DECEMBER 27, 2015
Growing up in Louisa – Lamplighters
Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn
Somehow, perhaps because of Dicken’s ‘A Christmas Carol,’ or the Hallmark cards that were often Currier and Ives pictures, I think of Christmas in an Edwardian, or Victorian kind of way. I’m talking about horse-drawn sleigh rides, bundled up singers or ice skaters, and farmhouses with porches and gingerbread trim. From pictures and postcards I knew that the Christmas trees of that day had real candles (I never figured out why the whole countryside hadn’t burned). For sure, there were a lot of romantic scenes captured on postcards, calendars, and prints, and are still portrayed around the world, today, as if times have not changed.
One of those figures from history that I never saw were the lamplighters of the day that religiously showed up at dusk to perform the ritual of igniting the gas street lights. I remember mom telling me about lamplighters. I’m not sure how the subject came up. I think it was around Christmas time and I had seen a movie that had a town crier. The lamplighter went around downtown with a ladder, climbing up to lite the flickering flames to illuminate the sidewalks downtown. Apparently, just before my time, the block along in front of the courthouse had gas lights and a man was employed to tend to the lighting duties. I remember Charley Wheeler who worked for the gas company, but I doubt he was the lamplighter. Anyway, between the movie and mom’s short explanation I could visualize this experience as if it were my own.
I know the Louisa Inn once had gas lighting, because I saw the old fixtures in some of the third floor, non-rented apartments of my day. Mom told me that several houses and stores had the gas lights for a short while, but when electricity was installed and found to be dependable, the more dangerous gas fixtures were removed. I have seen some still existing ‘mansions’ of the day that have dual systems so when the power went off (usually generated on site) the gas lights could be lit to assure the dinner party would go on. Of course, we continued to keep candles and hurricane lamps around, too.
From time to time, back in my childhood I would invade the storage rooms of my house on Clay Street (we called them junk rooms) to go through the various discarded but valued goodies from the past. I remember clothing and purses from the roaring twenties in the sleek, artsy styling of the day, and clutches made of pearls or cut glass that would do a flapper proud. I think my great aunt, Shirley Chapman, was in college during some of those years. These were the times of the Great Gatsby, fancy cars, runabouts, and lots of parties. In the movies I saw scenes where music was blaring and smoke filled the rooms, men actually wearing furs, and college sweaters. There were crooners that sang songs sounding like ‘Winchester Cathedral’ into megaphones. Rudy Valley was one of those. I remember the spats that men wore over their shoes. What a time! Gas lights fit the scene nicely, I’m sure.
I’ve seen pictures of the court-house square that showed the iron fence and tall streetlights that must have been the ones mom told me about. Several houses around town had the iron fencing. The lights were not there when I had sufficient age to have noticed them. I remember some homes down at the end of Lock Avenue, near the locks that may have had gas lights. Maybe some along Main Street or Lady Washington. It’s possible the Cyprus Inn had them, too.
I remember mom telling me also about a livery and blacksmith somewhere down around Tin Can Alley, perhaps across from the new fire station. I’m sure there had to be more of them scattered around given the size of the town and the need for blacksmiths in those days. Perhaps they were the source of the iron fencing around town, but maybe all they attended to was the horse shoe trade. Often these guys were coopers and wheelwrights, too. Since that was before my time it is pure conjecture. I’ve always loved history, but sometimes I later find that I learned it wrong. History is sometimes like that. It is based on our faulty memories, on particular perspectives and biases, and on pure misinformation.
I have a metal detector and plan to put it to use some day. It’s about time because I picked it up a number of years ago but haven’t ventured far into the yard. I know the land I own is close to both Revolutionary and Civil War activities. Perhaps I will find an Indian head penny, or a ‘V’ nickel? More likely I’ll find a bottle cap, a pull tab, and a bobby pin. That’s okay because I’m a little short on having enough bobby pins. I use them to hold my bows in my beard when I pretend to be a pirate. The history you find in the ground rarely tells the whole story, but it gets one thinking, for sure. Maybe one day someone will find something I dropped or stumble on the archives with this article.
Out in the garage, in a container holding an old boy scout slide, I have an old gas key. It is likely that it came with a fireplace stove rather than a gas light. The gas key is nice, but I’d more likely find the ladder more useful. As romantic as these memories are, it is time for me to return to the present. I was just reminded that I have some chores to do.