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1923 farm project was electrifying

ST. PAUL -- Marian Glew was a part of Minnesota's agriculture history.

Glew lived on a Red Wing-area farm, one of nine hooked up to electricity in a project that transformed rural America. Most Minnesotans have not heard about the Red Wing Project, but many benefit from it. It was one of the first experiments to determine the feasibility of delivering electrical power to Minnesota farms.

The project was successful and rural farmers across the country soon enjoyed the modern convenience of electricity.

On Dec. 24, 1923, a 6.2-mile "high line" brought electricity to farms of the rural Burnside community, near Red Wing, a luxury known to city residents for more than a decade. The lighting of a Christmas tree on the W.A. Cady farm marked the first switch flipped in the Red Wing Project.

For the next four years, E.A. Stewart of the University of Minnesota's division of agriculture and engineering, the Northern States Power Co. (now Xcel Energy) and others converted nine farms to electricity, documenting every step.

The project had a goal to "determine the optimum economic uses of electricity in agriculture and to study the value of electricity in improved living condition on the farm." This meant that they had to prove to energy companies that the cost to bring electricity to rural areas was worth it by finding additional uses beyond running water and electric lights.

"It was a big hump for them to get over," Glew said.

Lighting was put into hen houses, to increase egg production, Glew explained.

Some farm equipment was converted to electricity, including using electric motors to cut silage, grind feed, milk cows and pump water.

The University of Minnesota recently celebrated the 1923 Red Wing Project as a part of Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering centennial celebrations.

Sonia Maasel Jacobsen, chairwoman of the Minnesota section of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers, and Charles Sukup, past president of ASABE, dedicated a plaque in honor of the university's contribution to the project; an event Glew said would be special to her for a long time.

"It was just such a big day in my life," Glew said. "I was very pleased to be there."

Robert Gustafson, professor of the department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering at the Ohio State University and past ASABE president, rallied to have the Red Wing Project recognized to be the 53rd dedicated landmark.

Gustafson spoke after the dedication of the plaque what meant to agricultural engineering.

"It imparts the appropriate recognition of rural electrification," Gustafson said. "This project met the need of energy issues and it was a job well done. We ought to acknowledge it."

For the more than three years, he researched literature detailing the project and found the Red Wing Project to be undeniably influential to the engineering field.

"This is one of the first careful experiment documentations," Gustafson said. "I think great care was taken by Mr. Stewart and his colleagues."

According to Stewart's project report, organizers selected Burnside because the area presented certain difficulties in line electrical construction and the uses of electricity on farms. They also believed that the farms and farmers of this community were "fairly representative of Minnesota generally."

Glew lived on the Nelson Brothers' farm, five miles from Red Wing, with her mother Laura, father Walter, and older sister Jeanette. Although Glew was born a few years after the electrification project, she still felt the impact electricity brought to her family.

"This project has been a very important part of my whole life," Glew said. "This was an experiment that paved the way for improvements and changes that came later."

Known as the historian of the family, Glew researched the project in depth and remembers her parents' stories of the electrification.

"I remember the electricity going off during storms," Glew said. "This usually happened during supper time and I remember my mother saying, 'Isn't electricity wonderful?' So we would have to take out the kerosene lamps, which were dirty..."

As a part of the project, each farm was equipped with machinery secured from manufacturers of electrical equipment and farm machinery. According to the report, the equipment was placed on the farms and loaned to the University for a period of three years or donated outright to the university.

"At the end of the experiment, they (farm families) could purchase (the equipment) at a reduced price," Glew said.

Her family decided to go back to a wood burning stove. Glew remember this being a bother: "It was my job to carry all the wood in."

The Red Wing Project cost $75,000, which Gustafson calculated to be a little under $1 million in today's costs.

"This day is about going full-circle," Glew said. "My family started with the project, and I was able to bring it full-circle attending the dedication."

This day was full-circle for the engineering world too. The Red Wing Project was launched to bring energy to farms and now energy companies are looking to farms to bring new energy to the world.

"Things continue to change and the linkage between agriculture and industry is still there," Gustafson said. "In the 1920s this was a social and economic issue in rural areas -- they needed to produce more food. Now it has come full circle, now we need rural areas to meet the challenges of creating energy."

Karrah Anderson is a University of Minnesota journalism student writing stories for the Forum Communications Minnesota State Capitol Bureau in St. Paul.