Powering the Town of Exeter

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, October 11, 2013.

Exeter’s oldest citizens can no longer remember a time before electricity. They may remember a time before we had all our current electrical things, but there is no longer anyone alive who was born before electricity was introduced to America. It goes back farther than we might imagine.

Benjamin Franklin played around with electricity, we all know this from grade school, but it didn’t become particularly useful until it was needed to run telegraph equipment in the 1850s. Samuel Morse’s code allowed people to communicate across wires using electrical pulses, and since it was faster than a speeding locomotive, trains were dispatched via telegraph by 1851. Trains and telegraphs were a match made in heaven. Telegraph wires had to be strung across great distances with no obstructions. Running them alongside the railroad tracks became the perfect solution, and trains needed instant communication to avoid crashing into other trains.

Exeter had telegraph communication by the 1860s when the Civil War was raging. It no longer took days or weeks for news to reach the town. But for the next three decades, this was the only use the town had for the new technology of electricity. Most homes were heated by coal and lighted by gas or kerosene. There just didn’t seem to be any need for electricity.

And then summer came and everyone wanted to go to the beach. Travelling to Hampton beach from Exeter took a long time. Walking at a good pace, which would be ‘walking without children in tow’, took 2-3 hours. If you were lucky enough to own your own horse, it would have to be put up at a livery stable once you arrived. In 1897, the Exeter Street Railway began construction of electric trolley lines that would take people to the beach. To power the streetcars electricity was generated at a coal-fired plant in Hampton. A separate company, called the Rockingham Electric Company, was created to sell the excess power to the towns of Exeter and Hampton for electric street lighting.

There was much discussion as to whether electric street lights were superior to the town’s existing gas lights, but within a few years the gaslights had disappeared from town streets. Electric lines ran from the power plant to the Exeter Opera House and continued to the Fellow’s Box Manufacturing Company near the Lincoln Street depot. As people became accustomed to seeing electricity in use at public places, they began to view it as something that might be useful in the home.

The Exeter Street Railway continued to bring people to the beach until 1927, when it was dismantled for lack of use – a victim of the growing popularity of automobiles. Electricity for home lighting took off and Rockingham Electric expanded, building a larger generating plant in Portsmouth. The trolleys may have brought electricity to Exeter, but it was the electric company that survived, later changing its name to the Exeter Hampton Electric Company – still in existence today as part of Unitil.

Although people were enthusiastic about electric lighting, it was difficult to sell them on more electric products. Fans were popular in the summertime, but most everything else could be done the ‘traditional’ way: the furnace and stove still burned coal. Sure, by 1920 there were all sorts of labor saving devices for housework, but trying to convince the average New England housewife that these weren’t frivolous was difficult. Perhaps it was baseball that led to the tremendous expansion in home electric use.

Baseball had become one of the most wildly popular sports in the country. By the 1920s, baseball had expanded to a system of national teams and the games were broadcast on the radio. Suddenly, everyone needed a radio, and while buying that, one of those new-fangled irons was very tempting. The Exeter-Hampton Electric Company had a store in the downtown on Water Street that sold all the latest gadgets alongside the necessary radios.

Advertisements in the 1920s included all manner of electric goods – vacuum cleaners, toasters, coffee percolators and many others geared toward improving life. Wiring your house for electricity meant you could have a telephone and at one time there were three telephone companies in town. Far from being frivolous, it turned out that people couldn’t live without the new technology – a curse we’re still living with today each time a new phone hits the market.

By the 1930s, there were still a few holdouts who eschewed electricity. In 1939 a model home was built by the Exeter and Hampton Electric Company on Warren Avenue billed as an “ALL ELECTRIC HOME.” It featured a fully wired home with General Electric products including, according to its advertisement: “the General Electric Kitchen, complete with General Electric range, refrigerator, disposal, dishwasher-sink and all steel cabinets. See a home adequately wired for lighting and appliance use with convenience outlets properly distributed. See the general Electric furnace with winter air conditioning equipment and the General Electric water heater.” Electricity, it seems, was here to stay. Now even a few hours without power seems like an eternity and few people venture off the grid unless roughing it in the wild.

Photo: Exeter and Hampton Electric advertised all the new electrical gizmos in this ad from the Exeter News-Letter, December 19, 1924.


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