RURAL FREE DELIVERY - The Servel Refrigerators Were Cherished


By Mack Samples

During the 1940's and 1950's rural electrification had penetrated most of the rural areas of America. A great majority of Americans were enjoying electric lights, radios, and record players. But the one electric appliance that brought the most joy to those who were connected to the grid was the electric refrigerator. Milk, which would soon spoil in the cellar, could now be kept for several days. And, let's face it, milk just plain tasted better when it was cold. The electric grid also brought home-produced ice. Indeed, iced tea could now be enjoyed down on the farm.

But in the isolated hills and hollows of West Virginia during the 1940's and early 1950's, the electric grid had not yet arrived. The people who lived in those areas were very envious of those who were connected to the grid, mainly because of the refrigerators. In the days before electricity made its way into the rural areas, no one gave a refrigerator much thought. But now, as those who lived deep in the hollows became exposed to them, they all wanted one.

Even though the grid moved slowly into the isolated areas, there was, alas, a solution. It was called the Servel refrigerator and it was powered by natural gas. Many of the residents of the isolated areas had natural gas. Indeed, many of them had FREE natural gas. So, by the 1940's, Servel refrigerators were becoming fairly widespread in West Virginia.

There were two problems involved with getting one into your home. First, they were fairly expensive and many people simply could not afford one. Second, they weighed a ton and were hard to transport. Rutted out roads that ran up the hollows made transporting such an appliance very difficult. I personally witnessed a few of them being hauled in on a horse-drawn sled.

The Servels were very durable. I know of some that lasted for fifty years. But in 1998, the U.S. Government's Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) issued a warning advising consumers to stop using Servel gas refrigerators manufactured between 1933 and 1957. The problem was that after many years of use, the gas burner got fouled by dirt and rust, causing carbon monoxide to escape. According to the CPSC report, 22 deaths had been attributed to the Servel.

A group was formed by the company called the Servel Corrective Action Committee. This group provided a toll free number which could be called for a one hundred dollar rebate and instructions about how to safely dispose of the appliance.

Despite its tragic end, the Servel was a God-send to many of the isolated residents of West Virginia. I know of many people who enjoyed years of good service from the old appliance. During those years before the electric grid finally made its way into the hills and hollows, they too could enjoy cold milk and iced tea.

When electricity finally arrived most folks opted for the electric variety. Frigidaire became the most popular brand. In fact, many mountain folks called all refrigerators "Frigidaires."

Servels are still around and are produced by Dormetic Corporation. I haven't seen one, but I am sure they all have the Obama Administration's seal of approval.

Hur Herald from Sunny Cal
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