Argonia, Kansas wanted electricity. Argonia is a small town 20 miles west of Wellington. Its 1910 population was 466 residents.
By 1910, many cities and large towns had electric light plants. But small towns like Argonia did not. This put Argonia and other small towns at great disadvantage. Residents and businesses wanted electric lighting.
In 1910 less than 2 percent of the U.S. was electrified.Uncovered: 100 Years of Electricity History
Electrification of Cities
By 1900, most cities had suppliers of electricity and telephone. Mind you, that didn’t mean that all the city’s residents were on line.
In 1882 Thomas Edison’s Pearl Street power station started generating electricity in lower Manhattan. Its main purpose was to provide power for one of Edison’s most famous inventions: the lightbulb. That station provided electricity to 59 customers.
In 1882, Kawsmouth Electric Light Company brought electric illumination to the first 13 customers on the west side of Main Street in Kansas City.
By 1892, Chicago had more than twenty private companies generating and selling electricity.
Medium-size towns had choices
The electrification of medium-size towns grew more slowly.
Wichita had a privately-owned electrical plant by 1905. And we saw earlier that Larned citizens voted bonds for a municipal plant in 1914.
Citizens of Wellington, Kansas voted bonds to build a municipal electric plant in 1903.
Small towns lagged behind
Small towns didn’t have enough population to support the building of a municipal electric plant. Nor would the economics support a private company in providing electricity.
But towns like Argonia, Kansas wanted electricity. The most viable way was to build a transmission line from a larger town that already had an electric plant.
Farms were in the dark
Small towns might find a way to get a transmission line, but individual farms couldn’t justify a transmission line. A prosperous farmer might have a gasoline engine and generator, but most farms simply went without electricity.
Argonia may get electricity from Conway Springs
In May and June 1915, Argonia began talks with Mr. DeTar, owner of the Conway Springs Electric Light and Ice Company.
DeTar would build a transmission line from Conway Springs, 15 miles away. In return, Argonia voters would authorize a bond issue of $12,000 to finance DeTar’s line construction and give him a 20 year franchise. DeTar would pay back the bonds with interest over 20 years.
The election was scheduled for August 1.
Nathan Jones has a proposal too
Nathan Jones was known in the area as an electrician. He and his father’s family had lived in Milan, just a few miles from Argonia. So he was known as a local too.
Jones realized the opportunity at hand and went all out to claim it. His plan was superior.
- Jones would contract to buy electricity from Wellington at a discount.
- Jones would provide electricity at the same rates as Conway Springs’ proposal, but at no up-front cost to Argonia.
- Jones would try to get additional franchises along the route from the towns of Milan and Mayfield.
- Jones would organize a company owned by local investors to finance the line construction.
Argonia contracts with Jones
Realizing that the bond issue for Conway Springs would fail, Argonia called off the election. After a few more negotiations, Argonia decided to contract with Nathan Jones.
Jones also got agreements from the towns of Milan and Mayfield that they would adopt whatever agreement was reached with Argonia.
Jones also announced that any farmer along the route of the high line could get electricity.
Jones contracted with the City of Wellington to buy electricity at discount rates. This was a win-win, because Wellington could sell more of its generating capacity, thus reducing it unit cost of production.
It wouldn’t cost Wellington any up-front cost. Jones would hook up to Wellington’s system near Mayfield.
The negotiations were finished. The contracts were signed. Now Nathan Jones had to deliver.
Where were Ralph Jarvis and Chleo Webb?
In summer 1915, Ralph Jarvis was living in Greensburg, Indiana with his mother and step-brothers. His older brother Elmer had gone to Illinois to work on a farm. His next-older brother was a streetcar conductor in New York City. Ralph would soon leave home and travel to Kansas to find work.
Ralph was age 21.
Chleo Webb was living with her mother in the Rock House in Larned. By the end of 1915, her sisters had married and her brother Jim was living away from home.
Chleo was age 15.
Timeline – 1915
- Quote – Percent of US electrified – Uncovered: 100 Years of Electricity History – https://www.power-grid.com/news/uncovered-100-years/#gref
- Photo – Thomas Edison at Pearl Street Station – 1882 – 4 September 1882: Edison lights up Wall Street – https://moneyweek.com/335672/4-september-1882-edison-lights-up-wall-street
- Image – Farmers at table with lantern – Farming in the 1930s – https://livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe30s/life_08.html
- Image – History of Wellington power plant – City of Wellington, Kansas – cityofwellington.net
- Newspaper articles – newspapers.com
- Photo – Ralph Jarvis on bicycle – Jarvis Family Documents – Chleo Webb Jarvis collection