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Let there be light in La Veta

by Nancy Christofferson

LA VETA- Fifty-five years ago, on Sept. 16, 1955, San Isabel Electric Association purchased the nearly 50-year-old La Veta Light, Heat and Power Company.  LVLH&P had been established back in the summer of 1908 by Judge F.B. Tiffany, but was sold to C.C. Webster in 1910, and he retained it for 45 years until his retirement.

    Tiffany was an absentee landlord, and his son A.G. managed the electric company.  A.G. also had a furniture store.  The electricity was generated through the use of a water wheel fueled by the mill pond race of the local flour mill.  The roller mill made grain by day.

    Before the company ventured any financial outlay on the plant and equipment, Tiffany had to meet with the town board to get approval for his proposal.  The board put it up for a vote of the people, and the citizens went 63-0 in favor.  Let there be light!  So the board hammered out an agreement to allow LVLH&P to generate and sell electricity, and for the company to provide the town with street lighting at a charge of not more than $10 per arc light, per month.

    There evidently was a bit of delay in getting the electrical plant operational.  “The electric people are about ready to turn on the juice but there’s some confusion about the cost of wiring.  The ordinance calls for $2.50 each for the first outlet and $1.50 for each additional, but the company contract calls for $3 for each outlet”, said the Walsenb urg World in July 1908.  (Walsenburg residents were no doubt highly amused about little La Veta getting all excited about electricity, since that city had been electrified since 1889 – one of the first in the state to have power, if not the first).

    At first, the company had few users, probably because of the cost.  By the time Webster bought it, though, there were 50 subscribers.  Another drawback was that electricity was only available at night, with occasional day use announced in advance via the local paper, as in “Next week the Light Company will provide day current for those wishing to iron or to do house cleaning.”  Of course, you had to buy your iron and vacuum from LVLH&P in the first place.

    In order to get the most light for the least money, the town fathers wisely decided to place the lights on pedestals in the middle of the streets.  This played havoc with passing traffic, so they had the pedestal bases painted white.  However, the light was usually turned off around 11 or midnight, which meant early morning travelers were still in the dark.  There were few arc lights, mostly in the main intersections along Main Street, on Ryus Avenue and in front of the post office.  Public opinion forced town board to move the lights to the sidewalks, for the benefit of pedestrians.  Later they were moved back into the street, and so on.

    These lights were not automatic.  There was a switch near the top, which had to be manually operated.  Once Webster’s son Nelson got tall enough, it became his job to carry the long stick needed to turn the switch on and off.

    Problems with the flow of electricity seem quite comical now, such as a good freeze could cause. More than once the mill race froze and the wheel could not turn, so the town remained in the dark.  Once the pipeline carrying the mill race broke.  Another time the water wheel broke, and there was no light until a new one was ordered and received.  A large harvest of grains needing the attention of the wheel to be ground into meal and flour also intervened with the service.

    In late 1916 Webster purchased a Midget Marvel Mill to grind wheat, releasing the wheel to generate electricity only.  In 1917 he made an agreement with Trinidad Electric Company to provide 24-hour-a-day service.

    The Town board would not agree to sign a renewal of the franchise agreement with Webster, who did not seem to care, but rather continued to serve the community.  What brought it on is unknown, but the town initiated a lawsuit in 1918 against the company for operating without a franchise, and lost the case.

    Webster, who was of the Webster family of dictionary fame, not only provided electricity, but was an active member of service clubs and the chamber of commerce and served as justice of the peace.  In 1923 he started Webster Insurance.  His offices were located in several places until he purchased the old Mauldin store and apartments on Main Street in 1931, and there LVLH&P remained until 1955.  By 1939 he said he had 265 subscribers.

    C.C. Webster was 84 years old when he retired and sold the electric company.  He moved to California and died there in 1957.

    His deal with San Isabel was said to cost the latter $66,000.  At the same time San Isabel bought LVLH&P, it purchased the Frontier Power company and its franchise and machinery in Walsenburg.

    San Isabel announced in 1957 it would build a new office, garage and warehouse in La Veta for $49,450 on the same site as Webster occupied on Main.  The 50 by 100 foot, one-story brick building would contain five offices, several supply rooms, a walk-in vault, demonstration kitchen and public meeting room.  It was completed and the company moved in during January 1958.  For many years this was the best place in town for an evening meeting, bright and modern, with cooking facilities.

    Today all that remains of LVLH&P are a couple of street light pedestals on Ryus, and several lights in the possession of residents.