Transformed by the light


At 101, Laurel Ellis recalls when electricity came to the farm

Diana Ellis, left, with her mother-in-law, Laurel Ellis, both of Wynne. Diana says Laurel has always been a “faithful, supportive mother-in-law.” photo by Gary Bean

When they heard rural electricity was coming to their farms, the people of the Jolly Ellis Community in Cross County stopped what they were doing and headed out to watch the Woodruff Electric Cooperative workers string up the lines. 

“Oh, what a day that was,” remembers Laurel Ellis, age 101. “It was such an expectant feeling. We had never had electricity, so we really didn’t know what to expect. We could hardly wait.”

Now living comfortably in the Magnolia Pines retirement community in Wynne, Laurel has a gentle laugh and a perpetual smile on her soft features. Her eyes twinkle with memories, and she is full of stories and details of how different life used to be. People are sometimes shocked by the changes she’s seen.

“I remember one night my husband was in the hospital. My son and I went to visit him. We had some friends there visiting, and we got to talking about old times. On the way home, my son said, ‘Mama, why’d y’all sit up there and tell all that stuff?’ I said, ‘Because it was true! That’s the way we lived.’”

Laurel and dozens of other cooperative members were interviewed this year as part of an oral history project conducted by the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas, working with students from the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock.

This photo taken almost a century ago of Laurel as a small child (girl in front, with bow) traveling by wagon with her family is a treasured family relic.

Getting an education Laurel was born Laurel Brown to Paul and Gloria Brown, the eldest daughter and third of nine children. They were a farming family living just outside of Wynne. When she was 3 years old, the growing family moved to land about eight miles outside of town, living for two years in a two-room log house. Once her father had built their permanent home — a greatly expanded four-room dwelling — they moved in.

That was where Laurel was raised. She remembers all her sisters and brothers gathering around their one kerosene lamp to do their homework or play a game. Her childhood was filled with work. “I was probably picking cotton by the time I was 5 or 6, and cooking meals by the time I was 10,” she says.

The children’s chores were extensive, by necessity. “There was always something we needed to do,” she explains.

She says times were meager, especially during the Depression, when they “just subsisted,” but that despite the challenges, her parents were determined that all nine of their children would complete a high school education, a rare goal in that place and time.

“And we did,” she remembers with pride. “We were the first ones around here to go to high school.”

The light of her life

Berger and Laurel Ellis, in front of the country home Berger built their family in the 1930s. photo courtesy of Laurel Ellis

After graduating, she taught school in the Jolly Ellis Community. There, she met and started dating a farmer named Berger Ellis. She married him at age 20, the start of a loving marriage that would last more than a half century, until his death in 1991.

“Berger built us a one-room structure, and we lived in that for two years while I went back to teaching school and he worked on building us a real house,” Laurel  says. That first one-room house was heated by the wood stove, which in summer was so hot she had to go outside to cook with a charcoal bucket instead.

Shortly after moving into their new home, their first son, Riley Paul, was born, followed within a few years by his brother Ira and sister Gloria. Riley Paul was born into a home lit by oil lamps and heated by a wood stove.

By the late 1930s, electrification had arrived. Electricity was centralized to one lightbulb hanging from the ceiling in the living room, with several plugs on the wire above it. For a while, until wall outlets became available, anything electric had to be run through that plug with a cord leading up to the ceiling.

“When it came, it was pretty wonderful to just reach up there, pull that string and turn that light on,” Laurel says with a smile.

Modern marvels

Laurel says her first priority was getting a washing machine. Washing Day, until then, had been an all-day ordeal, requiring hand-pumping the water, carrying it in buckets to the tub, then hand-scrubbing each garment against a washboard to get out the dirt.

“With a washer all we had to do was plug it in, turn it on and put the wash in it, and it would be done in a few minutes!” she says. “Amazing.”

Her second appliance was a refrigerator, which revolutionized things. Pre-electricity, Berger had dug a hole in the ground near the house, and lined it with cardboard boxes for insulation, she said. Then they’d go half a mile up the road to get a block of ice to drop down in there.

“That was all the refrigeration we had,” she says. “So, it was mighty nice to open up a cold refrigerator door and make ice and keep things safe and cool.”

Refrigeration and the freezer allowed Laurel to prepare better foods.

“I could keep food to prepare without it spoiling,” she says. “It was easier on me, and we could have a more balanced diet. And we could have leftovers.”

Piece by piece, they added new modernizations. Laurel says for “a great many years” she and Berger would give each other electric appliances for their anniversary. “I would usually give him some electric tools for his wood shop — that was his pride and joy — and he would give me something like an electric iron or a new curling iron or fan.”

She talks of the differences these small things made. Her previous iron, actually made of iron, had to be heated by placing it in the fireplace or a burner on the wood stove. To curl her hair, she stuck her iron curler into the chimney of a kerosene lamp until it got hot. She remembers getting an electric lawnmower, albeit with a cord that still had to be run to the house. A “wonder” of an electric fan “with blades that went around and around” replaced the hand fans they’d always used. Instead of the whole family gathering around one lamp, each person could have a lamp.

Electric appliances were a wonder to rural Arkansans who had previously done all work manually. photo NRECA

“Electricity just made life easier, especially for the women. Our families could be cleaner, and so much more comfortable. We had more time to do things besides chores all day,” she says. “My children had more opportunities after we got electricity. They had a better life.”

She also remembers a time when she was crippled with an injury. “People with disabilities; think about what electricity is doing for them. I know the difference; I’ve been there. You try to cook a meal in a wheelchair using a wood stove,” she says, shaking her head.

For Berger, work in his shop changed from manual and hand-cranked tools to the ease and increased precision of electric tools. His old charcoal burner could be replaced with electric welders. “He just loved working with those things; even a screwdriver could be electric,” she says with fondness.

It took teamwork to build lines to serve electric co-op members. photo NRECA

Over the years, they added outlets and fixtures, and kept updated with the times. Woodruff Electric Cooperative, she says, was there the whole way, holding meetings, providing Rural Arkansas magazine, now Arkansas Living, and helping the community understand what was happening with their electricity. They also got the power back on quickly in the rare times it went out. “That doesn’t happen much, but whenever the electricity is out, we remember what it was like and realize what a blessing electricity is.”

She speaks glowingly and at length about the strong relationship her community has had with their electric cooperative, from the very beginning. Early on, for instance, Woodruff Electric, like many cooperatives, employed a home economist who would go into communities to train women how to use the appliances or give general tips on keeping house and feeding their families.

Positivity and resourcefulness

Laurel beams positivity, smiling often as she talks. “I don’t like to be even in a group that’s being negative. I either tell them, ‘Shut up,’ or I get up and walk away,” she says, laughing. “I almost do that here sometimes,” she confesses with a wink.

During World War II, her mother taught Laurel how to cook nutritiously during rationing with whatever they had. “I started using molasses and honey, for example, since we didn’t have sugar,” she says.

Being positive, and smart about using whatever is available turned into a career. After her children were grown, for 15 years she put her experience scraping by to good use working for a government program called Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP). “I went into low-income homes,” she explains. “I had to use what they had in that home, but I taught them how to use food stamps and how to cook a balanced meal for their children, or how to save on food, be nutritious.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, Laurel became involved with the National Home Instruction Club. Joining a busload of Arkansas women, she would go to national events, and “pretty well traveled all around the states.” For a woman who had lived within a few miles of her birthplace all her life, this was a big opportunity. Although she wouldn’t live anywhere other than her beloved Cross County, she says, “I’m very glad that I got to see some of the places I got to see.”

Hobbies and habits

In addition to all kinds of needlework from crocheting to quilting, and a lifelong love of reading, Laurel loved to cook. Her broccoli cheese casserole is still requested at family gatherings, but baking pies and cakes in her electric oven was her specialty, she says. Her famous cherry-o cream pie was her son Ira’s favorite; he once insisted she make it for all his buddies when she visited him in aeronautics school. She became known for her cakes’ beauty, too, often decorating wedding cakes for local brides.

Cooperation and togetherness

A lifelong Methodist, Laurel taught Sunday School at the same country church for 51 years. She still advises young people, “Be honest. Know how to work. Have a positive attitude. And believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and in God. Without that, you don’t have any peace.”

One day the church was having a revival. Ellis remembers coming in sweaty and tired from the fields picking cotton that day and finding to her panic that the preacher had unexpectedly arrived “to freshen up” right at supper time. She told him they didn’t have anything but cold leftovers since she’d been out working, not cooking. He suggested that they enjoy a bowl of the warm, sweet milk Berger had just brought in, and the leftover cornbread, insisting to her disbelief that was exactly what he wanted. That night at the revival he told everyone about the wonderful meal she had served him. “And that,” she says with a big laugh, “is the last time I worried about feeding the preacher.”

She sees the cooperative model as the way not only of the past, but of the future.

“In everyday life, in a family even, you’ve got to have cooperation, or it doesn’t work. That’s what Woodruff Electric has been: a group of just farm people who banded together and worked to improve each other’s lives. I’ve seen Woodruff Electric do it through all these years. We have so much better service and life now because of improvements. People have a say-so and the people feel like they are part of it. That’s the way it should be.” She adds, “After all, that’s what life is all about, working together.”

A decorative linen in Laurel Ellis’ living quarters. She has three generations of grandchildren, 33 in all. photo Jenny Boulden

Today, as her 102nd birthday approaches on Aug. 7, Laurel Ellis is grateful.

“I’m glad there were so many changes, because it meant my children could go to high school and do things, have opportunities I didn’t have growing up.”

She now has nine grandchildren, 18 great-grandchildren and six “great-great grands.”

“I love being with them. I’m so thankful that they make me feel like I’m a part of them. That’s just the type of family I have,” she says, love in her voice. “They bring me a lot of joy. Being with them, and serving the Lord; those are the highlights of my life.”