When Flipping the Switch, Thank Mr. Brown

electric adToday, we are spoiled by dependable electricity and have serious complaints if our power is knocked out temporarily by a storm, but have you ever thought about how electricity originally spread across rural America? In many small towns across the country, just like Elmwood, Illinois, (which had a population of 1,548 in the 1890 census) there were forward thinking entrepreneurs like E.L. Brown that turned the lights on.

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When you turn on the lights in Elmwood, Yates City, Brimfield or even Maquon, don’t forget to thank Mr. Brown. When you drive by Max Morse’s house in Elmwood, tip your hat to the man who built that house in the 1898. You see, Mr. Edwin L. Brown brought electricity to Elmwood in 1891, the third city in Central Illinois, just behind Peoria (1884) and Pekin (1888) to have electric lights. (Editor’s note: in the 1890 census Peoria’s population was considerably larger at 41,024 and Pekin was 6,347.) Until that year, our ancestors had been using candles and kerosene.

Who in the world was E.L. Brown? He was born in 1850 near Springfield, Mass., moving with his family to Elmwood in 1856. After graduating from the Taft Academy, Brown operated several businesses, including a book and stationery store, a dry goods store (which offered  merchandise he purchased from Marshall Field in Chicago) and eventually the Elmwood Paper Mill.

When he was running the mill, he was also thinking about electricity. While he used kerosene lamps in his home and businesses, he was a little jealous of his friends in Peoria and Pekin and decided to build a power plant just south of town on the banks of the Kickapoo Creek, believing electricity was the wave of the future. As the Peoria Transcript said in January 1891, “Our bright little sister city, Elmwood is to the front again; and is to be lighted private and corporate [homes and businesses] by electricity.”

According to the Elmwood Gazette (Feb. 1, 1905), “Service from dusk to midnight was usual but all-night service was established in Elmwood. Monthly flat rates were established… and extravagant use grew to be universal…Premises were wired without charge.” The Elmwood Electric Company did not provide electricity during the day light hours, however, an omission preventing homeowners from buying and benefiting from electric refrigerators and other appliances appearing a few years later.

In two or three years Brown discovered that more people were demanding electric service, and to make his investment work out, he needed to serve more customers. So E.L. explored the possibility of supplying current to nearby Yates City. There were skeptics. The country was in the midst of a severe economic recession, and many wondered if people could afford or would be willing to switch to electricity. Moreover, others were not convinced that Brown’s company could send power three miles away, and the materials for extending the line were quite high. Cedar posts cost 65 to 90 cents each, copper wire ran ten cents a pound, and the cost of labor was sky high — $1.25 to $2.50 a DAY.

Brown didn’t listen: he connected Elmwood and Yates City. According to a writer for the Peoria Transcript, “Thus were inaugurated the earliest town-to-town and the first rural electric lines in Illinois and perhaps in the United States or elsewhere…Brimfield, Douglas, Maquon, Princeville… were added.” Brown’s gamble was a roaring success.

Brown’s success, however, was not a secret, and in late 1912 he began quiet negotiations with a group of New York and Philadelphia banks for the sale of the Elmwood Electric Company. At that time the Central Illinois Light Company was being formed and that holding company began buying up small electric companies in the middle of the state. No one knows what the Browns received for their company, but according to the Ameren historian, such purchases ran from $150,000 to $250,000, probably a huge amount of money in 1913.

So, when you turn the lights on or off, don’t forget to thank Mr. E.L. Brown for lighting up your life.

Karl K. Taylor

July 2013

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