Power to the People: How Electricity Came to Rochester

Unless a power failure happens, modern Rochester residents tend to take their electric service for granted. However, at the end of the nineteenth century, electric lights were a novelty enjoyed by few and coveted by many—until an interurban line came to town with the power to change everything.

Six young women sit at tables (two per table) with logs and papers on the tables in front of them.
Clerks at work in the Rochester Edison building, September 1923.

Rochester in the 1890s was a bustling place during the day, but the setting of the sun had a natural dampening effect on the level of activity in the village. “Early to bed, early to rise,” wasn’t just a proverb recited by schoolchildren—it was a description of the necessary conduct of life when evening illumination was provided solely by candles and kerosene lamps. Daylight had to be exploited as much as possible.

Electric power came to town in August 1897, when the village council granted Ambro Bettes of Newberry, Michigan, a franchise to sell electric service. Bettes’ contract stipulated that he would provide and power a minimum of 15 street lamps, and in exchange, the village would grant his company a ten-year franchise. Bettes set up his generator in the old Wilcox paper mill on Paint Creek, and the streetlights were turned on in December 1897. The first arc light was installed at the corner of Main Street and Fifth (now University Drive).

In late 1899, Bettes and other investors formed a new company called Rochester Light & Power. The new company bought power from the interurban line that had just laid its track through Rochester and then resold it to local customers. The interurban line was first called the Detroit, Rochester, Romeo, and Lake Orion Railway (DRR & LO), but became part of the Detroit United Railway (DUR) in 1901.

A rate sheet showing prices per watt hour based on flat rates or number of light bulbs in the home.
A 1900 newspaper ad for Rochester Light & Power

It did not take long for Rochester residents to grow dissatisfied with the service provided by Rochester Light & Power. The electric power generated by the DUR was somewhat unreliable and was restricted to the off-peak hours of the interurban line’s operation. To improve service to its customers, Rochester Light & Power sought a contract for a better source of power than it received from the DUR. In 1909, the company signed an agreement with St. Clair Edison for power generation and built a new office and substation on the southeast corner of Third and Main streets. The Rochester Era celebrated the new contract, noting that Rochester residents had been paying for “inferior light” and would no longer be “at the mercy” of the DUR.

Less than a year after Rochester Light & Power’s contract with St. Clair Edison went into effect, the Eastern Michigan Edison Company, a subsidiary of Detroit Edison that had been formed to acquire smaller electric companies in the region, bought out the local company. Eastern Michigan Edison took over the electric power franchise in Rochester in May 1910.

Meanwhile, Edison began extending service lines into the farmland of Avon Township (now Rochester Hills), and the Rochester office at Third and Main became increasingly busy as more customers connected to the grid. In response, Edison expanded its office in 1922 with an addition to the south side of the building.

A two-story building with a sign on the front reading "LIGHT & POWER."
The Rochester Light & Power building as it looked in the early 1920s, before expansion.

Perhaps the most common memory associated with Rochester’s Edison building is the company’s longstanding practice of exchanging spent light bulbs for new ones at the customer service counter. This program had begun in Detroit in the early twentieth century as a method of inducing residents to contract for electric service. A customer needed only to present a burned-out bulb to be issued a new one.

The light bulb program met a legal challenge in 1972, when Lawrence Cantor, a druggist in Southfield, Michigan, brought a lawsuit against Detroit Edison. Cantor charged that the utility was using its monopoly power and damaging his business by depriving him of the opportunity to sell light bulbs in his retail store. Lower court rulings sided with Detroit Edison, noting that the Michigan Public Service Commission approved the utility’s light bulb program. Cantor pressed his case to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor and ordered an end to the light bulb exchange. The program was halted in 1978 after a 92-year run.

Contrary to the perception of many Detroit Edison customers, the light bulbs they were issued by the company were not “free.” Detroit Edison actually folded a charge into customers’ monthly bills to cover the cost of the replacement bulbs. For the average residential customer, the annual amount of this charge was roughly equivalent to the full retail price of three light bulbs.

A two-story building that houses current retail stores.
The former Rochester Light & Power building as it appears today.

In the decade following the demise of the light bulb program, Detroit Edison initiated a plan to reduce the number of customer service offices in its territory. Rochester’s Detroit Edison office, like many in the region, closed in the late 1980s. The former Edison building—now 112 years old—has since housed retail stores and professional offices.

About Deborah J. Larsen

Deborah J. Larsen recently retired after 34 years as local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library. She currently serves as the research chairperson for the Rochester-Avon Historical Society, and writes on a wide range of local history topics.

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