Power for the Parkinsons: The Film and the Family that Helped Electrify the American Farm.
© Ephraim Smith 1
The electrification of the farm dramatically transformed life in the American countryside.
Well into the mid-twentieth century, farmers were literally in the dark. In 1910, only 2 per cent of American farms had electricity. By the end of the 1920s, only 600,000 of some 6.5 million farms had access to electricity. If by 1935 95% of farms in Holland and 90% in France had electrical power, only one American farm family out of nine at that time had electrical power. With the Northeast and Far West having the highest percentage of electrified farms, American farmers in the Mid-West, the South, and the High Plains were largely still in the dark.4
The social costs were enormous. Without electricity, most farms lacked running water. In 1919, a typical rural family might spend ten hours a week just pumping water and carrying it to the kitchen. This water then had to be heated for wash day, where the clothes were usually scrubbed by hand. A farm wife might spend twenty more days a year on this task than a woman in a nearby city who could use an electric washer. Preservation of food was difficult without electricity; the diet was often monotonous and could be unhealthy. Other health problems could be created by the outdoor privy. Frequently, as D. Clayton Brown has noted, the privy “contaminated the water supply, causing typhoid, dysentery and a variety of gastrointestinal illness.” With agriculturalists seeing “a connection between abandonment of the land and comforts of the home,” Brown notes, “the lack of electricity meant more than inconvenience; it was viewed as a chief cause of the decline of the rural way of life.”5
On May 11, 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an executive order creating the Rural Electrification Administration. Initially, the REA had largely been seen as a relief agency that would lend money to private power utilities that would in turn put people to work building transmission lines. But when these private power interests appeared to be unwilling or unable to work on terms acceptable to the REA, that agency then turned to the idea of getting farmers to form electric co-operatives.6 In order to persuade the independent-minded farmers to join with their neighbors to complete this task, the REA asked the United States Film Service to make a film showing the advantages of electrifying the American farm. In 1939, the U.S. Film Service retained Dutch film maker Joris Ivens to undertake this project. After traveling through the Mid-West looking for a suitable location and family, Ivens selected the Bill and Hazel Parkinson farm near Warnock, Ohio. Bill & Hazel had five children: Dan, Tom, Jake, Ruth, and Frank (“Bip”). In 1939, Ivens and his crew shot on location on the Parkinson farm. The following year, Power and the Land premiered in St. Clairsville, with Ivens and the Parkinsons in attendance.7
In Power and the Land, Ivens shows the Parkinsons working hard to accomplish their daily tasks. The light of the day was the kerosene lamp. Every morning, Ruth has to fill and clean the lamps. Even so, it was difficult to read by the flickering light of a kerosene lamp. In one scene, Hazel, her own eyes tired from sewing in the dim light, pushes the kerosene lamp across the kitchen table so that Ruth and Bip can more easily see their school work. And then there was wash day when water had to be hand pumped, carried into the house, and heated over a fire in large kettles. In Power and the Land, Hazel and Ruth are shown ladling this hot water into pails that they carry out to the back porch and pour into a wash tub. Hazel then scrubs the clothes by hand on a washboard. Once the wash has been dried on the clothes line, her task is still not done. Hazel is next shown ironing with the heavy hand irons that had to be heated on the wood stove. Many farm women called these irons “sad irons.”
Life on the farm was also hard on the men in the family. In the darkness before dawn, Bill and his sons have to walk to the barn by the light of a kerosene lamp. By that same flickering light, they milk the cows. Once the milking is done, the Parkinson boys labor to pump enough water by hand to cool the fresh milk. On a hot summer day, the milk could spoil. In one scene, the milk truck driver hands Bill a note that his previous shipment was rejected by the creamery. Folding up the note and putting it in his pocket, Bill instructs his sons to feed the sour milk to the pigs. The milk check, the narrator (William Adams) notes, will be a little less that month. Without electricity, wood had to be sawn by hand, tools had to be sharpened by hand or with a foot-powered grinding stone, and there always was the endless pumping of water for the livestock and household needs.
But change was coming for the American Farm. One of the critical scenes in Power and the Land has Bill’s neighbors coming over to help cut the corn. Bill and his neighbors, sitting around the water pump, talk things over in the “country way.” The power companies, the film’s narrator intones, “say it costs too much, say a lot of things.” “The power company won’t do it,” the narrator continues, “but I hear there is a new kind of power – government power. I heard there is an agency -- Rural Electrification.” Bill and his neighbors next meet in the local school house, organize a cooperative, borrow money from the REA, and bring power to their farms. In the concluding segments of the film, two REA linemen come into the kitchen as Hazel is preparing the evening meal. One of the linemen flips the new light switch on and off. As one of the linemen is explaining the dials on the stove, Bill comes in the back door and casually throws his hat over the no-longer needed kerosene lamp. He and one of the linemen admire the pies that Hazel is putting in the new electric oven.
After listening to the latest forecast on their new radio, Bill goes down in the basement to check on the new electric water pump. Thanks to this pump and an electric water heater, Bip is upstairs taking a shower in the new bathroom. Bill himself goes up to wash his hands in the new sink. In the meantime, Ruth, having put ice cube trays in the new refrigerator, now starts ironing with the new electric irons. As the film ends, it is dark outside. Bill, returning to the house after coming in the barn, stops momentarily on the back porch and turns the switch off and on. As he glances back toward the barn, there appears to be a glint of satisfaction in his eyes. Bill then walks into the now well lit kitchen where his family is sitting down for an evening meal -- prepared with the latest electrical appliances. As he surveys the family scene, he and Hazel give each other a sly smile. They know that life will now be better on the Parkinson farm.
While Ivens was disappointed in not being allowed to emphasize the conflict between farmers and the private utilities, he was proud of his ability to establish a close and trusted relationship with the Parkinson family.8 He was also justifiably proud of the final film. Scholars have paid the film some high compliments. Richard Dyer MacCann writes that it contained “some imaginative and satisfying documentary photography” and “is an important instance of persuasive reporting on a government program by means of film.”9 “At his best, in a film such as Power and the Land,” Richard Meran Barsam writes of Ivens, “he combines poetry, politics, and photography into a statement of uncommon beauty and strength.” The film “is a wonderfully evocative piece of Americana . . .” “That Power and the Land could be made by a foreigner new to the United States and emerge as wholly American as a painting by Edward Hopper,” Barsam adds, “is both a tribute to the subject and to the sensibility and vision of the director.” “Ivens’ affinity for the struggles of peoples everywhere, whether Spain, or China, or America,” Barsam concludes, “is nowhere better represented than in this lovely film.”10
The film also provides insights into the work of Joris Ivens (1898-1989). In 1928, Ivens had established his reputation as an avant-garde film maker with an eleven minute masterpiece The Bridge.11 Between then and his death in 1989, Ivens produced more than eighty documentary films. In a biography of Ivens published in 2000, Hans Schoots notes that : “Most of his films from the twenties and thirties were and still are mileposts in documentary history.”12 In 2002, the European Foundation Joris Ivens organized a showing of sixteen of his films in such impressive venues as the Lincoln Center in New York City, the National Gallery of Arts in Washington, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In Cinema Without Borders, Andre Stukens, the director of the European Foundation Joris Ivens, writes that “Joris Ivens is in many ways the quintessential filmmaker of the 20 century . . . with a body of work that chronicles the various dramas of Good vs. Evil, and of Benevolent Forces against Malevolent Forces.”13 In making Power and the Land, Stufkens writes, Ivens “would be able to realize his ideal form of documentary, with maximum re-enactment by non-actors on location.” When the United States Film Service prevented Ivens from emphasizing the struggle between the private electric companies and the rural cooperatives, Ivens, according to Stufkens, “shifted the drama to other areas: to nature, to light and dark, to personal relationships. This resulted in a distinctly autobiographical film.”14 “Almost no other film of Ivens,” Stufkens writes, “contains as many autobiographical elements as POWER AND THE LAND.”15
Power and the Land was filmed some 64 years ago. The Parkinson farm compound is no longer standing. Indeed, the original farm site is almost unrecognizable. Even more sadly, Bill and Hazel and all of their children (Dan, Tom, Jake, Ruth, and Bip) are now deceased.16 Smith has completed videotape interviews with Ruth’s husband, three of Ruth’s grandchildren and two of Bip’s grandchildren. While only one of the grandchildren could remember any details about Bill Parkinson (Hazel had already died), they recalled what they had learned from their parents about the family’s role in the making of Power and the Land. One of the most lasting memories of Ruth and Bip, as conveyed later by their grandchildren, was the difficulty Hazel had in keeping the same clothes in the exact order on the clothesline throughout the shoot. The grandchildren also noted that Bip and Ruth took great pride in being part of the history of the electrification of the American farm and later in life gave a number of presentations in the community. The grandchildren also recounted the subsequent history of family members after 1940.17
The Parkinson grandchildren noted that the farm already had electricity in 1939. This is not new information for scholars. Robert L. Snyder, in a 1968 study of Pare Lorentz, quoted an October 6, 1939, letter from Ed Locke, Ivens’ script writer and assistant director, that the Parkinsons already had “the following electrical equipment: 1. electric lights in house and barn, 2. electric motor attached to washing machine, 3. radio, 4. vacumn cleaner.” In 1985, Ruth Parkinson recalled that “we had to hang sheets from the ceiling to cover up the light fixtures, move pictures to hide the switches on the walls and dig out the old sad irons again.”18 Ivens did not mention in his autobiography that the Parkinsons already had power in 1939. And there is only a very indirect statement to this effect in Power and the Land.19 By portraying the Parkinsons farm as without electrical power, Ivens misled his audience. His scenes involving the wood stove, kerosene lights, and the tub and scrub board are re-enactments by the Parkinsons of a recently abandoned lifestyle. If he not make a specific reference in his memoirs about the prior electrification of the Parkinson farm, Ivens nevertheless did write that the “farm film presented material that seemed to demand re-enactment.” Ivens, of course, was not the only documentary filmmaker to use what some have called “straightforward re-enactment” or the “staging of reality.” During this period, the sincere attempt at re-enactment was a well accepted practice by documentary film makers.20
When the scenes for Power and the Land were shot, the Parkinsons had enjoyed the benefits of electricity for less than a year. There is little question that their reconstruction of their earlier lifestyle was accurate. And as was typical of much early rural electrification, the Parkinsons had not yet made full use of the potential of this new technology. Ivens, in his memoirs, indicated that he had offered the standard government rate of $5 a day. While Tom Parkinson later said in 1985 that he could not recall any money being exchanged as payment, he did remember his father saying he would settle for a water pump and indoor plumbing. The Parkinsons thus received better lighting and modern plumbing for the house and the barn.21 Whatever staging may have occurred in the first part of the film, the subsequent scenes showing the Parkinsons’ pleasure with the new water pump, the shower in the basement, and the modern bathroom upstairs was genuine. If Hazel also received kitchen appliances as part of the bargain, however, she subsequently discovered that she preferred her old wood stove. According to Ruth’s daughter, Hazel thought the old wood stove cooked better and it remained in the Parkinson house until the property was sold.22
In addition to providing interviews, the Parkinson grandchildren allowed Smith to copy materials in their possession. These include still family photographs and as well as REA production stills left with the family. Some of these photographs show Ivens and his crew at work on the Parkinson farm. The grandchildren also permitted Dr. Smith to copy two additional REA films in their possession. These short films, Bip Goes To Town and Worst of Farm Disasters, feature members of the Parkinson family and their neighbors. These films were produced for the Rural Electrification Administration by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The title credits for both films are identical: “Edited by Lora Hays under supervision of Joris Ivens.” Douglas Moore, who had written the score for Power and the Land, also composed the music for these films. More research needs to be completed on the origins of these two films and the extent of Ivens’ direct involvement with their production. To date, scholars have not included these two films in his filmography.
The longer of the two films, Bip Goes to Town, runs eleven minutes. After washing up and receiving a grocery list from Hazel, Bip rides into town with the milk truck. Neither Frank, the driver, or Bip speak directly on camera. (The credits do not identify who did the voice overs.) Frank and Bip stop at a modern dairy, powered by electricity. Later in town, Bip tours the creamery, also powered by electricity. “Will electricity cool milk on our farm, too?” Bip asks. ”Yes, Bip,” Frank replies, “cool milk and pump and wash and iron and a hundred other things, and electricity won’t get tired.” After a brief stop at the store, Bip and the driver head back to the Parkinson farm. As was the case with Power and the Land, the narration obscures the fact that the Parkinsons already had electricity. “Are we going to get REA electricity,” Bip asks. “Yes, Bip,” Frank replies, “seven hundred thousand farms like yours have had electricity because of the REA since 1935.” When Bip then comments that the overhead lines will “go past our farm,” Frank assures him (in what is an obvious inaccuracy) that “they’ll be out there by fall, Bip.” “Lights in the house,” Frank adds later in a final pitch for the REA, “means a radio for Bip and better light for studying. But electricity won’t do it all, Bip. We need small boys too -- small boys who will grow up into men and put electricity to work and work on the farm and in rural factories -- small boys -- our stake in the future.”23
The second film, Worst of Farm Disasters, runs seven minutes. The narrator is not identified. In the opening scene, one of the Parkinson boys bumps a kerosene lantern swinging in the barn. The narrator warns “the lanterns swings too far -- fire -- the worst of farm disasters.” The next scene is of flames and of the Parkinsons and their neighbors rushing to put out the fire. The action is now so quick that one catches only brief glimpses of Bill and his sons as part of the group fighting the fire. But all they have is a pump and a bucket brigade. Ultimately, the barn burns to the ground. If only they had electricity, the narrator notes, they would have had water pressure. “With electric lights,” the narrator adds, “the fire might not have started.” If only there had been electricity in the barn, there would have been no fire started by a kerosene lantern. The film ends with a closeup of a hand addressing a envelope to the Rural Electrification Administration.24
In addition to securing copies of these films, Smith was able to videotape childhood friends of the Parkinson children. One of these was John W. Parkinson, III, a relative and close friend of Bip’s. John was present during part of the filming in 1939. In a recent interview, he recalled Ivens’ being clearly in charge and the grumbling by some of the cameramen over the numerous retakes. He recalled that the dinner table scene was filmed in mid-afternoon with the shades drawn. He and Bip were also greatly impressed with Ivens’ Packard convertible coup with its side light. Smith also interviewed two other friends of the family. Both grew up on nearby farms. One, John Johnson vividly recalled life on the farm before electricity. Another childhood friend, George Kuzma, described Hazel as a great cook and caring person. Kuzma noted that he was in several of the scenes filmed by Ivens and his crew.25 .
The Parkinson story does not end with the premier of Power and and Land in 1940. On December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States declared war on Japan and Germany. Even before Pearl Harbor, Dan joined up. He served for four years, most of that in the New Guinea campaigns in the Pacific. Dan did not return to the farm until after the war was over. In the meantime, Tom served in the United States Army in the European theater. He was wounded at the Battle of Sinz in early 1945. For his conduct during that battle and his unwillingness to be evacuated until his men were safe, Tom was awarded the Purple Heart and the Silver Star. Ruth, probably influenced by Dan and Tom’s military service, underwent nurses’ training and became a nurse. Bip was too young to fight in World War II, but he later volunteered to fight in Korea. There he was part of an artillery unit and saw much combat. Although Bip did not talk much about what happened in Korea, his two sons later learned from their mother that on one occasion his artillery position had been overrun. In the ensuing struggle, Bip had to kill an enemy soldier with a shovel. Apparently because of this and other horrific combat experiences, Bip came home from Korea an alcoholic. But with his wife’s support, he pulled himself together and became a solid citizen in Belmont, Ohio. On occasion, Bip, when his children and grandchildren were in the local school in Belmont, Ohio, Bip would go down and show Power and the Land and share his recollections. One of the teachers remembered Bip’s presentation and recalled that they particularly enjoyed the scene showing Bip coming out of the outhouse.26
Few people today realize how the coming of electricity transformed life in the American countryside. This is an important story. But the story is also about ordinary farm boys who subsequently answered their country’s call in time of need. This story will be told in the forthcoming documentary: Power for the Parkinsons: The Film and the Family that Helped Electrify the American Farm.
Ephraim Smith, 2003 (published in the Newsmagazine nr. 9 November 2003)