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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Let There Be Light: September 1897

Originally printed on September 19, 2007
Journal Opinion

It was one of those fall evenings when the light faded early, predicting darker days ahead. But on the streets of Bradford electric lights burned for the first time to hold back the darkness.
The United Opinion for September 3, 1897 described that evening as follows: “Wednesday evening will long be remembered by our citizens as the beginning of a new epoch in the history of Bradford, whereby, night has been made nearly as light as day and people can traverse our highways and byways with a perfect understanding regarding their meanderings. The electric lights were a signal success and from the time they were started, about 6 p.m., until a little after midnight they gave forth a perfect, steady, white light, without a quiver. People everywhere, who were unprejudiced, pronounced the lights very fine and expressed satisfaction that we are to be abreast with most other enterprising villages in this respect. Company G band gave a musical program for the large number of out of town visitors who have come in to enjoy the illumination and show by their presence their approval”.

Electric lights had been a long time coming. Kerosene lamps and lanterns were generally used in homes and businesses, in most cases replacing candles. Streets were lit with gas lamps.

Samuel Morey of Orford had experimented in the use of water gas which was later used to light his home and some city streets, although not in his hometown. In 1837, Thomas Davenport of Rutland had developed the electric motor. In the 1870’s Thomas Edison had created the first commercially successful electric incandescent light and went on to install electric lighting in New York City in 1882.

Bradford was not the first area village to install electricity. In April 1888, people from surrounding communities were attracted to the Vershire mining village of Copperfield as lights were installed. Woodsville had begun using water power for the production of electricity in 1890 and according to Haverhill historian Katharine Blaisdell, “by 1894 there were 54 street lights in the village, and some of the homes had part-time electricity.” Wells River had electric lights by 1891 and established an electric and water works plant in 1896.

In fact it took Bradford some time to consider the new invention. An 1891 Bradford Village meeting voted against a proposal to purchase an electric light plant for the purpose of replacing the gas street lamps. That opposition seems to have come largely from those who disapproved of a government-owned enterprise, although there were those who were just opposed to change.

In 1895, voters approved a resolution to contract with a private company for the service. That company was the Bradford Electric Lighting Company established by Burton Hooker and others in May, 1897. Hooker invested nearly $2000 to create a plant in the old brick mill using water power from the Waits River.

Once the company was established, the Village along with a number of businesses and individual homeowners signed up, thus giving financial stability to the utility. Throughout that summer the progress at the plant, the setting of poles (see photo) and stringing electrical wires in the village were reported weekly.

By 1900 some 50 villages and cities in Vermont had some electricity. The Newbury Village Lighting District was formed in January, 1905. In 1906-07, electricity was extended to North Haverhill and Haverhill Corner, the latter having made a contract with the Bradford company. In 1909, Fairlee replaced its gas street lights with electric lights, something it had been considering since 1898. Groton replaced the town’s kerosene oil street lamps with electric lights that same year. Public buildings and private homes throughout the valley were electrified as the industry expanded.

In 1905, the Bradford company expanded its operation by building a power station across the Waits River, next to a new dam. Ownership also changed from Hooker to Newport’s Charles Prouty who introduced a new billing system. Prior to this time home users were charged a flat rate based on the number of lights. This system not only caused waste to the extent that the company had reached its limit of power production, but to the failure of the company to pay a dividend on its capital stock. Now service would be metered, causing alarm for some customers.

In a series of letters from Prouty to Mrs. Ellen Doe of Bradford, the new system was explained to answer the questions of this perplexed consumer. Assuring Mrs. Doe that she would not have to pay more in the new system than in the old, Prouty explained that “the people of Bradford should be able to light their entire dwellings from $1.to $4. per month.”

The introduction of electricity revolutionized the life of homemakers as electrical appliances were invented. The electric flat iron (1890’s) and vacuum cleaner (1901) were followed by the washing machine and toaster (1909), refrigerator (1913) and waffle iron (1911). By the 1920’s the electric stove began to compete with the gas stove.

These new inventions caused an increase in the average customer’s electrical consumption from 264 kilowatt hours in 1912 to 339 in 1920 and 547 in 1930. Mass marketing with a resulting price reduction meant that more families were able to obtain these electrical appliances for their homes.

But rural folks did not always get to enjoy these modern conveniences. In areas where potential customers were widely spaced, electric companies were reluctant to make the necessary investments to light the countryside. As an alternative, homeowners such as Winthrop Jackman of East Corinth installed acetylene lights in his home in 1913 and others install private Delco generating systems.

But by the mid-1930’s only 10.4% of farms nationwide had electricity. Many rural families did not receive electricity until the rural electrification movement and the resulting New Deal’s Rural Electrification Act went into effect. Speaker of the Vermont House and later governor, George Aiken advocated for extending electricity to Vermont farms.

Franklyn Linton of Groton recalls when electricity was extended to his family’s farm in the Pike Hill section of Corinth in 1932. “We skimped on wiring.” he wrote in a recent letter. “We had a light with two bulbs in the kitchen, one in the living room, one in the cellar.” He described one bulb in the hallway with a long cord so that it could be used to light the way to the upstairs bedrooms, a practice used in other Vermont farmhouses. The few electrical appliances they had were plugged into ceiling fixtures with the bulb screwed out during the day.

For farm families the introduction of electricity meant that milking could be done by machine and milk cooled more efficiently. Rural sections of Topsham began to receive power after 1942.

It was not until 1946 that electricity reached Hackett Hill in Bradford with its three families. Seven year old Gary Garone recalled that before the power lines were installed his farm family had no generator, milking was done by hand and that when going to bed one “took a kerosene lamp.” Mink Hill in Bradford had poles set in 1948. It would take until 1964 for all Vermont towns to be hooked to the electrical grid.

The decades that followed the introduction of electric lights brought major changes to the production and distribution of electricity. Small locally-owned companies were absorbed by larger companies such as Central Vermont Public Service, Green Mountain Power and Washington Electric Co-op. Small dams on the Waits and Wells Rivers were dwarfed by new dams on the Connecticut at E. Barnet, Littleton and Wilder. Alternate forms of production from atomic power, biomass, solar and wind are being debated and implemented. Only when the power goes out do most residents fully realize the degree to which they have become dependent on electricity.

The United Opinion concluded its article of September 3, 1897 with a prediction that has come true far beyond that editor’s wildest imagination: “Electric lights will increase in popularity the more they are seen, and the very few who have predicted a failure in this way of lighting will be answered by the lights themselves, and very soon their fault-finding and bickering will go out into total darkness and oblivion”.

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