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In the light of Roswell’s history; The 36th annual heritage dinner of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico to honor local electricity company

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This is a photo of a former SPS mascot, Sparky. (Submitted Photo)

Tickets are on sale now for the 36th annual heritage dinner of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico.

Have you ever imagined what it is like to be a pioneer? What was it like living in Southeast New Mexico and in Roswell during the turn of the 20th century?
Temperatures this weekend reach close to 100 again, just as it was in 1904. According to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, between June 29-July 1, temperatures reached 98 degrees in Roswell. The difference is, no electricity, which means no swamp coolers or air conditioners. It is hard to imagine how tough those early Roswellites were to be able to live and work here in the heat.
A change was launched in 1904. New Mexico was still a territory when Maynard Gunsell was granted the first electric franchise to serve the growing city of Roswell. Unfortunately, Gunsell had to sell his franchise, for reasons unknown, to local banker W.H. Gillenwater.
At that point, the company became known as the Roswell Electric Light Company, which combined in 1910 with the Roswell Gas Company, rebranded as the Roswell Public Service Company, which then became the Southwestern Public Service Company in 1925.
Wes Reeves, media relation representative, is the best person to ask about the history of the companies, which belong to Xcel Energy, the umbrella company under which today’s utility companies are held.
“Roswell in 1904 had 2,000 inhabitants,” Reeves said. “That was about the size Amarillo had. There was Main Street and the streets around it. Basically, where people lived, as I understand it. There had been no electric lights in Roswell before this time.”
“Yes, it was pretty minimal,” Mike Mcleod said. McLeod is the regional manager working out of Roswell. “The first generating plant was 25KW. In today’s world, that would serve about eight houses, and it served the entire town then.”
A big step in history was the electric merger of the electric company with the gas company in 1910. This was rather ironic as the gas companies had been campaigning against electricity, its competitor in the energy market then.
“The gas companies realized, ‘Hey, if you can’t lick ‘em, join them,’” Reeves said. “But people were afraid.”
The merge came through an investment group out of Cleveland, Ohio. Within a few years, the company was renamed as the Roswell Public Service Company.
In 1911, under the direction of Carl M. Einhart, Roswell Public Service Company built a new power plant on Virginia Avenue just north of downtown, and in 1915, added the company’s first turbine generator.
“What I have read in our service territory, people were very leery at first,” Reeves said. “Some of that was well-deserved because the early lines were not built in a safe way. There were some horrible stories across the country of people being electrocuted, especially line workers. It was probably the most unsafe job — other than being a soldier on the front line — at that point. There were a lot of fears that were fanned by people who stood to lose from the spread of electricity, gas companies of course, initially.”
In the ‘20s and ‘30s those linemen were the quiet heros, connecting towns, houses, farms and ranches to the early generators, bringing light to streets and homes. They would work through rain, snow and dust storms, climbing high poles and risking their lives.
One of the first movies made about the early linemen pioneers was the 1937 movie, “Slim,” with Henry Fonda in the lead as Slim. Slim is a former farmer who is fascinated by the new technology and finds a job. He heads off to New Mexico with a friend and colleague. The highlight of the movie is when they arrive during a terrible blizzard and are called out to a substation to restore power, even though there are “hot” wires all around.
Early on, security for employees and customers became the company’s focus. Nobody wanted to see the headline, “Lineman electrocuted,” in the local newspaper.
“It is an interesting point when you read through the history of the company, there were a lot of time periods where they had financial difficulties,” McLeod said.
Amazingly, though it was improved and expanded over the next several decades, the old Roswell power plant served area electricity customers until it was finally retired in 1980.
Stability for the company came in 1942. The country was at war. The recession, following the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the dust bowl of the ‘30s that turned the midwest barren, was forgotten.
“By 1942, they created essentially the service territory that we have now in Texas and New Mexico,” Reeves said.
While technology has advanced throughout the decades since the first lights flickered on Main Street Roswell, every lineman today still has to learn pole climbing, and pole-top rescue. Pole-top rescue tests if you can climb up a pole, wrap a rope around a cross-arm or pole, then around an injured lineman, and lowering the injured with the rope in a safe manner. Just as it was in the ‘30s, one does not start out as lineman. You sign on to a lower paying job and wait for a line position to open. Many companies do not accept “green” unexperienced employees anymore. They prefer future linemen to go to school and graduate from linemen training centers.
“Our linemen can do it both ways,” McLeod said. “We support and encourage those that can, to go to a lineman training school.”
Throughout the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, virtually all the communities in the wider New Mexico and Texas service area experienced growth, and SPS added new transmission lines and generating units to meet the growing electrical demand.
A fascinating aspect of the pioneer days for electricity was that SPS did not wait for its customers to come up with new products and ideas to use the electricity with, the company itself became a supporter of inventors and inventions. A novel idea was born. SPS installed showrooms and introduced the public to new products that would make life easier, per example, electric irons, washing machines, toasters and stoves. Items such as electric stoves logically needed a kitchen and someone who could teach others how to cook on those stoves. Fully electrical kitchens and home education teachers became part of SPS’ offices.
Television and newspapers brought SPS’ mascot into the lives of Roswellites. “Sparky was a part of our lives,” Amy McVay-Davis, executive director for HSSNM, said. The mascot taught the viewers and readers how to preserve energy and soon became an icon in the region.
SPS remained a company though the headquarters migrated east to Texas. In 1997, SPS merged with Public Service Company of Colorado, based in Denver, creating New Century Energies. A little more than three years later, New Century merged with Minneapolis-based Northern States Power Company to form Xcel Energy.
Merging of companies sounds very dry, but in real life, it was a merger of families and cultures. A unique aspect of those companies was the loyalty of its employees.
“In New Mexico, we have one employee over in Hobbs who worked for us 44 years,” McLeod said. “Here in Roswell, it is our supervisor out in construction, Gary Burnett, who got 38 years.”
“I am probably the average age of an employee, 57, with 34 years of service,” McLeod said. “We have two work sources. We have a lot of people in their 50s who have been with us 30 years and plus. And we have a lot of young people with less than 10 years. That is exciting. Most employees that went to work for this company have stayed with this company. To me, it says a whole lot. We have not had a lot of turnover.”
“I think it goes without saying, I want to make this a real focal point. SPS was built on our employees, it was built based on a lot of people, way before Wes and I, and will continue on past us. I feel kind of fortunate because I have been here almost a third of the history of this company.
“The stock is held as Xcel Energy, we are all branded as Xcel Energy, but if you do a contract with us, it is still SPS. We just don’t brand SPS because it is more important to brand nationally,” McLeod said.
Xcel Energy is not stopping the inventive look into the future. Its focus was in the last 10 years to ease the way into newer technologies with modernizations and building hundreds of miles of new transmission lines. The result was that it brought a solar panel company to Roswell, details were reported in the Roswell Daily Record. This year, the company is investing into wind energy. This project’s future locations will be built in New Mexico and Texas. The first is planned to be built south of Portales. It is going to be the largest wind energy facility in New Mexico when its 522 megawatts of wind energy come on line in 2020.
“I think it is very important to know on behalf of the Historical Society that, when we came to this nomination, it’s so much more for us,” Amy McVay-Davis said. “What they did at the beginning is only one aspect of the nomination,” McVay-Davis said. “We had the SPS company in a room on the second floor. That’s how it came about. The SPS company had its own display there.
“Another reason why the Historical Society is validating this, is that there has not been a time that SPS — back as far as our documents go — has not been supportive of the investment in history with our society, with the displays, with supporting school tours,” McVay-Davis said.
“It is the same thing that they were doing years ago. I consider Mike McLeod to be my personal family, yet he is part of the Historical Society family as a person but also as representation of this organization because everywhere on our documentations you see personal connections with Mike McLeod. He didn’t have to do everything he did, he did it as a person, as a family. That speaks highly of him as a person but also as a corporation that is a family. It is all these correlations.”
Ticket holders for the HSSNM event honoring SPS will have the chance to walk down memory lane, learning about the changes and locations in SPS’ colorful past. There will be film clips, photos and memorabilia to see.
“What I love are the pictures,” McLeod said. “You can see the hairstyles, everybody wore coat and tie if you were in the office. In the ‘70s, all the guys had the muffin chops.
“In 1986, we moved in this building (11 E. Fifth St.). We sold this building a number of years ago to First American Bank as we were downsizing and consolidating. Now we lease space from them.”
The event takes place at the Convention & Civic Center, 912 N. Main St., on Aug. 29, with a cocktail hour and live music by the group Hot Club on the Pecos. There will be also a silent auction from 6 to 7 p.m. Dinner begins at 7 p.m. Cost for tickets is $70 per person or $500 per table. Reservations are required no later than Aug. 11. For more information and reservations, call 575-622-8333.
Vision editor Christina Stock can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 309, or vision@rdrnews.com.