The Electrification Of The High Country

One of the oft-repeated concerns is a computer problem affecting the electrical grid

As we barrel through the last sixty-some-odd days of the year, more than a few folks are getting a little antsy about the Y2K bug. One of the oft-repeated concerns is a computer problem affecting the electrical grid. It's an important question but one that you couldn't have asked High country residents in 1910. That's because they were, for the most part, living out their daily lives without one single electrical contrivance.

We have become heavily, if not completely, reliant on electricity in less than one century. Western North Carolina was the last area of the state to become electrified. Watauga jumped on the old electric fence when Pete Mast of Cove Creek built a hydro-electric dynamo at a nearby creek. The first electric line ran about a mile to his home and generated power for lights. Later he added lines to nearby neighbors through the Cove Creek Community. Mast had previously been responsible for starting a local phone service in 1895 and later sold the mill, electric plant, and telephone service to Joe K. Mast in 1920.

By 1917 electricity through small hydro-electric plants had come to Boone, Blowing Rock and Valle Crucis. In a Watauga County study for the University of North Carolina at Chapel, student F. R. Farthing noted that, "The Industrial School in Valle Crucis utilizes a hydro-electric plant. A small stream produces 60 horse-power of electricity for lighting, cooking, etc. The plant has been operating for two to three years and cost approximately $7000 to build and operate."

Two other places in Watauga County that operated electrical plants by 1917 were the Watauga Inn in Blowing Rock and the Appalachian Training School (later Appalachian State University) in Boone. The Watauga Inn used a small creek with a long vertical drop to generate electricity via a waterwheel. It is believed to be the first such electrical power plant in Blowing Rock and was up and running by 1913.

"Appalachian Training School started a $7000 hydro-plant on the New River," wrote Farthing in his 1917 study. "It lights the school, the campus, the town, and runs grist mills and a saw mill and electric stoves. The electricity is also used to pump water to the school's holding tank. Cost of operating it: The training school pays $36 a month to the superintendent of the plant."

The rapidly increasing use of the hydro-plant generated electricity changed the area's economy-much as it did all over the country. At the beginning of the decade there were two main means of economic survival for most of the folks of the High Country-farming and timbering. By the 1920's manufacturing came into its own due to the availability of electric power. By the end of the decade the area contained a modest industrial sector with two cheese factories, a new printing press, a soft drink plant, and a flour, meal and feed mill that were all using electricity.

The trend toward small, locally owned electric stations continued until 1937 when the Blue Ridge Electric Membership bought many of them and expanded the service to many remote areas that were still without the charge of electricity.

Electricity - Good For Some But Not All

The surge in electrical use by North Carolinians in the 1910s was a powerful force for progress on a variety of fronts. Farming, manufacturing, the textile industry, and timbering all got a good jolt from easily accessible electricity. It was about that time that the North Carolina Correctional System tried out electricity as a means of execution.

Even though the High Country did not have electricity until the mid-1910s, officials in Central Prison in Raleigh were already finding suitable test pilots for their newfangled electric chair several years earlier. On March 18, 1910, Walter Morrison, known to many as the Robeson County Rapist, became the first person in North Carolina to be executed by electrocution. As far as Morrison is concerned, the whole operation could have gone a lot more smoothly. After three shocks of 1,800 volts each, physicians on hand at Central Prison could not determine if Morrison was still alive or just twitching and smoking. The fourth such jolt of juice, however, did the trick.

By the middle of the decade the big house in Raleigh was overseen by Chief Warden Big Tom Sale. On January 28, 1916, Sale was in charge of the electrocution of two murderers on Death Row for the killing of a Guilford County farmer. After the first convict was strapped in place, Sale threw the current to him via a large switch. The murderer's body literally rose in the air against the leather straps when all of a sudden the power failed. Witnesses say Sale calmly repaired a faulty rheostat in the electrical machinery of the contraption and then finished off the job of electrocuting the two men.

After the executions, Sale walked into his office, sat down at his desk, signed the two death certificates, and promptly dropped dead.

Poetry In Politics

While the public's overall opinion of politicians has changed little since the first Egyptian ruler promised his pyramid builders a comprehensive retirement plan in exchange for an eighty hour work week, the style of politicians has been altered greatly over the last century. In the 1910s politicians knew that their words would most likely appear in print (as opposed to radio and television) and they strove to make their speeches sound as if they had been handwritten by God himself. Sometimes their motives were noble-just as often they were not.

An example of the lost oratory skills of politicians is this speech delivered in a session of Congress in 1915 by Representative E. Y. Webb of Shelby, North Carolina as he spoke against allowing women to vote:

Despite the best of Webb's intentions, Women's Suffrage became the 19th Amendment to the Constitution and was ratified by the U.S. Congress on August 18, 1920.

In a grand move of unpopular, unpatriotic isolationism, North Carolina Representative Claude Kitchin of North Carolina, then the Democratic majority leader, opposed President Woodrow Wilson's declaration of war on Germany in 1917. President Wilson's resolution passed on a 373 to 50 vote in the house and many North Carolinians called for Kitchin to resign. He managed to ride out the storm of negative publicity, however, and later became a driving force for Liberty Bonds to help fund the war effort.

Speaking of war bonds, one could hardly expect as much poetic imagery as North Carolina Governor Thomas Bicket put into this 1918 speech encouraging state citizens to pony up for the war effort by buying Liberty Bonds:

Yesteryear's political arena was just as full of scoundrels and scalawags as it is today-but at least they knew how to turn the issues of the day into fodder for Shakespearean sophisms.

From Pig Paths To State Roads
Highway Development In Western North Carolina

Few inventions changed the face of America as much as the automobile. As Henry Ford and other auto magnates were striving to make the automobile affordable to the middle class, state highway commissions were trying to keep up with the growing demand for good roads. In the rugged mountain areas of Western North Carolina the need for such roads was dire and the construction of them a major engineering task.

To get an idea of how bad the roads were at the beginning of the decade, a newspaper story from 1910 described the new travel record for an auto trip from Charlotte to Blowing Rock. The trip took a mere five hours and ten minutes.

In 1911 the Blowing Rock Turnpike began construction. It would effectively connect the High Country with Lenoir and its prosperous network of farmers' markets and railroad depots. The Blowing Rock Turnpike not only served cars but horsedrawn wagons and could be used, free of charge, for Watauga County residents bringing their goods to market. Other turnpike users paid 60 cents for a three-horse wagon or 75 cents for an automobile-generally considered to be a good bit of money in those days!

The work was undertaken by 50 to 70 convicts and other, paid, laborers. When it was complete it became a self-sustaining road by charging a toll to users. In 1921 the State Highway Commission abolished all toll gates in North Carolina.

One of the prime movers and shakers in the push to provide western North Carolina with good roads was Governor Locke Craig. Craig was a native of Asheville and knew of the road problem in this end of the state from first hand experience. When he became governor in 1913 one of his first acts was to designate two days in November of that year as "Good Road Days". These two days were legal holidays on which every able-bodied citizen of the Old North State was urged to put on some work clothes and work on the Highways where they lived.

The General Assembly of North Carolina stepped in that same year and passed several laws enabling local townships to sell bonds to help build roads. The University of North Carolina began holding annual good roads institutes in 1914. The institute emerged as a statewide "town meeting" of sorts where representatives of various regions debated on everything from toll booths to whether chain gangs should be used to build roads.

The big breakthrough in highway funding came in 1916 when U.S. Department of Agriculture enacted a plan where the federal government would come up with matching funds for states involved with highway construction.

Although travelers in the 1910s had to tolerate awful roads, they still had the advantage of a healthy railroad system. The narrow gauge line known as "Tweetsie" served western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, the Clinchfield Railroad ran from Johnson City to Marion, and Norfolk & Western line ran from Ashe County to Abingdon, Virginia.

The expansion of road construction and the tremendous popularity of the private automobile hastened the death of the passenger railroad system in western North Carolina. In the coming decades the Blue Ridge Parkway, and a number of state maintained roads would connect the so-called "Lost Provinces" of our region with the rest of the state and the world. And you can now drive to Charlotte from Blowing Rock in a little over an hour.


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