As the chill of winter creeps in, we huddle in the warmth of our homes, and turn on the lights to drive away the dark that comes earlier and earlier each day. It is easy to forget the luxury that this really is, and that for the majority of human history, up to just about 100 years ago, the onset of winter brought with it cold and darkness that we couldn’t just dispel with the flick of a switch.
The electric age shimmered into existence in the late 19th century, with famed inventor Thomas Edison’s creation of the incandescent electric light bulb in 1879. This creation would go on to illuminate the country, and the world, becoming one of the first uses of electricity in everyday homes of the time.
The adaptation of the region to electric light was rapid. Salem, before being incorporated as part of Winston-Salem, was the first town in North Carolina, and perhaps even in the whole of the South, to have the newfangled electric lights in its manufacturing plants, with Winston opening a generating plant to provide both street and residential lighting in 1887.
Closer to home, a Mount Airy News article from 1893 titled “Light the Street” voiced the early calls for the electrification of the town’s streets. The article laments that people are “heartily ashamed” of the lack of lights in the streets and that “it is a shame to allow the people to grope their way in darkness any longer.” As with most communities, before electric lights were installed in the streets, the area was reliant on gas or oil lamps, which were often unreliable and needed to be lit individually by hand. The introduction of electric street lights, that could be automated and provided a brighter level of light, proved popular.
Helping to supply the city with power and lights was the Buck Shoals power plant, located on the Ararat River. Originally built by a local merchant as a dam and cloth mill, the power plant was completed in 1904 by the city of Mount Airy. By 1918, plans were already being made to build an additional power plant, as demand for electricity was far beyond the production that the current plant could muster.
Though the technical restraints of the power grid meant there was a delay in electric spreading to areas outside cities, there was nonetheless a drive to have it available to all residents, both urban and rural. The Rural Electrification Administration, or REA, was established in 1935 by President Roosevelt, with the aim of bringing electricity to rural communities through providing low interest loans.
When the REA was established in 1935, only 3% of all farms in North Carolina were electrified, however by 1946, this rose to an estimated 44%, with a third of these farms being supplied by power lines financed by REA loans.
The Surry County section of the REA was initiated by county agent Bob Smithwick, when he called a meeting in the Surry County Courthouse in Dobson in 1940, to discuss the electrification of rural areas of the county. This group went on to become the Surry-Yadkin Electric Membership Corporation. The next year, the corporation had its Mount Airy substation built and flicked the switch to turn on the lights for around 650 households. The following year, this increased to 764 customers, many of which were farmers who used the power for their farm equipment, and the group operated 257 miles of power lines.
As we approach Christmas and begin decorating our trees, they will look much different than in the past, when instead of electric powered string lights, Christmas trees were lit with candles, seemingly much more romantic albeit even more of a fire hazard. For this, we can thank those who campaigned and innovated their way into the electric age.
Katherine “Kat” Jackson works at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History. Originally from Australia she now lives in Winston-Salem. She can be reached at the museum at 336-786-4478 or email@example.com