Lights Out at Small Electric Company

The power company's public relations department, a very friendly golden retriever named Nugget, is nearly 15 now and struggles to get to her feet.

It's just another sign that it's time for Tom and Sandy Pierce to turn out the lights on a business that's been in Tom's family since 1897.

And Tom, one of the two linemen and meter readers of the Rochester Electric Light and Power Co. as well as its CEO, is 61 now. He said he won't mind not being awoken in the middle of a winter night to fight his way through a snowstorm in search of downed power lines.

"It's going to be nice to take my pager out to the gravel pit and shoot it," he said in a thick Vermont accent.

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Rochester, population about 1,200, is a spot along Vermont Route 100 just wide enough for a village green surrounded by rambling old houses, squeezed into a narrow valley that the White River has carved out of the Green Mountains.

Rochester Electric is a "survivor from an earlier age," said Richard Cowart, former chairman of the Vermont Public Service Board who now works with a consulting group called the Regulatory Assistance Project.

Tiny, rural power companies sprung up all over the country a century ago, only to disappear in consolidation as giant power plants and regional transmission grids were built. At the same time, everything from financial record keeping to outage response times have become more tightly regulated.

"It's a really hard job to do all that stuff," Cowart said. "For such a small firm to keep it up as long as they have is really a testament to their personal dedication and skills."

The U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration listed 27 privately held power companies of a similar size to Rochester's around the country; 17 are in Alaska.

Vermont has some other tiny utilities but those are town- or village-owned. Vermont Marble Power Division provides electricity to residents of Proctor and Pittsford, but by far its largest customer is its parent company, OMYA Inc.'s marble extraction and processing plants in Rutland County.

In Rochester, the Pierces are retiring, but their one employee, 50-year-old Frank Severy, has been offered a job at the company buying the tiny utility, Central Vermont Public Service Corp.

The way Severy came to the Pierces is a classic small-town tale. The Pierces were looking to move the light company, as they call it, after the family estate was divided up. Tom's sister got the house in the village where their father had run the company from a small office off the living room. Tom and Sandy got the light company.

Severy's father, who had a dairy farm on the outskirts of town, was selling out. His cows went to other farmers; the Pierces bought the big old farmhouse that is now the light company's headquarters. With his father selling the farm, young Frank Severy needed a job. He's worked for the Pierces ever since, his office the kitchen where he ate his meals growing up.

The Pierces and Severy spent a couple of hours on a warm spring afternoon recently sharing stories, laughs and pet peeves collected during three careers' worth of running a tiny utility with 900 customers.

There was the time a bird and a fish caused a power outage, for example. "An osprey must have grabbed the fish out of the river and ... stuffed it between a pole and an insulator," Severy said. Out looking for the source of the trouble, "I drove past it three times before I spotted the tail" of the 14-inch sucker.

Sometimes the laughs and pet peeves merged into one story.

One peeve involved pets, in fact: customers who tie their dogs up right by the electric meter. Tom told of going to read a meter and meeting up with a particularly fearsome cur. He let the dog chase him around and around a porch post.

"His leash got shorter and shorter," Tom said, until the utility man was able to do his work while the dog tried to get itself untangled.

"Most of the customers have been great," Sandy Pierce said, but there have been a few bad apples — a couple have been caught tampering with their meters in hopes of getting free electricity.

Occasionally a customer has had to be shut off for nonpayment, the Pierces said. Up through the 1960s, people used to be able to work their way back into the light company's good graces 25 cents at a time.

"We'd put in a quarter meter," Tom said. "You want power, you put in a quarter. You'd get 20 cents worth of electricity," with the last nickel going toward past-due bills.

That sort of care in using electricity once was much more common than it is today. A 1918 letter to customers advised them that a penny's worth of power would perform a variety of household tasks. It would run "a six-pound Flatiron for 15 minutes, a Radiant toaster long enough to produce 10 slices of toast ... a fan 12 inches in diameter for two hours," etc.

In recent years, the light company has bought all of its power from other utilities and resold it to its customers. That wasn't always the case.

When Tom's great-grandfather, Edward Pierce, joined others in founding the company, the power came from a small dam on the West Branch of the White River. Water was released very early in the morning, so farmers would have light in the barn for milking. Occasionally, there was an evening release as well, when there was a social at the village dance hall. People were billed according to how many light bulbs they had.

What peeves the Pierces worse than anything any customer has ever done is the ever-increasing amount of paperwork they have to file with various government agencies.

"You've got to do a transmission and distribution study, file a vegetation management plan, an emergency response plan," Sandy Pierce said. "It's a lot of work for a small utility.

"We've even been 'selected' by the U.S. Department of Energy," and required to send that agency several different types of data every month, she said. "What I want to know is how do you get unselected?"

Rochester Town Clerk Joanne McDonnell said she understands the Pierces' desire to retire, but worries that "we're going to lose a great service. Anytime we had a power outage, Tom and Frank were right out there working on it."

Sometimes the service extends to neighbors who aren't customers. McDonnell recalled that she moved from Rochester to nearby Hancock for a few years before moving back. During her sojourn, she asked the Rochester guys if they could use their bucket truck to Hancock to string lights on the big Christmas tree outside the library.

"They weren't crazy about the idea because they'd done it before and people thought they hadn't put the lights in exactly the right spot," McDonnell recalled. Finally Severy agreed to do it. His price was very low, and practical at the same time. "He said, 'I'll do it, but don't complain.'"