Clark County Press, Neillsville, WI

January 17, 1996, Page 28

Transcribed by Dolores (Mohr) Kenyon.

Index of "Oldies" Articles 


Good Old Days 

By Dee Zimmerman


Pioneer Electric Light Plant was located in Neillsville:


Neillsville was one of the early cities in the United States to have an electric plant and to light its streets by electricity.


This venture into electricity was made in 1883, when a 12-horsepower steam engine and a Sperry dynamo was installed in the feed mill on the south bank of O’Neill Creek, then owned by James Hewett.  That plant was rated as a 7-arc light machine, each arc being considered 2,000 candlepower.  The first test of the plant was made at 5 p.m., October 11, 1883.  The newspaper’s comment was “a great addition to our city.”

Neillsville’s first electric plant was located in the feed mill owned by James Hewett located on the south side of O’Neill Creek.  The plant consisted of a 12 H. P. steam engine and a Sperry dynamo which produced electricity for a 7-arc light machine.  The pioneer light plant, after being dismantled, was transported to Dearborn, Mich., museum where it is on display. 


The Neillsville Mills was built on the same site by Richard Dewhurst and operated by him.  Later was operated by his son-in-law, W. L. Hemphill, who became two-thirds owner of the mill in 1904.  Its dynamo furnished electricity of the city-owned light and power company when it moved into its own building on the north side of the creek.

The old Neillsville Electric and Power Co. building stood on Hewett Street, present location of the Northern States Power Co. transformers.  Early electric power was provided by dynamos which were operated by steam from the Neillsville Milling Co.; across O’Neill Creek from this building.


A few days after this great event, Charles Sniteman made a trip to Milwaukee, and was quoted in a local newspaper as saying, after his return, that the only electric lights he saw on the trip were a few arc lights in the Plankington Hotel.


This early plant provided Neillsville with its first street lighting, there arc lamps were installed on Hewett Street.  Two arc lights served to illuminate the electric plant itself, one was installed in the Sniteman drug store and one in Dickinson’s grocery.  It cost Sniteman $200 to have the light installed in his store and $10 per month to operate it.  He was a supporter in the electric plant’s development.


The plant continued to operate until late 1885, when it was replaced by a new plant, located in a brick building especially constructed for it on the north bank of O’Neill Creek.  This building was on the site of the O’Neill mill, where the transformer station of the Northern States Power Company is now located.


The old Neillsville Electric Power Co. plant was originally financed by James L. Gates and C. c. Sniteman.  The above plant was installed in a brick structure on the north side of O’Neill Creek, now site of Northern States Power Co.


The new plant consisted of a 125 horsepower Corliss steam engine and two new dynamos, described as “Edison direct current bi-polars.”  The city water plant occupied the same building.  The city furnished fuel for the boilers, and received there from the electricity needed to pump the city water. 


During World War I years, Joseph McDonough was foreman of the work crew who put in the electric “White-way” of Neillsville’s main streets.  Charles High was manager of the electric plant at that time and Joe Zimmerman was also an employee.  The Northern States Power Company had their business office at 137 East 5th Street, circa 1910.


R. F. Kountz, whose main occupation was that (of) an attorney, was active in the direction of the electric plant, being known as its manager at the turn of the century.


Street lightning (lighting), prior to electricity in Neillsville seems to date back to 1881, when a newspaper tells of an oil lamp then used for lighting a street. (Joseph McDonough’s daughter, Helen Franke, resides in Neillsville.)


Clark County’s First Telephone in 1878:


The first telephone system in Clark County was a were running from the office of the register of deeds at the courthouse to the abstract office at G. A. Gundy in a building on East Street, now known as Hewett Street, Neillsville.  The building was on the present site of the Dewhurst building, in which the Clothes Rack business occupied and of now, Tae Kwon Do.


The early telephones system consisted of a copper wire, strung on poles.  The wire ended in a crude instrument; which was both a receiver and transmitter.  It looked much like a tin can, with a parchment stretched across the bottom end of it.  The end of the wire penetrated the parchment and was attached by means of a knob.


The receiver-transmitter was inside the room and was fastened on the inside of the lower part of a window frame.  The frame had a small hole through it, through which the wire passed.


When Herman Schuster, the register of deeds, wished to communicate with his son Louis, who worked for Mr. Grundy in the abstract office, he tapped on the parchment with his pencil, and this tap was communicated to the parchment at the other end.  Louis would answer, talking into the tin can, and his father talked back through the tin can in his office.


Those tin cans, serving as transmitters, were placed a little awkwardly on the lower part of the window frame, and so it was necessary, either to bend down for the conversation or else raise the window.  Ordinarily the window was raised, but sometimes the weather was too cold. 


Soon after Schuster’s telephone set-up, the Black River Improvement Co., which had control of the Black River, ran a line up from La Crosse to Hemlock (a few miles north of Greenwood) about 1878.  The primary purpose of that line was to control log drives, but there were instruments in Neillsville and Greenwood, and eventually a switchboard in Neillsville.  The Neillsville exchange went back to about 1883.   It was located on the second floor of the old Clark County Bank, the building which was south of Sniteman’s store.  The telephone office was in front, while the Ring & Youman’s law office was in the back.


The telephone system was in charge of a man named Stitch of La Crosse, who appointed young Jeff Schuster as local manager.  When Jeff, took charge there were forty-six subscribers, but the trouble was that they only subscribed, they did not pay.  Their failure to pay greatly irritated Mr. Stitch.  On one particular occasion he was in an especially irritated mood, and he told young Schuster to make ‘em pay or cut ‘em off.  So Schuster, being a young man of serious purpose did exactly as he was told, and when he finished the job, the exchange had nothing but paying subscribers – six of them.  Very soon after that, Schuster went into the abstract business.


The Black River Improvement Co. wound up its logging operations about 1895, and had no further special use for its telephone system.  Just how the transition took place is not recorded, but H. H. Heath took over in 1898, with an organization knows as Badger State Telephone Co. of Mauston.  This concern sold the Neillsville property in 1901 to another corporation known as the Badger State Telephone and Telegraph Co. of Neillsville.  In 1903, Heath sold his interest to Wm. L. Smith of Neillsville and Joseph Marsh of Marshfield and in 1922 Smith bought the Marsh holdings.   (To be continued)




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