By Jim Buchanan
There are still people in Jackson County who have memories of life without electricity.
By historical standards, that wasn’t so long ago, particularly in the more remote hollers and coves in the area. Electrical service didn’t reach many until the Rural Electrification Administration had been up and running for quite a few years.
But in the meantime, the appeal of electric lights held great sway for those who had experienced the convenience on visits to towns and cities where it was a reality.
Powered by a couple of geniuses, Delco later became a household name for its reliable car radios, but the firm’s legacy was littered with inventions. Among them were Delco-Light plants.
Ads from the 1920s and early 1930s in the Jackson County Journal touted the Delco-Light plant, which was a small internal combustion generator paired with batteries to provide a source of light more convenient, and safer, than the kerosene lamps in wide use at the time.
Delco-Light salesmen had a smart tactic: Go to a farmer’s home near sundown, hang around until it got dark and fire up one of their products, lighting up a barn and maybe brewing up some hot coffee with a coffeemaker paired to the device. The common catchphrase among these salesmen was “Delco-Light Sells Best at Night.”
The firm would wire a house for as many as seven lights and throw in the generator for the low, low price of $360.
Besides convenience, there was another powerful motivator for farmers looking to add electric lights: Safety.
In an earlier history article we noted the horrific schoolhouse fire at the Cleveland Public School in May of 1923. Located near Camden in Kershaw County, S.C., the school was holding an end-of-year celebration that featured the graduating class staging a production of the comedy “Miss Topsy Turvy.” As many as 300 people packed into a 20’ by 40’ room on the second floor to see the show. As the play progressed, heat from an oil lamp hanging near the stage curtains damaged the wiring holding the lamp in place. It crashed to the floor, burst, and the lamp oil ignited in all directions. All told, 77 people died in the ensuing fire, panic and rush for the exit, where the stairs collapsed.
In the wake of the tragedy the Journal called for closure of schools in the county to address fire hazards. In fact, the event was the impetus for many safety reforms across the entire nation.
The fears raised by the Cleveland fire provided fodder for advertising.
“77 MEET DEATH,” said one howling ad headline, “In South Carolina School House Fire, caused by OIL LAMP exploding. It happened in South Carolina, but it might have been YOUR school house, YOUR WIFE, YOUR CHILD. Of course, if this schoolhouse had been equipped with DELCO LIGHT these 77 men, women and children would now be alive, well and happy.”
In the end, rural generators provided lighting and an extra degree of safety. They also provided another new experience to many living deep in the country: Exposure to radio. Delco was good at gadgets to go with their product and an electric radio was one of them.
The Delco-Light technology drew rural people like, well, moths to a light bulb for those wanting to see a light bulb for the first time.
They undoubtedly were drawn back to hear the music crackling along the AM band.