Thomasville must have been an exciting place to live in the late 1880s. The city’s hotel era was at its peak, a city water supply and electric lights were about to become realities, and the Thomasville Times-Enterprise was born.
The weekly Thomasville Times, which merged with the weekly Southern Enterprise in 1889, to become the daily Times-Enterprise, published a strong letter to the editor from Chas. R. Long on Aug. 7, 1886, about the need for a city water supply.
Long, president of the Water Co. at Louisville, Ky., wrote that he was “fully posted as to the inestimable advantages and importance of a proper water supply to a town and its people.”
Because of his financial investments in Thomasville and the vicinity and his knowledge of “the pressing necessity of a suitable water supply,” Long’s letter called the attention of Thomasville voters to the importance of the water question.
At a recent meeting, the letter said, those present agreed Thomasville needed a better and sufficient water supply, and the remedy is in the hands of voters.
“The town of Thomasville is successfully verging into the leading health resort of the South during the winter months and has only one difficulty to overcome — that of your water supply, and you are now on the eve of stealing this only obstacle,” Long wrote.
Long’s letter said “pure water and pure air are God’s most valued gifts to man, and without which health is impossible.”
A story in the same Thomasville Times edition said a proper water supply would save residents thousands of dollars in doctor bills.
A complete water system — with tower, engine, pumps, mains, pipes and fire hydrants — would cost $15,400.
The newspaper story continued, “The taxpayers are now paying over twelve-hundred dollars per annum for the little stream of water in use, and the water is given away to two hotels.”
In Thomas County 1865-1900, author Bill Rodgers wrote:
“ ... Closely connected to both public health and fire prevention was the need for an abundant supply of pure water. A drought in 1884 forced some people to drink impure water, and the result was an increase in the number of bowel diseases. No ailments were reported by citizens who used water from the artesian well in the courthouse square. When another drought followed in 1885, people were urged to use artesian water and to avoid well water altogether. Population growth and the increase in business and residential construction dramatized the issue. The town’s cisterns would not be sufficient in case of prolonged drought, and a campaign to persuade the city to drill an artesian well, to erect a water tank, and to establish a waterworks ensued.
“In September 1885, the state legislature authorized the mayor and town council to establish a waterworks and sewage system by issuing bonds. Before the $15,00 bond authorization could be implemented, an election had to be held and two-thirds of the voters had to approve. The plebiscite was conducted in the summer of 1886, and passed with only ten negative votes.”
Three years later, electricity came to Thomasville.
According to information provided by the City of Thomasville, the following is a history of how Thomasville came to be illuminated:
• 1889 — A group of private investors — J. W. Reid, W. H. Reynolds, A. Russell Hargrave, L. R. Davis, J. H. Mead — installed a small generator at Thomasville Variety Works on Stevens Street. The first generator had a capacity of only 50 lights.
• 1892 — John Davidson and Remer MacIntyre took over the light plant and moved it to La Cubana, then a flourishing cigar manufacturing community at the site of the present Vashti Center on East Clay Street. When La Cubana closed, the light plant was moved to the corner of Washington and Pine streets.
• 1895 — The light plant was bought by Thomas Gamble and moved to the current Fletcher Street location.
• 1906 — The city bought the generator from Thomasville Electric Light and Gas Co. for $32,000. At that time the existing water system and the new electric plant were combined into the Water and Light Department. D.R. Pringle was hired as the first superintendent.
• Electricity was furnished only during hours of darkness.
• The electric power plant consumed coal and light oil to generate the electricity. However, 1913 records show the cost to produce fuel was decreased by 6 percent with the use of saw dust and mill refuse, along with the coal and light oil.
• 1922 — An addition and improvements completed the power plant building making it “one of the best power plants in the South and giving it the capacity to meet the needs for the next several years,” according Frank B. Harris in a Dec. 2, 1924, speech to the Thomasville Rotary Club.
• The late Frank Neel wrote in “Electricity Comes To Thomasville” that during the 1920s, the city expanded services into rural areas, becoming the original Rural Electric Utility Company of South Georgia. Some 150 miles of lines were run to Metcalfe, Pine Park in Grady County, west and south of Ochlocknee, to the eleven highways leading from Thomasville and to area plantations. “Our territory expansion stopped in 1937, when ‘REAs’ came into being, using low-cost federal loans to build power lines,” Neel wrote.
• During the 1940s and ‘50s, use of electricity jumped by leaps and bounds, putting the city in the almost-impossible situation of keeping the generating capacity in step with the consumption of electricity. In 1946-47, efficiency of the equipment was further improved with the installation of a 400-pound boiler and 5000 KW turbine. The last plant expansion was completed in 1951.
• 1954 — At the rate consumption was increasing, the plant would have to be doubled in size about every seven years, which would require a huge financial investment by the city. A tie-in between the city and Georgia Power Co. for interconnection was completed in November and in operation on Dec. 14, providing an additional source of power for the system.
• 1955 — The power plant suffered a major breakdown that required five months to obtain parts and complete repairs. Without the interconnection with Georgia Power Co., the city’s electric usage would have been curtailed about 30 percent during the period.
• 1960 — The city completed negotiations with Georgia Power Co. to purchase total electric power from the power company.
• Oct. 24, 1960 — The Times-Enterprise reported: “Turbines at the city-owned power plant — the only one of its kind left in Georgia — turned for the last time, ending 55 years of service. The city made the difficult decision, because power could be purchased for resale cheaper than it can be produced locally. The power plant would require a tremendous outlay of money to increase productivity to meet current and future needs.”
• 1962 — Rather than continue to try to protect its machinery from total deterioration, the city sold the entire plant equipment for $80,000.
• 1963 to 2002 — The old power plant building housed the Energy Control Center until 1992, and the Water and Light vehicle maintenance shop until 1993. Other uses were warehouse, substation and transformer repair shop, electric line crew ready room, electric superintendent’s office and storage until 2002.
• 2002 to 2004 — Renovations and additions to the building resulted in a historically consistent and functional restoration, which now houses the city warehouse, purchasing department, electrical engineering and operations department, energy control center and record center in one convenient location. The building has been transformed into an attractive, useful and historic asset to the Thomasville Commercial Historic District.
• 2004 — In December 2004, the building was renamed the "William T. (Tom) Berry Building" to honor a former city manager/utilities superintendent.
• 1977 to the present — The City of Thomasville is a member of and purchases electricity from the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia.
EDITOR’S NOTE: As part of a celebration of the Times-Enterprise’s 125th year, this is the sixth in a year-long series of Sunday stories about important people, places and things in the area. The next one will be published April 6.
Senior reporter Patti Dozier can be reached at (229) 226-2400, ext. 1820.