The Murfreesboro Power and Light Company at Walter Hill Dam was the first plant in Rutherford County, Tenn., lighting only a few homes. This photo was taken around 1920 by photographer Leo Ferrell. (Photo courtesy of Shacklett\'s Photography)
MURFREESBORO, Tenn. -- For thousands of years, people have been fascinated by electricity. It wasn’t until the 18th century with the famous kite experiment by Benjamin Franklin in 1752 did the path to the everyday use of electricity begin to take shape.
Through the next hundred years, many inventors and scientists tried to find way to harness electric power and make light.
In 1879, American inventor Thomas Edison finally produced a way with a reliable, long-lasting light bulb in his laboratory.
By the end of the 1880s, small electrical stations based on Edison’s design were in a number of cities. The difficulty was that power only extended a few blocks from the stations.
Life in Tennessee was pretty rough before the Tennessee Valley Authority and the common use of electricity throughout the region. After the sun went down, farm after farm and town after town remained dark.
Although by the early 1900s many towns, including Murfreesboro, had electric lights, streetcars and some household appliances that relied on electricity, the majority of people living in surrounding rural areas did not.
By 1930, fewer than 10 percent of Tennesseans living in rural areas had electricity. At this time, including for those in Rutherford County, most companies were privately owned and operated by private entrepreneurs seeking a profit.
Rightly argued, investors believed that it would be too expensive to string miles of electrical lines across the land to the farms. Indeed, farmers of the day, being isolated and remote from the stations, were too poor to pay a fair price for the service.
Before the advent of electricity into this area, Murfreesboro streets, businesses, and homes were lighted by gas produced at a plant on South Maple Street.
In 1890, an important event took place in Rutherford County.
Jim Perry, a formidable entrepreneur and businessman, established an electric plant.
In the beginning for a variety of reasons, the business did not enjoy success. Apparently, the community was a bit suspicious of the new power despite its improvement over the crude gas lighting.
Perry eventually sold his business to J. H. Reed. In 1901, Reed sold it to Dr. J. H. Nelson. Nelson made many improvements that resulted in Murfreesboro becoming a well-lit city.
It was later sold to J. C. Beesley, George Beesley and R. B. Roberts in 1919. These men continued to enlarge the plant to accommodate a prosperous community.
Eventually, the company was sold to the Tennessee Electric Power Company for a sum of more than $500,000.
The power company continued to render services to Murfreesboro and surrounding communities until the TVA was created by the federal government during the Great Depresssion.
Murfreesboro then owned its own electric power distributing system. Within a few short years of operation, it accumulated more than a $200,000 surplus. The surplus allowed for lower rates that attracted businesses and industry later on into the 1940s.
In the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, with his New Deal approach to expand the American economy to the farmer, strongly believed that they should have the same access to electricity as city residents did.
In 1935, the Rural Electric Administration was created to bring electricity to the Tennessee Valley.
By 1939, the percentage of electricity use had risen to 25 percent.
The TVA also set up the Electric Home and Farm Authority to help the farmers purchase electric appliances, such as washing machines and other farm equipment. Subsequently, the standard of living improved as electric power in the home, school and work improved.
Before the TVA was formed, farmers in the Tennessee Valley only earned about a third of what their counterparts averaged across the country.
Most farmers barely had enough food to feed their families. After the TVA was created, the Middle Tennessee Electric Corporation was formed to created inexpensive electricity to farm areas in Rutherford and surrounding counties.
Rural areas were furnished with electric power at lower rates so that they could make use of this valuable product to expand agriculture of the area.
In such a growing expanding economy, it is hard to believe what life was like in most rural areas of the county during the early 20th century.
There was no running water. That meant no indoor bathroom, or any water for drinking or bathing. Water had to be carried in from a well, stream or lake.
There were no refrigerators to keep food from spoilage. The family stored milk, cream and butter in underground caves.
And without modern appliances, washing was done by hand on a washboard. That reuslted in a lot of time being spent just doing household chores.
Luxuries like radio were also nearly obsolete, which made it difficult for rural Tennesseeans to hear the latest news, sports and music.
With more time and energy, the rural lifestyle began to change rapidly.
In Rutherford County with reliable and inexpensive electricity by 1939, many manufacturing plants were attracted to the area.
During that year before the outbreak of World War II, there was an increase in the production of agricultural products as well.
The county ranked 19th in the state in manufacturing with 25 plants in operation, producing goods valued at $4.2 million.
It was decided then that the city of Murfreesboro would begin to aggressively seek other well-chosen industries to balance the community and better maintain a balance with agricultural products.
Murfreesboro began to develop as a retail center for surrounding counties. During that same time period, 339 retail establishments sold more than $6 million worth of merchandise, making the county 10th in retail in the state.
As local leaders make decisions for the next generation of citizens, the community will face another dilemma.
How will residents accommodate for a bulging economy without exploiting what has made Rutherford County great?
Leaders must be good stewards and find greener ways of living.
First, everyone should examine their lifestyles and consider eco-changes individually for the community’s well-being.
The challenge during the 21st century will be figuring out how to maintain and improve the standard of living, while finding greener ways to love, protect and preserve the community for future generations.