Vern Coffelt comes from a long line of OPALCO founders and supporters. His grandfather, John Gus “JG” Smedberg, a pioneer Orcas farmer known for his prize-winning apples and pears, was instrumental in connecting the Orcas Power and Light boosters with the federal Rural Electric Administration in the ‘30s. Vern’s father, Amos Coffelt, was one of the original twelve signers of OPALCO’s documents of formation, and was on the first OPALCO Board. In the ‘50s, Vern’s cousin Clarence Coffelt worked in the OPALCO office. And in 1960, Vern himself joined OPALCO as a lineman. He retired as Superintendent 35 years later.
Vern was born in 1930 and grew up in a farmhouse on the south slope of Orcas’s Turtleback Mountain. Unlike many of their neighbors, the Coffelts had power years before OPALCO ran a line out to West Sound. Amos had always been interested in electricity and had rigged a Pelton water wheel on the stream that ran down the hill to the road. There was quite a good drop there, and with pipe scavenged from a logging camp up the mountain, they were able to run a DC generator strong enough for a couple of lights for the house and the chicken coop. When they didn’t need the lights, Vern or his brother would hike down the hill to shut off the water flow to save water, which seemed like a pretty long trek at the time.
Before electrification, many people on Orcas were making their own power. Most systems were battery-based, with either wind chargers, or Delco or Kohler home-use generators. After electrification, most of those systems fell into disuse, except among home-power enthusiasts. In fact, over the years, Amos Coffelt’s Pelton wheel made its way around the island, to George Keyes’ place (now Glenwood Springs), then Erling Manley’s, before it finally ended up back at Vern’s, now at rest in the barn.
Back when OPALCO was still trying to get on its feet, Vern remembers Amos going around to the neighbors, trying to get folks to sign up in advance for power if it came by, as a show of financial support. “Some folks wouldn’t sign on; they couldn’t see what use they would have for electricity. But, of course, eventually everybody did come around.”
His first work for OPALCO was helping run the overhead line around Crane Island. “What I liked best about working for OPALCO was the diversity of things I got to do, everything from cutting brush and right-of-way clearing to lineman work to laying or fixing submarine cable. In the early days, we didn’t have a lot of resources, so we made the best of things with what we had, and had to be creative.” One of his favorite memories is just spending time with his agreeable boss, Eber Bruns, hiking through the woods on Blakely Island, deciding where the power lines would cross the island.
Asked what it was like to be a lineman’s wife back in the day, Vern’s wife Sidney remembers the phone ringing off the hook at all hours during outages. “We were about fourth on the list of who to call if there was an outage—it was printed right there in the phone book, who to call. If the first number was busy, you called the next one. And of course, all your friends skip the list and just call you. People would say, ‘Where’s my power! Why don’t you get it on?’ Well, I didn’t know any better than anyone else what was going on. But at least back in those days, people really understood how hard the lineman worked and respected them and their dedication. They had to go out in absolutely the worst weather, really dangerous conditions. Today people don’t seem to think about that as much.”
For their contributions of brain power, muscle and grit to the OPALCO cause, we gratefully acknowledge the hard work and ingenuity of three generations of Coffelts.
2013 Update: Vern Coffelt passed away on September 5, 2013. Read his memorial story here. Among his belongings, a letter came to light, written to Vern in 1991 from a young lineman who worked with Vern during the back-to-back 100-year storms. The young man wrote:
“You know, Vern, I really enjoyed learning from your crew. They are all professionals and the time I spent with you and your crews is very special. Yes, I realize you are all human, but so are the rest of my heroes. You brought out the best in me and the best in everyone around you.”