thing in and it was hot. 
Electric iron circa 1950
The irons themselves were much lighter to handle back and forth as compared to those chunks of iron that you had that you put the little handle in, on the stove.  I can remember doing the ironing with those, and back and forth to the stove, get another fresh iron, come over here and iron some more.  Then when that gets too cold, you take it back, and set it on the stove, and take another one.  You had a set of three, with three you could pretty well go along with it.  And you could always kind of plan your ironing around the day when you baked bread, because you had to have the stove hot anyhow to get the oven warm enough to bake the bread.  That was just a good day to keep the irons hot on the stove.  You had to kind of compromise with a lot of those things, especially in the summertime.  In the wintertime, the stove was lit all the time.  In the summertime, you didn't light the big stove because a lot of times it got too hot from that big wood stove.  We had little kerosene stoves that we used, but you couldn't put the irons on those, and bread baking was still done with the wood stove.  One day a week, you always had to light that big wood stove and bake bread and iron. 
Pre-electricity sadiron was used by heating on top of
a wood burning stove, generally in groups of three.

Just one example of the challenges of pre-electricity life in Sherburne County, ironing presented some unique challenges to daily life.  Other simple tasks with their unique challenges might include reading and writing, cooking, and washing clothes.  Clearly, pre-electricity life in Sherburne County presented a uniquely challenging lifestyle.

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