The Electrification of The High Country

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. "What shall we do," some ask, "if we are without electricity for an extended period of time?" 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 Mas.

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.


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.

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