A Miami County Story of Rural Electrification
By Richard S. Albery, 1956


Herein lies the dramatic story of a father and son who devoted their lives to their fellow man. Pioneering and developing one of the first electric power plants and rural electrification in Ohio required great foresight and courage. Such keystones in the architecture of Ohio are worthy of narration and remembrance.

Richard Milton Albery was born in 1842 in a log cabin on the banks of Blacklick Creek about twenty miles east of Columbus, Ohio. Life in those early days was extremely rugged. Timber cutting and charcoal burning were the settlers primary livelihood. R.M. as he was called, spent many happy hours in his youth with the friendly Indians across the creek who taught him Indian lore and the art of making traps, bows and arrows.

Over a century ago there was a preponderance of timber and charcoal became very inexpensive. At that time coal could not compete in price and wasn't even mined in Ohio. A man's wealth was measured by the size of his charcoal bin.

The preparation of charcoal consisted first of digging long, deep trenches in the ground similar to the spokes of a gigantic wheel. A huge stone flue or chimney was built in the center or hub of these trenches. The timber was split and cut off into four foot lengths. These were placed in the trenches up to the ground level and then covered over with dirt. The timber was then set afire at the far ends of each trench. The fire and hot air conducted through the trenches by the draft to the central flue would dry and char the imbedded timber.

When properly charred the fire would be extinguished and the charcoal removed and stored in the yard or bins. It was sold by the cord which consisted of a stack four feet high, eight feet long and four feet through or 128 cubic feet. A half cord was only two feet through or 64 cubic feet.

His father, John, would load up his spring wagon once a week with charcoal to sell in Columbus. R.M. often asked, "Let me go along, Daddy?" but John would jokingly reply, "Oh, you've got to eat a bag of salt yet before you're big enough son!"

Finally, one day, John let little Richard crawl up on the spring wagon seat beside him. In Columbus they approached some large buildings with a high stone wall around them. R.M. asked, "Daddy, what is this place?" "This is the State Penitentiary, son, and this is where we're going." "No! No! Cried R.M., I don't want to be a prisoner!" "Don't worry, son," John laughingly replied, "we are only here to sell our charcoal."

They entered the large stone front entrance and the iron gate clanged shut behind them. A second closed gate was before them. The guards then punched long sharp steel rods through the charcoal to be sure no firearms or tools of escape were being smuggle in. The charcoal was then delivered to the prison yard fuel bins. It was used in the kitchens as well as in the shops. R.M. got quite a treat with the five-cent bag of candy his dad bought him on their way home.

The lurid tales told of the '49 gold rush and the abundant work and wages in California lured R.M. to go west as a boy of sixteen. He traveled by horse and wagon to Iowa where an immigrant wagon train was being formed to make the trip to the west coast. To his dismay the wagon train was abandoned due to reports of Indian hostility along the westward trail.

Undaunted by this turn of events, he trekked back to the east coast. This was before the days of railroads, so he shipped aboard a freighter to Panama. There was no Panama Canal just "Alligator Canal" it was called. The rugged trip across Panama was made by boat and by mule back. Once across, the long trip to California was made by another ocean freighter.

He worked hard and saved his money during the nine years spent at timber cutting near San Francisco. Pickpockets were plentiful in those days. Many men equipped themselves with a steel trap in their wallet pocket to foil the thieves. A corrupt gant of politicians and office holders in San Francisco were party to and tolerated such larceny. Finally, secret vigilantes were formed and R.M. saw several petty thieves hung. Thereafter, you could leave your gold dust anywhere and it would not be stolen.

When he decided to return east he told his landlady of his intentions at her front yard gate. "Where is your money for the trip?" she asked. "Why, you are standing on it!" R.M. replied. Borrowing a small spade, he dug up the soil and removed a can containing $4,000.00 in gold. After placing the gold in his belt he bade his astonished landlady a final "Adios."

R.M. returned to Celina, Ohio and worked a few years for his brother, Martin, who operated a lumber yard. On a business trip to Union City he met a prosperous farmer's daughter, Hannah Fowler. They attended a Church of the Brethren conclave at Sugar Grove Church south of Covington, Ohio. On the way he spotted a run down saw and feed mill south of Covington which immediately caught his eye. With a whirlwind courtship, he successfully proposed marriage to Hannah that day and purposely took up residence in Covington on his return from the Church meeting.

R.M's first mission was to secure a marriage license. The old log corduroy road to Troy, the county seat of Miami County, was impassable. With a determined will he walked the nine miles to Troy in the rain and secured the marriage license and walked back.

His second mission was to purchase the old mill. The deal was quickly made, but for the first time in his life he found himself in debt.

This was 1872, the year of the great cyclone which felled so much virgin timber. Timber was plentiful, but farmers for miles around continually hauled in their fallen trees, some of which were black walnut, four feet in diameter. The large mill yard was always filled high and full with logs to be cut and sawed. Many nights after supper he would take his lantern to the mill and saw until ten or eleven at night - then up at the crack of dawn for another day's work.

The old water-wheel and flume were replaced by new and larger ones. A large circular saw replaced the small old fashioned sash saw. The dam was raised and rebuilt and new burr wheels and milling equipment were installed in the feed mill.

Six children were born to R.M. and his wife. The three boys were a big help in the mill as well as raising a ten acre tobacco crop every year. In spite of the many deadbeats who took advantage of his good nature, he prospered well.

Soon a new barn and home were built which boasted of a front yard fountain spouting water thirty-five feet into the air. This was obtained by a pipeline to a large pump driven by the water-wheel at the mill. A life-size painting of old "Tom", his favorite white horse, adorned the front of the barn.

Hardly a day would pass that a tramp or two would pay the homestead a visit. Never was one turned down plus a "handout for the road." Years later one of the frequent visitors inadvertently disclosed the reason for this "haven for hobos." Through the grapevine, tramps all over the country were informed of this landmark with the big white horse on the barn and they would go out of their way to stop and "pay their respects."

Attendants on the Dayton, Covington and Piqua traction line traveling along the Covington Pike would refer to his property as the show place between Dayton and Piqua. It truly was a landmark and became an asset to the farmers and community through its large saw and feed grinding services.

R. M's three sons, Martin, Morris and Richard Jr. soon reached manhood and became interested in a new fangled thing called electricity. They implored R.M. to buy out the little water-powered electric light plant at Greenville Falls just a mile west of Covington. Dick Jr. or R. F. as he was called, investigated and informed his father that the plant could be bought for $15,000. "Why Boys", R.M. replied, "That would take a whole slop bucket full of money!" The boys finally coaxed him and won out and the plant was purchased and again R.M. was deeply in debt.

This was 1897 and the "Falls Electric Company", as it was called, followed the same pattern as the saw-mill but on a much larger scale. A new and larger water-wheel, alternator, switch board equipment, raceway and dam were installed. Furthermore, it was found necessary to install an auxiliary steam plant to provide electricity during the summer months due to the low water level in Greenville Creek.

R.M. and the three boys put their shoulders to the wheel and took turns as plant operators which was a twenty-four hours, seven days a week job. R. F. improved the existing power lines to and in Covington. The town's street lights at that time were of the arc burning type and it was R. F.'s chore to lower every light each morning and replace the carbon sticks and reraise them in place.

With this improved service the use of electricity grew by leaps and bounds in Covington. The old gas mantles were soon replaced by electric bulbs. Electric light lines were extended to the farmers at the edge of town. Soon they were pumping their water and their feed by motors instead of by hand and their coal oil lanterns were replaced by electric lights. Farmer's further away soon learned of this and were anxious for a line to them too.

To build miles of rural electric light lines was something new and a hazardous undertaking for such a small concern. R.M. and his boys felt that such an investment required too much for their pocketbooks, not withstanding the merits of such a program. In 1912, an eastern public utilities concern headed by a Mr. Robinson became interested and purchased the entire property. The new owners had considerably more financial backing and they also re-named the concern "The Buckeye Light and Power Company." R. F. continued on as General Superintendent.

After forty years in the mill and electric light business, R.M. also sold his mill and moved to Covington. Following such an active life he was not content to rest. He daily worked in his cabinet making shop and garden, arising at five every morning for a four mile walk before breakfast. Many farmers brought their hay loading ropes for him to splice - a thing he learned while working his way to California aboard the ocean freighter.

In his lifetime he saw more progress than had taken place in the preceding five hundred years. His childhood started with candles and oil lanterns, charcoal fuel delivered by horse and wagon and with practically no machinery. He then witnessed the start and growth of railroads, streetcars, automobiles, electricity, radio, modern homes, machinery, advances in medicine and countless other modern day miracles.

He passed away in 1928 at the age of eighty-six. Hugh Marlin, then editor of the "Stillwater Valley News" published in Covington, had spent many happy hours of his youth at the old sawmill. He wrote a very thoughtful tribute to R.M. , the title of which is inscribed on his memorial at Sugar Grove Cemetery. It read, "The Kindliest Man I Ever Met."

The following years of expansion were hectic and replete with trials and some disappointments. Starting with the 1913 flood, R. F. was the last man to cross over the old covered bridge just a few minutes before it was washed away by the flood waters of the Stillwater River at Covington. Upon arriving at the power plant at Greenville Falls he was greeted by the water in the raceway spilling over into the boiler room. He ran down the inside stairway and slammed the door behind him. Already the gushing water could be heard against the door but fortunately it held and the alternators and equipment were saved from flood damage. After the high waters subsided the stairway was found to be full of coal which had been washed down from the boiler room.

After a menial, hasty cleanup job was completed an auxiliary power line was installed across the Stillwater River due to the original lines going down with the covered bridge. In spite of all this, electric service was interrupted only a few days.

Several months later the large driving belt broke in two between the eight foot in diameter pulley on the water wheel and the electric alternator. With no load to pull, the water wheel revolved like mad and the large steel pulley on its' shaft flew apart. The impact tore the front end of the power house away with a deafening roar. Fortunately he wasn't injured. A neighboring farmer jokingly claimed his chickens laid nothing but cracked eggs for the next two weeks.

The next calamity was a fire which burned the electric light office in Covington to the ground. A new modern brick office was immediately built which also house the Dayton, Covington and Piqua traction line ticket office and a much needed display and stock room for the electric service supplies.

With the addition of many large electric motors replacing the steam or gas driven engines at the creamery, sawmill and other shops in Covington, a new problem was posed. This additional electric load was too heavy for the power plant to carry satisfactorily. In fact, the large electric motor at the sawmill would cause the lights all over town to flicker as the power saw started through the log. R. F. had to ask Bill Drees, the sawmill operator if he couldn't nurse the saw along when starting to cut through the log. With Bill's permission he took the sawmill controls over briefly and from his own sawmill experience showed Bill what he wanted.

It was quite evident that a larger power supply must be provided. A large hydro-electric plant was immediately built along side of the old one. This was of a modern type with the electric alternator directly connected to the water wheel shaft, no belts to break this time!

Some interesting sidelights to this new plant construction are recalled. Bill Furnas, the carpenter foreman, lost his footing on the scaffold and fell thirty feet into the icy water below. Although sustaining a broken leg, he swam unaided to shore still clinching a stogie cigar in his mouth. Bill is now retired and lives in Covington.

A large stump was dynamited from the raceway to provide a wider channel. Old "Cheese" Swarts miscalculated his dynamite charge and the big stump sailed about a hundred feet into the air and descended through the ice house roof. The air was also filled with "Cheese's" violent invectives!

With this additional electric power the demand was met and more expansion was planned. Farmers were still clamoring for electric lights and power. R. F. approached his boss, Mr. Robinson, with the proposition of building rural electric lines. "It isn't a paying proposition for the investment R. F." was his answer. However R. F. got permission to talk the proposition over with the farmers. After several meetings, a plan was agreeable to both parties whereby the farmers would assume a portion of the rural line investment to off- set the lack of revenue from country lines compared to that received in town. The company attorney, J. H. Marlin, now deceased, and R. F. Albery established the first contract, to my knowledge, for rural electrification in Ohio. This took place in 1921.

Rural electric power lines were constructed in all directions from Covington. Soon thereafter the Stillwater Light Company, (another hydro-electric plant) at West Milton was purchased and remodeled. Additional rural lines were built from this plant. Finally, a total of over nine hundred miles of rural lines were constructed. Leo Link, now living near Covington, had a full time job just reading meters.

Hundreds of farmers in the Stillwater Valley enjoyed the service and satisfaction from this public utility long before others throughout the state and nation. Of them were larger electric power companies in Ohio but they were reluctant to venture any capital in this field due to the smaller revenue in return for their investment. After the Buckeye Power and Light Company made a financial success of it's rural electrification, other companies soon followed suit.

The water dam at Greenville Falls was raised several feet and a surplus power was gained during the rainy seasons. This surplus power was sold to the Dayton, Covington and Piqua Traction lines which operated its own power plant at West Milton by steam power. Due to using "direct" electric current on the traction lines, electric convertors had to be installed at Covington and West Milton to change the "alternating" current from the Covington power plant to direct current for the traction line use.

A high voltage power line was built from West Milton to Dayton to secure the resources of the Dayton Power and Light Company. When a surplus of power at Covington was available it was metered and sold to the D. P. & L. Co., and when needed at Covington and West Milton it was likewise received through the same power lines. This provided a very stable system and eliminated the need of steam power at the Covington plant during the low water stages.

In spite of all of the pioneering, trials and errors, the Buckeye Light and Power Company was prosperous and continually paid an 8% dividend to its stockholders. Such earnings did not go unnoticed. In 1927 a Chicago concern became interested enough to make an offer of purchase that could not be turned down. The stockholders of the B. L. & P. Co. were quite pleased to learn that their $100. par value shares of stock were purchased at $285. each.

The new owners headed by the Insull interest of Chicago further expanded the properties. Power lines were built to the Greenville electric power plant which also supplemented the services. R. F. continued with this new company, supervising all power line construction.

After several years the Insull financial bubble burst and the company was reorganized and changed hands again. On February 4, 1948 it was purchased by the Dayton Power and Light Company, who was already interested in its services and has maintained ownership to the present time.

R. F. retired in 1930, after serving over thirty years in the development of this public utility service. From a humble beginning the company continually progressed and grew. The three young Tucker boys who operated the plant in the early days, graduated to more responsible positions. Paul, now deceased, became Chief Engineer of Seagram's Distillery at Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Bob became manager of all street lighting in Columbus. Bill is Chief Engineer of the Troy Municipal Power Plant.

Mr. K.C. Long, now general manager of the Dayton Power and Light Company served for several years as district manager of appliance sales in the late twenties.

The picture of the old "Falls Electric Company" which hangs on R. F's living room wall recalls fond memories. One was of the many pleasant summers spent with his family of six children at their cottage at Greenville Falls. Then there was the annual summer draining and cleaning of the plant's raceway when everyone got all the fish they wanted.

Many happily hours were spent over an evening pot of coffee with his good friend Sam Kraus. Here they amicably worked out many knotty line construction problems, which otherwise might have been "Rhubarbs." Sam was a lifelong general manager of the Stillwater Telephone and Telegraph Company of Covington, where he now resides.

The old sawmill and the plant's water wheels no longer turn. Their years of service have been retired and supplanted by the power lines from the giant modern steam turbines of the Dayton Power and Light Company.

In silence these properties proudly stand today, monuments to men of strong hearts and courage. Their mute evidence marking another milestone of yesteryear's service in Ohio's constant march of progress.

Respectfully submitted,
Richard S. Albery
January 13, 1956


Following is a copy of the editorial upon the passing of R.M. Albery. This was written by Hugh C. Marlin, Publisher of the Stillwater Valley News, Covington, Ohio, January 4, 1928.

"THE KINDLIEST MAN I EVER MET"

Richard M. Albery has passed on. I shall never forget him. While others will remember him for his various activities, his honest manhood, and his pioneering which brought electricity to Covington, I shall remember him for his quaint philosophy and his unusual kindliness to me as a boy.

When boyhood scenes flash their way across the pages of memory, I shall never forget him as he stood in the sawmill with his hand on the lever that controlled the great saw that ate its way through mammoth logs, converting them into rafters and logs for capacious barns or snug farm homes in our community. At such times he would let me ride on the carrier, or play about the mill. The impression was always present there that someday I would grow up and be a sawyer and be able to handle the saw and the carriage and to read the chalk marks on the logs as he did.

And when in the balmy spring days he would put me astride one of the of the big gray horses and let me ride while he walked behind the furrow, as he guided the plow, I had an over whelming desire to become a farmer.

Always when I was with him, he was telling quaint stories and jokes and laughing with that kindly chuckle of his.

In the mill he told me the secrets of making a good grist and showed me how they grooved the great stones between which the corn was ground. And would let me put the sacks on the sacker, and show me how to hook them on so they would hold fast as the grist fell in.

On other days, when the snow was deep, he would sit beside the crackling wood fire in the mill and tell of many wonderful experiences of his boyhood and let me hold the tame coon on my lap, or he would let me stand beside him at the forge while the sparks flew upward and he would shape marvelous things from the red iron on the anvil. He would let me make boats and use his carpenter tools, or sharpen my knife on his oilstone.

And once when I was sick he sent me the first pup that I have ever owned. He knew a boy's heart. He knew how many melons a boy could eat and I always had my fill!

He taught me how to fish for sunfish, carp and bass, and told me how to swim and row a boat, and where to get good bait.

But the joy of it all would be in the twilight, when he would take down his old "Fiddle" and play me "Home Sweet Home." Without a hint of humor he would play it "off key" just as solemnly as anyone ever played the great products of the Masters, but when that was over he had chuckled a little and his fingers were "limbered up a little", he would sit down for an hour and play the old heart-tugging tunes of the past, so rapt in the music that tears came in his eyes and would sometimes flow unheeded down his cheeks and I would resolve to become a great violinist, and so apt a pupil was I, that today I still play "Home Sweet Home" as he played it to me.

My last conversation with him was in the old Covington Mill and as we talked, he was hunting for a nest of kittens which the mother cat had hid in a bin, and I can see him now as he stood in the door with his arms full of kittens as I jumped in the car and drove away.

Yes, I shall remember him. He is enthroned in boyhood's hall of fame in my heart as the one man who understands a boy's heart. Who never wearied of countless questions, who never failed to thrill me by the numberless duties he was able to accomplish in the daily routine of his life.

Mr. Albery is gone; one of those sturdy, hardworking pioneers; able to perform the work of a dozen different craftsmen; a great contribution to one community, and if I dared to write the words that shall be carved upon the stone that shall mark his last resting place I would write "The Kindliest Man I Ever Met."


The obituary for R. F. Albery
~Monday March 12, 1962~

SERVICES TUESDAY FOR UTILITY PIONEER
RICHARD F. ALBERY

COVINGTON - Services for Richard F. Albery, 82, pioneer in the electric utility field and former village and school official here, will be conducted at 2 p.m. Tuesday in the Routzahn Funeral Home. The Rev. R. K. Higgins will officiate and burial will be in Sugar Grove Cemetery.

Mr. Albery died at 5:20 p.m. Friday at Miami Valley Hospital from a cerebral hemorrhage suffered over a month ago. He was first hospitalized at Piqua Memorial and later moved to the Dayton Hospital.

A native of Covington, he was born April 14, 1879, to Richard and Hannah Fowler Albery. His wife, the former Margaret Crook, died in 1948.

He was associated with electric light and power utilities over 30 years. His family purchased the Falls Electric Company at Greenville Falls in 1897 and, as general manager, he expanded electric service to Covington and vicinity. In 1913 the company was sold to Buckeye Light and Power. He continued as general superintendent and in 1921 started construction of several hundred miles of rural electrification in the Stillwater Valley. He retired in 1930.

Mr. Albery served a term as mayor of the village about 1910 and was a member and president of the Covington Board of Education during two building programs. He was a director and president of the former Stillwater Bank and a director of the old Dayton, Covington and Piqua Traction line.

He was a 60-year member of the Covington Masonic Lodge and 55-year member of the Scottish Rite in Dayton.

Since his retirement he has operated a farm near Union City and built several small houses.

Surviving are six children, three sons, Richard, George and Max, all of Dayton; three daughters, Mrs. Alice Conklin of Riverside, Calif; Mrs. Esther Hartzell of Tucson, Ariz. And Maribelle Albery of Covington, and several grandchildren.

Friends may call at the funeral home until the hour of services and Masonic services will be held there at 7:30 p.m. today.

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