Home The Story of Maine is a production of MPBN MPBN
Go back to the home page Read a synopsis of each program.

Explore key events in Maine history.

Explore Maine cultural history.

Explore Maine's Native American heritage.

Lesson plans and ideas for classroom teachers.

Check out other interesting history sites.

The power industry expands

Farms get wired

Electricity Today

Read about the people on this program.

Read a printable transcript of this program.

Site index

Interview excerpts from people who remember life before electricity


December 10, 1999

  • Duluth Wing bio

    We grew up practically without electricity. We filled up kerosene lamps and the girls wiped the chimneys every day and my mom said we got to fill the lamps and had a little funnel and we would go up to the store and 15 cents you get a gallon jug and kerosene and you come home and fill the lamp. Every room there was a lamp. You had to be careful, walking around at night, my father was hollering to us, don't tip the lamp over, don't hit the lamp. And you had one that you were trying to read by. I don't know why, we must have had poorer eyes then. I remember my father going to the Woolworth store for 10 or 15 cents and trying on glasses so he could see better to read. Today you go to an optometrist and give him $100 and get a new pair of glasses but we couldn't do that. Living with kerosene lamps was tough. If you wanted to do some cooking or something, you had to move the lamp over here, so you could see what you were doing, a lot of shadows, and if you ran in the other room, you just knew better, you would be in the dark, you would be feeling around. So it was pretty tough. You didn't have lights in the shed our out in the woodpile. No flood lights out front or anything like that. You had lights to read by and to cook by. And if somebody was going to bed there was one cord hanging down in the middle of the room with a light bulb on it. You could turn it on and shut it off and jump into bed. We didn't have desk lamps and electric alarm clocks and that stuff. We had no place to plug it in in the first place.

    Well, the little town of Flagstaff was unique in that everybody knew everyone else, we knew where they lived. All the unique streets we had named. We had the Pond Road and the little things that we knew about, the localism. And it was a nice quiet little town. There was only one industry in town, Harry Bryant Mill, he ran a birch mill. And in the summer time sometimes they, it was on the mill pond right on the village. And sometimes they filled the mill pond with logs and sod lumber all summer long so it was a log mill. Just a cluster of houses up and down the road and the mill supplied power to us through a two water mills that he had in the mill. One was called the big wheel. It was a turbine. It came under shaft, coming up to the floor. And some belts and gears that ran through the generator. The generator was about as big as this chair, it wasn't a huge thing. When there was enough water in the mill pond, which was about 90% of the time, sometimes there wasn't enough water, when there was enough water in the mill pond to operate it the generator ran and it gave it direct current, 110 volt I guess it was end of the line you would have 60 volt but there was supposed to be 110 volt.

    If the water was up enough, everybody down there had electricity. The general store had a cooler, a walk in wooden cooler, I remember. And they said it could run on 110 DC or 32 volt DC. So the man had a light plan, we call it a generator today in his back shed, and it ran on gasoline. So he stocked that up and run a bank of 6 volt batteries. I supposed they were hooked up in series to give him 32 volts. But our generators were running, we were sure that the refrigerator unit would be on. And if he needed to run it without the generator, I'm sure the batteries would take over. I don't' remember a lot about it, except I think it was a Fairbanks Morse, you know how kids are, they like to memorize the names of the mechanical stuff. And he would run that when the power from the kill wasn't on. The mill didn't seem to me that the lights were lit all day. I think they waited till it started to get dark, and the lights would come on. And I think we knew when they were gong to come on, so you could have electric lights and turn off your lamp and kerosene lamps and enjoy a light bulb and do your school work or reading and do what you had to do. And then the first thing you knew it would be getting dimmer and dimmer and finally we realized it was time to go to bed. So it was unique. There was no money involved as far as I remember. I don't remember getting a bill or paying the poor old man that ran the mill.

    Well, at school we had a lot of big lights for the gymnasium. And if you had a basketball game scheduled that night then the people in town shut off all their lights, and hoped that the school would, the light would carry the school so the kids would have a basketball game. I remember one night we beat Stratton pretty bad. Stratton was the biggest school; had more people to pick from, and they had 10 or 15 boys on the team and we had about 6. So no substitutes. They came to Flagstaff once and the boys beat them pretty bad. And the Flagstaff guys they were used to playing in the dark. So the lights get dimmer and dimmer, direct current, different then alternating current. And it was just get dimmer and dimmer and dimmer. And it's like losing a generator in your car. That's DC. And your lights are dim and the starter won't work and the first thing you know you got to do something different. But alternating current, I think is more apt to stay up brighter.

    And we seemed to have a source of it now that we don't worry about it. It just comes in somewhere, nobody knows where it is coming from. People come up here in the summer time complain about the low water. And I say well, turn off your lights, you live in the Southern part of the state, you could help us a little bit.

    [Electricity] was considered a luxury. If you wanted to wash your clothes you had an electric washing machine. And if you plugged it in and it wouldn't work, then you were pretty hard up. So you figured maybe later on or tonight or when the electricity got better you could do your washing. And as I remember they took turns, different families washing different days. It was quite a luxury actually. We didn't have electric razors and all that stuff that we have today. We had our radios ran on little batteries that you bought. I never saw a radio that you could plug in electricity until about the time I was married. I didn't know they made them. I'm sure that there wasn't many things in the house that ran on electricity. Just lights and possibly washing machines if you were fortunate. Most of the washing machines had a little gasoline engine on them.

  • To top of page



    HOME: The Story of Maine on the Maine Public Broadcasting Network was made in partnership with the Maine State Museum. Major funding was provided by the  Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency committed to fostering innovation, leadership and a lifetime of learning. Additional funding provided by Elsie Viles.
    Major funding for previous seasons of  HOME: The Story of Maine was made possible by a grant from Rural Development, a part of the USDA. Special support is provided by The Maine State Museum and Northeast Historic Films.