Anoka County History: A big deal when you could just flip the switch

Have you seen that TV ad that says, “People don’t have to think about where electricity comes from, they just flip the switch and the light comes on.” That made me think a lot about when the city Anoka first got electricity, which was about 1889. That was when a company in Minneapolis called Sykes and Company contracted with Anoka to install a water system of close to 5 miles  and 50 water hydrants for fire protection. Along with that came fourteen arc lights for downtown. They were to be 2,000 candle power and would be on until 1 a.m. Compare that with what we have today.

When the dam was built in Coon Rapids in 1914, Northern States Power operated it. At some point, the power generated from that dam was sold to the Anoka County side of the Mississippi, though it is not clear when that started. What is clear is that by 1960, the enormous growth in the area had surpassed the ability of the dam’s production and it was shut down because it was no longer economically viable to operate.

Anoka County had about 16,000 people in 1914. This new available power was very much a factor that helped the county grow to about 85000 in 1960. Today we are pushing 400,000.

I had a nice visit with Roy Downs, a classmate of mine at Anoka High. His father was employed by NSP. His family and seven other employees of NSP and their families all lived in the eight homes NSP built by the dam.

The families all attended the L. O. Jacob School and then went on to Anoka High School. Lee Swisher, who also lives at the Walker in Anoka, remembers all of the above information. Their farm and golf course were very near the Coon Rapids dam.

All of this makes me think about when I was in grade school in the 1930s. The kids from the rural areas had no electric power yet and had to do their homework by candle or kerosene lantern. The Rural Electrification Administration did not get to those rural areas until the 1940s and later. Mary Hadley, who also lives at the Walker lived 1 mile outside Champlin, and did not get electric power until 1947.

NSP used to run ads with a cartoonish character called “Ready Killowatt” who always said “electricity is penny cheap,” and it was. However I had a friend whose dad shut off all lights at 7 p.m. and he and his sister had to do their homework by candle light.

I am also reminded of the big dispute about all the new lights on the new bridge to Champlin built in 1931. Who would pay for the power to light up all those nice new lamps, Anoka, Champlin, the state highway department or whomever? Well it ended up they only lit up the two in the middle. I remember someone suggested that NSP should do it and put a sign on each side of the river saying electricity is penny cheap. When the bridge was re-built in the early 1970’s they have been lit up and paid for by the highway department.

Tom Ward is a member of the Anoka County Historical Society’s board of directors.

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