Campus News

Exhibit Traces Rural Electrification in Georgia

The changes that rural electrification made in the lives of Georgians is the subject of a large-scale exhibit at UGA’s Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies.  

“Power to the People! Rural Electrification in Georgia” includes photographs, letters, diaries and speeches, along with examples of early electric household appliances, farm equipment and one of the first utility poles set by Jackson EMC with the Rural Electrification Administration emblem attached. 

“Rural electrification, like the highway system, telephones and now the Internet is so important, so integral to who we are and what we do that we take it for granted,” says Jill Severn, exhibit curator. “But, for those who lived without electricity, the day the lights came on is a milestone right up there with birth, death and marriage. Recent hurricanes on the Gulf Coast have reminded us how much we actually do depend on electricity and other basic services.”

The Russell Library develops exhibits that complement its collection strengths, and REA and rural development appear frequently in many of the Russell’s collections. Also, the library’s namesake served as the U.S. Senate floor leader for the act that authorized the REA and was a lifelong supporter of the program.  This strong level of documentation for rural electrification and rural development in general provided a strong foundation for the exhibit’s content.

To build on these strengths, library  staff traveled the state, visiting with area electric cooperatives and interviewing people directly involved with the coming of REA and the establishment of electric membership cooperatives  around Georgia. More than 100 organizations and individuals shared their collections, memories and perspectives. At the center of the project are the memories and experiences of rural Georgians who lived through this major transition, one of the most important in modern times. 

Severn says she and her staff began developing the idea for an exhibit three years ago. They realized early that while technology is an integral part of the story, it is the people who have the stories to tell. 

“This exhibit then is not about the technology of rural electrification alone, but also about the people who dreamed of having it and of the people who struggled to provide it,” she says. “It is an exhibit about memories and reflections, about pageantry and politics, about strength and determination in the face of the hard times, about innovation and cooperation, of cooperation and common ground. As Georgians look to the future and imagine the challenges and opportunities that society will face, it is tempting to search for the next greatest thing, but as the history of rural electrification has demonstrated, technological advances alone rarely provide simple solutions to complex problems. It is people who have the power.”

During the exhibit’s run (through Sept. 30), there will be lectures and film series in addition to other events planned to illuminate the REA’s history. The Russell Library will also open on Saturdays (except for UGA home football games and university holidays) from 1 to 4:45 p.m. for the exhibit. 

Archival materials from all three special collections in the Libraries are included in the exhibit—the Russell, the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the Walter J. Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards.

—Jean Cleveland