by Larry Larned, town historian
(Published in the Bolton Community News, August–December 1995)
Have you ever wondered what life was like in Bolton before electrical power was commercially available? This usually comes to mind when the power goes off and we sit in darkened rooms hoping the service is restored before our well tanks go dry.
Prior to 1920, there was no commercial power available in Bolton. Lighting was provided from oil lamps and candles, fireplaces and carbide lamps. People rose with the sun and retired to bed early. Fires from candles and overturned lanterns were common. It has been estimated that over 50 percent of all buildings built in Bolton and constructed before 1850 were lost due to open flame lighting devices.
An agricultural town like Bolton progressed for 200 years (1720-1920) without electricity. And many houses and farms in Bolton were not wired until 1938. Why 1938?
Our neighbor to the west, Manchester, had its first electrical power and lighting in a very limited way during 1890. The Cheney Brothers office and the home of Rush Cheney were illuminated with electric bulbs powered by storage batteries. The batteries were charged during the day by a very small generator located in the Cheney Brothers Old Mill engine room.
By 1920 the Manchester Electric Company had established itself as a branch of Cheney Brothers and was considered a department of the silk mill complex. A pole line was constructed to Manchester Green to serve the eastern end of Manchester. Other pole lines had been constructed over a 30-year period to Depot Square and to the southern portion of Manchester but, as of 1919, none had reached the Bolton town line.
As homes and businesses in Manchester were lighting up with electric bulbs and lamps, Bolton was still in the dark as 1919 drew to a close. Had it not been for the insistence of Mrs. Phear Brink, Bolton would have remained in the era of oil lamps and candles even longer.
When Phear Brink and his wife of Manchester (grandparents of Bolton's Ruth Converse) purchased a farm in Bolton during 1920, Phear's wife balked over moving to Bolton until commercial power was installed at the farm. But the nearest available pole line terminated at Manchester Green.
Their recently purchased farm was located on Boston Turnpike (Route 44). It became a local landmark and was referred to as Brink's Farms. It included a colonial house, a large cow barn and many acres of farm land. Today, the Bolton Veterinary Hospital occupies the site of Brink's Farms.
Mrs. Brink insisted that she wouldn't move out to Bolton without the convenience of electricity. With the electrification of Manchester well under way for over 25 years, those who were using electricity had become "wired" to its use and couldn't go back to the dark ages without electric lights, electric pumps and indoor plumbing, electric stoves, electric fans, electric irons, electric toasters, and electric water heaters.
Phear Brink approached Frank Cheney Jr., who was president of the Manchester Electric Company, a branch of the Cheney Brothers Silk Mills, and discussed bringing electric power into Bolton. Phear Brink agreed to provide the poles--a common practice for telephone and electric lines during this era--and Manchester Electric agreed to run the lines. Mrs. Brink was thrilled and Mr. Brink could get on with the business of running a dairy farm.
The first house to have electricity in Bolton became a curiosity. Soon, the pole line was extended to Bolton Notch, where the town's commercial center was eager to adopt commercial power. Businesses began to locate along Boston Turnpike including the New England House, a well-known public roadhouse catering to patrons of the roaring twenties.
By 1923 electricity had reached Bolton Center and lights were installed in Community Hall. During 1925 a group of local investors formed the Bolton Electric Company. A special act of the Connecticut General Assembly approved the incorporation on April 23, 1925. In five short years Bolton went from no commercial power to having its own electric company!
This arrangement continued until 1936, when the Bolton Electric Company, the Manchester Electric Company, and the Union Electric Light and Power Company merged with the Connecticut Power Company.
For many, many years, Bolton's four one-room schools burned wood in cast iron stoves for heat and hot water, used kerosene lamps for illumination and utilized outhouses. A major change occurred during 1937 when the schools were wired for electricity and the kerosene lamps were placed on shelves for emergency use.
An event took place during September 1938 that ushered in a real effort to wire Bolton: the 1938 New England hurricane. The entire Manchester-Bolton area was affected, but not by wind alone. Flooding affected everybody, including those living at higher elevations. Basements filled with water and shallow wells became contaminated. This ushered in a new era for Bolton—deep wells requiring electric pumps. Of course, there were some deep wells in Bolton prior to electric service; water was pumped from these wells using wind mills.
Since Bolton was an agricultural and dairy community through World War II, the Grange played a key role in promoting the electrification of farms. Financing became available during 1935 when the Depression-era Rural Electrification Administration (REA) Act was passed by Congress.
As more and more farms and homes became electrified, a new look appeared during the Christmas season: the Noma light. These decorative red cellophane wreaths, 12 inches in diameter and containing a single red electric bulb, were hung in front windows and provided a simple source of holiday cheer to those driving by. Noma lights are collectible Christmas decorations and were used from the mid-1930s to the early 1950s.
Utility mergers continued and, on October 30, 1957, our electric bills were received from the Hartford Electric Light Company. On June 30, 1982, we began receiving our electric bills from the Connecticut Light and Power Company (CL&P), currently a part of the Northeast Utility System.
During this 275th anniversary year, after having 75 years of electricity available in Bolton, our town will be the first in Connecticut to be switched from manual meter reading to Automatic Meter Reading (AMR). CL&P is currently replacing all of Bolton's electric meters with AMR units. This technology employs radio transmitters at each meter location which, on command, send the meter readings to an on-board van-equipped computer containing a disc for each Bolton street. Each month, a van will traverse the streets of Bolton with its on-board computer "talking to our meters!"
In just 75 years, Bolton has progressed from a few light bulbs in a lonely house along the Boston Turnpike to being the first town in Connecticut to be fully automated under the AMR system.