McGuire Years

The McGuire Years: 1920-1957

The early years of the McMinnville Water and Light Department (MW&L) have been characterized as a time “in which the Water and Light Commission was establishing its patterns of operation by a variety of experiments in organization and management.” During the few years before 1920, using electricity for cooking and heating water was encouraged by the Commission; consumers paid a flat monthly rate for this service instead of the metered rate charged for electric lighting. In early 1920, however, electrical rates increased, most likely because of the shortage of timber and its skyrocketing costs. A consumer would pay $9 for 100 KWH; $16 for 200 KWH; and $31 for 500 KWH. Both commercial and residential power users were charged the same rate, and all power usage; cooking, lighting and water heating, was metered. Water for both commercial and residential users was still billed on a flat rate.

This was the era in which the Water and Light Commission employed Milton H. McGuire. Born in Maine in 1887, McGuire came to Oregon with his parents, completing high school in Albany. After graduating he stayed in Albany and was employed at Ralston Electric Company as an office boy. As the years passed he worked his way up to foreman of the construction crews, remaining in that position during his last five years with the company.

McGuire was quoted as saying, “This was the best schooling I ever had. My work took me to all parts of the Northwest, from southern Oregon into Washington, and I had to meet many problems and solve them of my own accord.” This experience prepared McGuire for the future that lay ahead.

Moving to McMinnville to start his own business in 1913, McGuire purchased the Standard Electric Company from O.E. Vanoose. Seven years later he was appointed to the position of superintendent of the electric division of MW&L, “as a man likely to conduct that system on an economical and efficient basis.” He sold his business to Howard Miller and went to work, tackling the division’s problems eagerly. After his appointment, the electric division showed immediate gains; new systems were installed and improvements were made which sent the division into an almost prosperous trend. In 1928 “Milt” was named as manager of the electric and power divisions, and caused the municipal utility to be recognized nationally. Eventually, he was recognized as one of the nation’s outstanding utility managers, guiding the development of MW&L through its expansion to a time when it became a major producer of electric energy and an “important particip(ant) in the Northwest power pool served by public and private utilities and the Bonneville Power Administration.

All electricity in the McMinnville area, between 1889 and 1941 was generated locally; first from the above mentioned plant along the Yamhill River, then at the hydro-electric plant on Baker Creek. But bigger and better things were to happen for the community of McMinnville. Demands for electrical power were greater than ever in the early 1920s. As amply mentioned in the previous section, wood had been used for fuel to operate both electrical generation plants. In 1920 the plentiful wood supply, found in the surrounding areas during the late nineteenth century and during the first decade and a half of the twentieth century, was dwindling. When World War I hit, it drove the price of wood out of site. Immediately after the war was over, the cost of wood remained high because of labor shortages. In a January 1920 entry of the Commission’s minute book, the price of a cord of wood is recorded as being $6. Even though the cost of wood was high, it was still needed as fuel to generate McMinnville’s electricity. During the early 1920s G.S. Wright, former senator from Yamhill County, helped the Commission out by negotiating with the State for convict labor to cut wood for the hydro-electric plant. Not only did this save the Commission a little money, but it also made way for further development of the water and light systems.

Also during the early 1920s, to conserve electrical usage, the Commission authorized “all water heaters that are heated by electricity… (to) have a double throw switch installed so as to disconnect the service from the hot water tank at all times when the current is connected to the cooking range…” In August of 1921, Chief Operator Clark, of the city’s power plant, resigned his position and Mr. A.C. Snyder was elected to fill the vacancy. During the same month, payment was authorized on a bill in the amount of $2,800, presented by Bert Hicks for repairing the engines at the Baker Creek Power Plant.

In October a proposition for a power plant at Meadow Lake was submitted by City Engineer Jones, who was directed “to complete the survey… to file with the State Engineer the proper maps and data and to file power rights for the City of McMinnville…” City Engineer Jones was directed, in November, to “measure or wair the water in (the) Nestucca River… (obtain) a weather gauge (to) record the rainfall in the same vicinity and gather such other data as might be of value in connection with the proposed new site.”

Detailed reports, submitted by Superintendents Brower and McGuire, respectively of the Water and Light divisions, evaluating the systems net worth were received by the Commission in early January 1922. The net worth of the water system was $189,842.72, and the electric division was valued at $132,702.38. All the while requests from the citizens of McMinnville for expansion of both water and electric services were being received.

During a Commission meeting held in August of 1922 Superintendent Brower reported that an order had been received from the State Game Warden authorizing the installation of the fish ladder on the diversion dam at Haskins Creek. At the following month’s meeting, Superintendent McGuire was “instructed to make application to the State Engineer for continuation of the application for water developments of the Meadow Lake project and “the mayor and recorder were directed to sign a contract with the California Filter Company for the filter purchased and installed at the city reservoir.

In early 1923, the sum of $3,000 was authorized by the Commission to be paid toward Water and Light Refunding Bonds due in 1924 and in May of the same year, the Commission authorized the employment of Mr. J.L. Stannard, a competent engineer from Tacoma, Washington, to take borings end test the soil at the location of the proposed dam site at Meadow Lake. Mr. McGuire then received authorization to have the small engine at the power plant repaired at a cost not to exceed the $625 estimate from Olson Machine Works. In a special report, submitted by Superintendent McGuire late in 1923, the output of power generated by the hydro-electric plant was showing to be almost equal to the McMinnville area’s power consumption. In early January of 1924, McGuire submitted another report showing the “relative cost of purchasing electric power, as compared with the manufacture of the same by the operation of a Diesel Oil burning engine.” After hearing McGuire’s report, the Commission placed an advertisement requesting bids for an engine of that type. In February bids were opened and the offer received from Fairbanks-Morse for a 600 HP diesel engine was accepted. About two weeks later, the Commission received and accepted the proposal of a switchboard from the General Electric Company. The new switchboard and engine were to be installed in a new electrical generation plant, for the City of McMinnville, which completely dismissed the need for purchasing electrical power from outside sources, thus enabling the oldest Municipal Water and Light Department in the state to remain locally owned and operated.

Contracts for fuel oil were signed with the Standard and Union Oil Companies in March, and on 21 April 1924, the bid for construction of the new plant was let to Hord Brooks Company, Inc., for the sum of $7,893. The plant was to be located on property purchased in early 1924 on the corner of “I” and First streets (now 5th and Irvine) in downtown McMinnville. When the engines arrived they were placed on forms, and a brick building was constructed around them. The cost of the new plant, including that of equipment, labor, and real estate, totaled $60,548.05. On 5 July 1924 the new plant began operation.

Previously, in September of 1923, the Water and Light Commission had relieved the McMinnville National Bank “from paying (the) salary (of) the City Collector,” and it was understood that from then on it would be the Commission’s responsibility to pay the above mentioned salary.

On 3 September 1924, the Commission employed Miss Mina Redmond as the city collector of water and light bills. A little over a month later, after the November election in which “the legal voters of the City of McMinnville duly passed and enacted a Charter Amendment by which the Water and Light Commission of the said City (was) authorized and empowered to appoint a Clerk…,” Miss Redmond was appointed as clerk of the Commission. Growing up in McMinnville, Miss Redmond graduated from the local high school, then known as Lincoln High. After spending one year at Oregon State College, she was employed by the DeHaven Hardware Company and the Oregon Mutual Fire Insurance Company (previously known as the Oregon Fire Relief Association).

In late 1924, The Commission office was moved to the old Oregon Fire Relief building, located at Third and Cowls streets and Miss Redmond began her position as clerk of the Commission. She acted as the commission’s stenographer and remained in charge of billing and collecting accounts of both the water and electric departments. Customer going to the office of the MW&L Commission became “accustomed to her efficient and courteous treatment in the handling of their transactions over the counter,” and she became one of the city’s most popular employees. Her “careful attention to the most minute details” of her job as clerk of the Commission and “her courteous manner” are remembered by those who know her.

A resolution was adopted by the Commission in early 1925, stating preliminary steps for the creation of a watershed that would protect the city’s water supply from contamination. This resolution was passed on to all Yamhill County delegates of the State Legislature to prepare and introduce as a bill, and “employ every honorable means to secure its enactment as a law.” Not only would this bill protect the city’s water supply, but it would also provide for a future of progress and expansion through the eventual sale of timber growing on the watershed lands.

In September of 1925, the Commission authorized Superintendent Brewer to survey two possible impounding dam sites located on Haskins Creek, and in December authorization was given to Brewer to purchase 2,000 feet of water pipe. The Commission directed the city engineer to “proceed with the survey of the lower dam project as submitted by Mr. Stannard” and an advertisement was placed in local papers requesting bids for a 700-750 HP diesel engine. All bids were rejected by the Commission on March 1, and further advertisements were placed in the local papers; this time for a 600 HP diesel engine.

During its meetings held in late March, the Commission pursued further the proposed Haskins Creek impounding dam. Furthermore, a resolution was prepared in regard to acquiring all of the water from Haskins Creek and protecting it from contamination. (see appendix I) The $39,978 proposal of the “Busch-Sulzer Company, (of St. Louis, Missouri), for one 600 HP 4 cycle engine with General Electric Alternator and Direct Connected Exciter,” was accepted by the Commission and a contract executed and signed with the company on March 30, 1926. With the arrival of the new engine and equipment on 16 July, the Commission prepared a resolution describing the emergency situation created by the lack of generated electrical energy needed to supply the city and the need of supplemental energy to be provided by the above mentioned engines and equipment.

In the latter part of 1926, the Commission prepared a resolution for the purpose of initiating a bond issue which would pay for the building of an impounding dam and maintaining a reservoir located on Haskins Creek. Voters approved the bond issue during a general election held in November, and in early February the Commission applied for a permit from the State Engineer to construct the reservoir and dam. Construction bids were opened on 21 February 1927, but none were accepted. On March 3, the Commission considered the $69,310 bid of J.C. Compton for construction of a combination earth and rock fill dam, accepting it four days later. Soon after, R.W. Jones was employed by the Commission as engineer on the Haskins Creek Impounding Dam, for the sum of $3,000. In early August, the bid of Pierce, Fair and Company, for purchasing $25,000 worth of Water and Light Bonds, approved by voters in the above mentioned election, was accepted. The new Haskins Creek Dam was complete in the latter part of 1927.

Earlier in 1927 a suite, initiated by the Yamhill Electric Company of Newberg, was brought against the City of McMinnville and the MW&L Commission for the purpose of preventing the sale of electricity beyond the city limits. The company maintained that it “owned the territory outside the city limits where some of the (Commission’s) lines had been build.” On 14 September, after the suit had been won by the Yamhill Electric Company in the Yamhill County Circuit Court, the Commission “ordered that (it)… be applied to the Supreme Court of the State of Oregon, and that Chief Counsel Jay Bowerman and City Attorney R.L. Conner be directed to proceed in perfecting and prosecuting such appeal.”

After the decision of the Yamhill County Circuit Court was overturned by the Supreme Court of Oregon, the Yamhill Electric Company took it to the Supreme Court of the United States “on the grounds that extension of municipal power beyond the city limits was in violation of the fourteenth amendment and confiscation of property without due process of law.” On 20 January 1930, the Supreme Court “refused to review the appeal of the Yamhill Electric Company against (the) court order giving the McMinnville municipal utility the right to extend its lines beyond the city limits.” Furthermore, it held that, “no federal question was involved.” Thus, the city and the Commission won a major victory which set precedent throughout the United States. The lawsuit cost the city over $10,000, but the cost was offset by help from the Eugene Water Board, who had a very strong interest in the case since it was also a municipal utility.

The Yamhill Electric Company was subsidiary of Portland General Electric (PGE), whose ulterior motives in the suit may have been to buy out the municipal utility. “A number of attempts were made to induce the city to sell out its system… (but) the mayor and members of the (C)ommission vigorously opposed PGE.” Firmly establishing itself in the mid-1920s, the municipality managed to stave off any further attempts to buy it out.

On 26 February 1928, the Commission did away with the position of superintendent of lights and created the position of General Manager. Appointments made that day were as follows: Milt McGuire, general manager; Joe Brower, superintendent of water, A.C. Snyder, chief operator; Frank Wood, Sherman Lange, Elmer Davenport, W.H. Hauser and A.E. Wind, operators; A.R. Clevenger and L.G. Small, Lineman; Ray Clevenger, assistant to water superintendent. Responsibilities for daily direction and activities of the utility were transferred to General Manager McGuire, but the Commission remained as policy maker.

After becoming general manager, McGuire developed a system of maintaining accounts which corresponded closely to the later requirements of the Federal Power Commission’s uniform system of accounting. For example, the water and electric divisions of the Commission were maintained separately, yet they had one bank account.

In late 1928 and early 1929 MW&L again faced a battle with the judicial system, but there was more than one utility involved this time. The public utilities in Ashland, Medford, Eugene, Pendleton, Astoria, Corvallis, and Milton Freewater, joined forces with McMinnville to block the passage of three bills designed to place municipally owned utilities under state regulation and place them on the tax rolls. Passing of House Bill 247 would have placed all of the above mentioned utilities in the hands of private corporations, and House Bills 251 and 252 would have imposed tax on all publicly owned utilities. Fortunately, none of these bills passed. The ironic thing about these legislative bills is the fact that the city of McMinnville was supplying the State Legislature with drinking water, transporting 300 gallons to Salem daily.

MW&L, entering its 41st year of operation, supplied the McMinnville area with power generated from the Baker Creek Hydro-Electric Plant and the Diesel Plant located on 5th and Irvine streets. McMinnville’s water supply came from the Haskins Creek reservoir and watershed area. In 1930, McMinnville’s electric supply was starting to fall short of demand again. In February the Commission met to approve an ad requesting bids for an additional diesel engine, ranging from 1,500 to 1,600 HP. The $91,425 bid submitted by Busch-Sulzer Brothers, for a 1,500 HP diesel engine and a General Electric Generator, was accepted in March.

Voters approved a bond issue, for the purchase of the above mentioned electrical generation equipment, during a special election held during early 1930, and approval was given for purchase of the Water and Light Bonds by the United States National Bank of McMinnville in mid-June. Once the bonds were purchased and as soon as the new equipment arrived, installation proceeded rapidly, and on Saturday, March 7, 1931, a formal opening was held at the Diesel Plant.

During 1934 the impounding dam, built in 1927, was repaired and strengthened at a cost of $10,000 and in 1935 “gates costing about $10,000 were installed to maintain any desired level” in the reservoir. The purity of McMinnville’s water depended on the non-contaminated state of its source and by 1938 almost all the land the Commission had sought to own had been obtained, either by government grants or by the purchase of small tracts of land from private owners.

By 1935 McMinnville’s utility had begun to pull itself out of debt. In 1934 it had operated with a surplus amount of 39 percent and was valued in 1935 at approximately $500,000. Most of the success of the utility was due to the vast amount of unselfish public service given by MW&L Commission members and employees.

When Milt McGuire began at the Water and Light Department in 1920, “the light department was losing $3,000 a month, had an overdraft of $40,000 at the banks and owed bonds totaling $75,000, some of them dating from 1888 when the plant was first installed.” With the first installation of diesel engines the Water and Light Department “began to keep ahead of demands made on it by the growing city and cut costs to an almost unbelievably low figure.” After just 21 months of operation with the diesel engines, some of the “overdrafts and back debts had been cleared…”

In March of 1935 a residential and commercial rate cut of up to 20 percent was enacted by the Commission. At a special election held in October of 1936, voters approved an initiative authorizing the sale of $38,000 worth of 1938 series Water and Light Refund Bonds to pay off the debt incurred by the issuance of the 1917 series of Water and Light Bonds. In April of 1937, the Commission called for a resolution authorizing the sale of the above mentioned bonds and in May a proposal, from Hemphill, Fenton & Cambell and Atkinson, Jones & Company, for purchasing the bonds was accepted.

In August of the same year the Commission requested offers for “one 1400 to 1500 BHP Diesel Engine, with proper size of generator together with all necessary parts and equipment for its proper operation… (including) the best process possible for the two 300 BHP Type Y Fairbanks-Morse Engines, together with generators, exciters and switchboard…,” located at the Diesel Plant. In October the Commission accepted the bid submitted by Busch-Sulzer Brothers Diesel Engine Company, for an 1800 BHP Busch-Sulzer Engine at the price of $100,617, minus a $10,000 trade in allowance for the Fairbanks-Morse Engines. With the installation of the new engine and other equipment in 1938, MW&L’s electrical output was increased to 2910 HP and the Marley Cooling Tower, installed also in 1938, cut fuel costs dramatically. Not only did the McMinnville plant increase its electrical output and cut fuel costs, it also gained the distinction of being one of the largest diesel power plants in the United States. A dedication ceremony was held on Saturday, October 22, at which Oregon’s Governor Martin gave the dedicatory address.

In 1938 the Water and Light Department had 19 employees, and members of the Commission included Mayor Chenowith, Chairman; Commissioners W.S. Link, since 1912; H.L. Toney, since 1918; Gilbert Tilbury, since 1924 and R.H. Windishar, newly elected. Water and Light Commission and its general manager were looking toward the future.

The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) began generating power, in 1938, through the operation of Bonneville Dam, located on the Columbia River. Several proposals from the Commission were made to the BPA in regard to purchasing electrical power, including “the offer to purchase 1000 KW’s of firm power, additional dump power, the use of the utility’s diesels for meeting peak loads, some arrangements to absorb the costs of water bonds through electric operations, and no limitations on the utility with respect to resale of electricity.” These proposals were accepted by the BPA with the exception of the proposal regarding the resale of electricity.

Just after the utility had passed its 50-year milestone, a special meeting of the Commission was called for the purpose of adopting a resolution for the purchase of power from the BPA, pending voter approval. In essence this voter approval would eventually enable MW&L to become a distributor for Bonneville. The voters gave their approval on 21 February 1940, and in June the Commission began to take the steps necessary for the purchase of equipment “for parallel operation of (the) Diesel Plant with Bonneville.” In August, a resolution was unanimously accepted by the Commission for operation, maintenance and construction of one or more power lines connecting the McMinnville area with Bonneville. The locations of the power poles were to be at “the northwest corners of the intersections of Fourth Street… (and) Macy, Logan, Kirby, Johnson and Irvine Streets.” McMinnville was connected and the power flowing through the lines on 19 October 1940.

During late 1940 and early 1941, bids were received for the replacement of the old main wood pipe line from Haskins Creek to the service reservoirs. Contracts were awarded to the Beall Pipe Company, for 37,700 feet of steel pipe and to the Johns-Manville Company for 15,465 feet of transit pipe. Stevens and Koon were hired to oversee the construction of the new 12 inch supply line, which was complete later that year.

For the time being, the power purchased by the Commission from the BPA was supplemental to that generated by the city’s plants. In December of 1941, McGuire “secured Bonneville’s cooperation in meeting unusual loads without raising the utility’s billing demand.” Amendments made in the contract with Bonneville during 1944 regarded compensation given to the Commission for keeping the Diesel Plant in standby condition. Because of a rise in cost for maintaining the Diesel Plant during and after World War II, McGuire asked for further compensation from the BPA, but no agreement could be reached. Eventually, however, an agreement was reached, and in 1948 the BPA and the municipal utility entered into a new contract that required “the utility to purchase all its power from Bonneville instead of simply supplementing its own generating capacity.”

During the post war period, the Commission became concerned with “building and rebuilding (its) system to provide a more reliable service and to carry the greater load… demanded by consumers.” It used the old equipment as efficiently as possible, and at the same time brought in new equipment to meet the ever “increasing demands for electrical power.” In 1948 the BPA added a 6,000 KVA transformer to the three-1,000 KVA transformers previously installed, increasing the volts of electrical power from 2,400 to 7,200 in the McMinnville area. Also during this time, MW&L began experimenting with a carrier current control system and was one of the first to try the system. The experiment involved a 720 cycle signal that was sent out to 50 homes in the area involved in the experiment. This signal, depending on the length of time it was sent to the above mentioned homes, would either turn on or off water heaters and other electrical usage. The electrical rates Bonneville charged MW&L were based on the day of the year which had the highest peak load use and the object of the carrier current experiment was to control electrical peaks and save money all year long.

The wood pipeline from the service reservoirs to the city was replaced with a 16 inch composite steel line during 1948, and a short time later the Commission accepted Carl Halvorson’s $62,471.50 proposal for repairing and enlarging service reservoir one and the Henshaw Brothers’ $43,560 proposal for repairing and enlarging service reservoir two. Later, Carl Halvorson was awarded the contract to construct a roof on both reservoirs. The above mentioned restructuring was complete in late 1950, enabling the reservoirs to hold a combined total of five million gallons of water for the city of McMinnville.

During mid-1950, City Engineer Waggoner performed preliminary research on raising Haskins Dam, and in early 1951, the Commission accepted a $350,669 proposal, for the construction work in raising the dam, from Miller and Strong of Eugene. In the meantime, BPA technicians were constructing a substation on McMinnville’s east side, and an 115,000 volt power loop system, linking Forest Grove, McMinnville and Salem. The generation facilities in McMinnville were maintained in standby condition and the hydro-electric plant operated “automatically at the time of peak loads during the winter,” in the early 1950s. It was around this time also, that the Diesel Plant began operation “as a participant in the Northwest power pool.” McGuire was reluctant to dispose of the Diesel Plant in McMinnville because of his concern over Bonneville’s capacity to meet the growing electrical generation requirements needed to meet the city’s demands.

A resolution was passed, in February of 1951, renaming the Haskins Creek Dam and Impounding Reservoir as the Walter S. Link Dam and Impounding Reservoir. In early 1952, construction, raising the dam and enabling it to hold 250 million gallons of water, was complete. A marker of bronze and native stone was placed on the dam’s crest to identify the project as a tribute to the 34 years of public service Walter S. Link had unselfishly given while serving on the MW&L Commission. Mr. Link’s foresight was largely responsible for the purchase of timber lands in the 5,400 acre MW&L watershed area; the sale of the timber off the watershed lands would provide for further expansion of the water system within the next 25 years.

In April of 1956, the Commission discussed a contract concerning the purchase of Priest Rapids power from the Grant County Utility District. In a unanimous vote, the Commission made the decision to enter into a “Power Purchase Contract” with Grant County’s Utility District No. 2, and in May a resolution was approved which involved the purchase of hydro-electric power generated by the Priest Rapids Dam, located on the Columbia River. The Commission purchased the Priest Rapids power with the idea of selling it to PGE and Pacific Power and Light (PP&L), and still having the ability to withdraw the power from those companies when it was cheaper than the power purchased from the BPA.

Milt McGuire retired as general manager of MW&L on 01 June 1957. He was retained by the department as a consultant on a “fee basis of $10 per hour with a maximum of 600 hours per year.” During his life in McMinnville, Milton McGuire had been president of the Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club, was on the school board, was Chaplain and member of the Elks Lodge, Master and member of Union Lodge 43, 32nd Degree Scottish Rite Mason, a member of the Order of Red Cross of Constantine, and a Shriner. McGuire became a professional engineer in 1932, and he received the Fuller Memorial Award for his outstanding contribution to the water works profession in the spring of 1942. In 1947 he received the honor of having a Northwest Public Power Association award created in his name, and he received an honorary degree from Linfield College in 1958.

Also during his lifetime, McGuire was chairman of the Northwest section of the American Water Works Association (AWWA), National Director of the AWWA, director of the Northwest Public Power Association, and was chairman of the board for the First Federal Savings and Loan Association. He served on the County Welfare Committee, was chairman of the BPA Advisory Council and he received the Community Service Award, in 1959, from the City Club of Portland for outstanding contribution to civic, community and county improvement in Oregon.

Milt McGuire and the early commissioners of MW&L left a legacy of growth behind. They developed strong possibilities for future growth and prosperity beyond their wildest dreams. Their achievements and foresight enabled the MW&L department to provide its customers with dependable electric service and a clean and plentiful water supply. In future years his foresight would benefit everyone who settled in the McMinnville area.

McMinnville Water and Light’s First Hundred Years

A History Compiled by Katherine L. Huit

September 06, 1988