The Early Days of Pen Light


Sara Thompson, KP News

A newly electrified chicken house, typical of many on the Key Peninsula in the 1930s through the 1960s. Photo: Peninsula Light Company archives

In 1998, Peninsula Light Co. collected interviews with early customers, including these two. Some are no longer with us, but we thought our readers would appreciate this bit of local history. 

Don and Shirley Olson

For Don and Shirley Olson, Peninsula Light is a family affair. Don’s father, Elmer, and Shirley’s uncle, Albert Rickert, were founding members of the board. They helped wield the shovels and machinery that brought power to the Key Peninsula.

The Rickerts lived at Devil’s Head. “I don’t ever remember not having electricity, but my dad helped dig a lot of the holes for the poles,” Shirley said. Her father was a logger.

Don, too, grew up with electricity. His family ran the Sunnycrest hatchery and dairy in Key Center. They were among the first on the Key Peninsula to buy a refrigerator and an electric clothes iron.

Don’s mother also had a vacuum cleaner with galvanized pipes. His enterprising father blew air through the pipes into a hole in an old stump, to burn it out. “Of course, he also blew the vacuum cleaner out,” Don said.

“We didn’t have an electric refrigerator—just an icebox for quite a while,” Shirley said. “But we were one of the few with running water and electricity, and I thought we must have been pretty modern.”

 “Every spring, we went out and cut cedar poles for replacement poles,” Don said. “We’d put out about 50 of ’em. We got about $5 apiece...”

As trunk lines extended farther down the peninsula, there was “a great exodus from the back country,” Don said. “Everybody moved close to the power lines. That was the advice I gave everyone: see if there’s a power line and how deep the well is. If you don’t have those two, you won’t be in business long.”

Notice published Oct. 22, 1926 Courtesy Peninsula Light Company archives

Paul and Helen Alvestad

When power first arrived at the Alvestad home on Crescent Drive, the family was raising chickens by the light of white gas lanterns. The lanterns were lit early in the morning and burned until 8 or 9 at night.

“Chickens produce more eggs with more light, so you can imagine the impact on that when we got electricity,” Paul C. Alvestad said. His father, Peter Alvestad, bought the 184th membership in the young power company.

“My mother was real happy, because having electricity meant she could get a washing machine,” Paul said.

Helen Murray, whose family had a dairy farm near Horseshoe Lake, knew who Paul was in high school. The couple’s courtship began years later at the local VFW hall. When they married Feb. 5, 1950, Helen was working as a Peninsula Light company clerk.

Helen’s father had helped bring in the Cushman line, using a team of horses to pull the equipment. She remembers a family camping trip to visit her father at work.

The arrival of electricity had a huge impact on the Murray family dairy, which had about 100 cows. Milking machines replaced hand milking, though refrigeration had not been a big problem for the dairy; the milk was kept cold running over a system of tubes that constantly circulated cold water.

Paul was elected to the Peninsula Light board and would become the longest-serving board member in company history. Among the highlights he recalls were the break from Tacoma City Light; the sale of Mason County’s system to the local public utility district; the addition of new substations; and, of course, the advent of the Washington Public Power Supply System, or WPPSS, better known as “WHOOPS.”

Although local customers felt the impact of the WPPSS default through higher rates, the members escaped a lot of legal costs because the board had chosen not to accept power from the two power plants that eventually were not built.

“Maybe it was good judgment—and maybe it was luck,” Paul said.