Before the lights came on

Very few people can remember when they could look out into the fields and there weren’t any lights — but 97-year-old Robert Baumle does. When he was 17 years old and a recent high school graduate, he got his first job as a crew member surveying land for Paulding Putnam Electric Cooperative power lines in 1937.

Robert Baumle with PPEC Marketing Intern Kandee Manson

Baumle said Southern Michigan Engineering Company was contracted to measure and survey where to put the lines in Paulding and Putnam counties. There were four members on the crew and an engineer from Southern Michigan Engineering Company. According to Baumle, the crews called themselves the “chain gang.”

During this time, there were very few jobs for 17-year-olds. “I was lucky to get a job and get paid 32 cents an hour, whereas other people my age were farming and only making $1 a day,” Baumle said. “This was a time when minimum wage was only 25 cents an hour, making survey crew one of the best jobs around.”

Baumle was glad he could work as a chain gang member for two years before he started farming and before being deployed to World War II, where he served as a military police guard for Nazi prisoners.

After living such a full and eventful life, Baumle knew it was important to have electricity, but he didn’t know how great of an impact it would have until later in his life. “In today’s lifestyle, it’s difficult to do daily tasks without electricity, and we expect the lights to turn on when we flip the switch,” he said.

One thing is for sure: It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to look outside and see no homes with lights on, shining out with a warm glow. But Baumle will always be able to say, “I remember when I could look out over the fields, and there weren’t any lights — just darkness.”