In 1887, a major milestone for both the city of DeLand and the state of Florida took place. The Town Council enacted an ordinance granting an electric light franchise to the Southern Electrical Company, managed by Augustus Kingsbury, the local engineer/businessman who already headed the city’s ice plant and machine shop.
Kingsbury’s first electrical generator was provided by John B. Stetson, who had purchased the fourth one Thomas A. Edison had produced. The apparatus originally was installed in Stetson’s Philadelphia hat factory as a more efficient replacement for the steam engines that previously powered it.
However, when the amount of electricity produced by the wood-fueled generator proved to be inadequate for that location, Stetson had it brought down to his winter home in DeLand.
The electrification of the city got off to a humble start when, on Dec. 27, 1887, three kerosene-burning lamps were removed from their poles in the downtown business district — one at the railroad crossing on Woodland Boulevard and Ohio Avenue, one at the corner of Florida and New York avenues, and one at the intersection of New York and Alabama avenues — and were replaced by electric arc lights.
This date is used as the marker for the claim that DeLand was the first city in the state of Florida to be electrified. The DeLand Electric Light Power and Ice Company (DELPICO) dates from this Stetson/Kingsbury partnering.
These types of lights provide illumination by means of an electric arc. Two electrodes made from carbon rods are enclosed inside a glass bulb with a small gap between them. When turned on, a stream of electric current flows through the air across the gap between the rods.
During this process, the tips of the rods heat to a state of incandescence, thus creating light. While the new lights certainly were more efficient than the old kerosene street lamps that had to be filled by hand each day and only held enough fuel to last four hours — from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m. — they were far from flawless in their operation.
The ends of the rods burned away through use, so they needed to be trimmed and adjusted on a weekly basis in order to maintain the proper distance between the two electrodes.
Stories are told of local boys following the power company maintenance man on his regularly scheduled rounds. As he worked on the lamps, the trimmed-off burnt pieces were allowed to fall to the ground, and the boys snatched them up to make graffiti drawings.
In June of 1888, three more electric streetlights were installed in the city. Over the next few years, Kingsbury would distribute 21 additional arc lights throughout the main part of town.
They were set on poles 80 feet high — the same size as many of the longleaf yellow pine trees that were rapidly disappearing from the Orange Ridge.
The aspect of electrification most beloved by the DeLand citizens was the provision of ice that didn’t have a chemical taste, but there were many who distrusted the electrical process that produced it. Some proclaimed that it was unsafe, unreliable, and the extension of daylight so unnatural that it confused the chickens’ roosting cycle.
One of the biggest complaints was about the quality of the light. Despite Augustus Kingsbury’s proclamation that the people of DeLand “have always expressed universal satisfaction with the quality of the light,” people all over the country were testifying to the contrary, saying how much they despised the light thrown off by arc lamps.
While the lamps certainly were good at illuminating the public areas of town, they emitted a brilliant white light that had a slight bluish-purple tinge. Passersby were literally stopped in their tracks by the ghoulish appearance objects took on when bathed in this light.
No less than the famous writer Robert Louis Stevenson was among the detractors. He wrote: “A new sort of urban star now shines out nightly; horrible, unearthly, obnoxious to the human eye — a lamp for a nightmare! Such a light as this should shine forth only on murders and public crime, or along the corridors of lunatic asylums, a horror to heighten horror … To look at it once is to fall in love with gas[light].”
— Ryder and her husband, Bob Wetton, live in DeLand and are active members of the West Volusia Historical Society. For information about obtaining a copy of her book Better Country Beyond, call the Historical Society at 386-740-6813, or email email@example.com. All proceeds from the sale of this book go to the West Volusia Historical Society’s Bill Dreggors Fund, which helps finance the printing of books about West Volusia history.