A Shot in the Dark

By Wayne F. Moss

After dark, the view of Teton Valley from Harrop’s Hill, on the valley’s northwest rim, is a panorama of lights, a sequined crescent from Felt to Victor cradled by ebony mountains. But this was not the scene greeting Utah newlyweds Jens and Laura Jeppesen 90 years ago,  as they rattled down rutted Highway 33 with Laura at the wheel of a 1912 open-top automobile. Houses and barns lit by kerosene lanterns, oil lamps and candles—the only light sources available in the basin early in the 20th century—hardly dented the blackness of night.

Residents of St. Anthony, Teton City, Sugar City, Salem and Rexburg had enjoyed electric power and lights since 1908. But the investor-owned utility companies serving those communities balked at stringing wire to the most remote villages and farms like those in Teton Valley, saying the cost per miles was too expensive.

Jeppesen arrived in Teton Valley with intentions to make electricity pay—two decades before Franklin D. Rooselvelt created the Rural Electrification Administration. Jeppesen planned to build a hydroelectric power plant at the mouth of Teton Creek, generate electricity, dig thousands of holes place poles in the hols, string hundreds of miles of copper wire, and deliver electricity to customers—who, it should be remembered, had nothing to plug in. The task was titanic by any measure.

Born in Denmark in 1875, the youngest of a dozen children, Jens Nicholi Jeppesen worked in the family blacksmith shop and saved the money made hammering out nails. By age 17, he had beaten enough iron to buy a boat ticket to the United States.

Teton Valley Power and Milling, formed by Jens Nicholi Jeppesen, built its first plant on Teton Creek near Alta in 1913.

Boarding with relatives in New York, young Jeppesen learned to speak English, and he studied mechanics and engineering through correspondence courses. Lured to Alaska by the 1898 gold rush, but finding no ore, he ended up in Utah working as a mechanic in the Tintic Mining District and the Lark Smelter in Bingham. In Monroe, Utah, he built his first steam-driven power plant and a flour mill. In 1911 the 36-year-old enterprising, self-taught engineer married 23-year-old Laura Sorensen, also of Danish decent. The next year, feeling the tug of opportunity they ventured to Idaho.

Jeppesen convinced local businessmen Don Carols Driggs, Thomas R. Wilson, James Sewell and W.W. Tayor to form a company. Stock, sold to local sheepherders and farmers, financed the venture. Thus Teton Valley Power and Milling Company (TVP&M) was born.

Initially, there was little understanding of the benefits electricity could bring to a farm operation. Concerned parents feared children or livestock could be electrocuted. The fine print of contracts was suspect. People worried about easements for the power poles.

Of what use was electricity to a Teton Valley farmer? Jeppesen and his company offered a few suggestions: irrigation pumps; egg and grain cleaners; burglar alarms, pig, rabbit and lamb brooders; insect control devices; incubators; sterilizers; silo feeders; poultry warmers; barn, chicken and yard lights; germicidal lamps; soil warmers and sterilizers; sheep shears; fruit and paint sprayers; bull exercisers; community frozen food lockers; and electric fences. How could any progressive farmer manage with these? Nationwide, manufacturers quickly developed more that 200 farm applications for electricity.

Demands for more electricity in Teton Valley prompted the construction of a much larger plant on the Teton River north of Felt in 1923. To deliver it’s product, the company used a rigged derrick to hoist the 35-foot poles supporting the network of wires.

Building a small hydro electric plant at the mouth of Teton Canyon, TVP&M went “on line” in early 1913. That summer, the Driggs Theater offered moving picture shows nightly, and in November the LDS Stake House was wired for electric lights.

The single turbine on Teton Creek sporadically generated 650 kilowatts of power. Problems immediately beset the operation. During the first winter, the canal carrying water from Teton Creek to the penstock (a pipe above the turbine) washed out. The power was off for a month while a flume (a trough for transporting water) was built to replace the canal.

In 1914, blizzards drifted snow into the Teton Canyon flume, blocking the water for weeks, and in 1915, “six men, working hard, could not keep the mush ice from forming on the screens. This caused a complete shutdown for over a month,” Jeppesen recalled in an article he wrote years later for the Teton Valley News. Ice also formed in the water wheel and damaged the generator. The stockholders and customers of TVP&M fumed.

The company decided to install a supplementary steam plant in Driggs in 1915, complete with milling services. Wheat barley, oats and alfalfa were milled into feed for hogs and cows. It stood west of Main Street where Peaches sits today. “But the upkeep was high because we had to run six months out of winter, costing $40 every 18 hours,” Jeppesen wrote. “The income from sales of electricity was only $25 every 24 hours.”

Members of the Jeppesen family ran a mill, home to Perfection Flour, and a Danish Bakery in Driggs until the Mill burned down in 1942.

Construction started in 1921. A road was carved down the precipitous canyon wall into the rocky, rattlesnake-infested gorge. The descent into the canyon unnerved most people.” Grandpa [Jeppesen] bought a four-wheel-drive Army surplus truck to use on the steep grade,” Driggs native Connie Nelson recalls, explaining that the Jeppesen family often shared picnics in the canyon with the workers and their families. “The choices were to ride in the rickety old truck with Uncle Curtis, who was often drunk, or walk down and risk stepping on a snake. Riding with Uncle Curt was always my choice, the lesser of two evils.”

Jeppesen hired a crew to hand drill and blast a 60-foot tunnel through a peninsula formed by a bend in the river. A low dam diverted water into the tunnel. Keith James Arnold, born in Felt in 1916, and known by everyone as “Bud,” remembers walking through the tunnel with his mother. “To me, as a [5-year-old] kid, it was huge and dark. I thought it looked big enough to drive a car through.”

The 8-foot-diameter tunnel fed water into two 4-food-diameter penstocks, where the water plummeted 80 vertical feet, spinning two turbines in the powerhouse. The plant, finished in 1923, generated 2,150 kilowatts, or more than three times the output of the original plant on Teton Creek. Housing in the canyon accommodated service and maintenance employees and their families. Far below the canyon rim, the winter sun made only a brief appearance and the muffled rumbling of water filled the air. “Standing over the big pipes, the vibration could be felt in your feet like a constant passing of a freight train,” Nelson says.

Jens, Laura and their children, Jimmy, Curtis, Flossie, and Muriel, along with Flossies’ husband, Jesse Aller, and Muriel’s husband, Francis Longo, formed the nucleus of TVP&M, a mom-and-pop operation serving valley communities for nearly 50 years.

The company thrived in the 1930s and ’40s, providing a Depression-proof livelihood for Jens and Laura, along with their four children’s families. Picking up property from delinquent tax rolls, the Jeppesens acquired two city blocks of contiguous lots along Main Street in Driggs. “There we all lived,” Muriel and Franci’s son Paul Longo recalled in a memoir. “Grandma and Grandpa on one side of the driveway and the Longo family on the other; Jimmy and Emma [Kaufman], down the street a ways; Jesse and Flossie Aller across the street in the house Jessie built in his spare time. Curt and Alice lived downtown, tow blocks away, next-door to the company’s office.”

Members of the Jeppesen family.

Generating electricity was only one step for TVP&M. Stringing copper wire to every house in Teton Valley digging holes by hand in the alluvial gravels of the valley floor and placing 35-food poles int he holes required muscle, sweat and time.

Jesse Aller headed up the pole preparation. The bottom 6 feet of each were peeled with a drawknife to allow moisture=resistant creosote to penetrate the wood. “A batch of 10 or 20 poles [was]kept boiling in the creosote tank during the warm summer months,” Paul Longo wrote. “This involved keeping the fire going in the furnace below the tank. Removing the treated poles each week and loading in a new batch to stand vertically, butts in the hot black goo, was nasty. “

Inevitably, the creosote splashed the workers. Burned hands, arms and faces came with the job. More burns were inflicted with the poles were loaded onto a trailer for transport. “But the work went on, our backs frying in the mountain sun, until Jesse [Aller] decreed we had enough for his next job,” Longo says.

A growing demand for line extensions to outlying farms, as well as the need to repair existing lines, kept the family crews busy. “All the digging was performed with three tools: a shovel, a digging bar and a ‘spoon,'” Longo noted. The shovel was the kind commonly used by irrigators and gardeners. The digging bar was a steel rod 6 to 8 feet long, sharpened on one end and weighing 40 pounds. The spoon was a semicircular shovel blade attached to an 8-foot wooden handle. Prior to the use of tractor-powered drills, thousands of 6-foot-deep holes were dug by hand. Curtis Jeppesen and Aller jury rigged a derrick on the back of the Army surplus truck, allowing them to hoist poles into the holes.

In 1928, Jeppesen began marketing Perfection Flour. Ed Griffith oversaw the new operation. “Ed could buch a hundred-pound sack of feed under one arm and a 40-pound bag of flour under the other in one graceful swoop,” Longo wrote.

The family also opened a bakery in the building now occupied by Anchor Mortgage in Driggs. Two cab-over-engine delivery trucks with the slogan “perfection Flour Is Better” Stenciled on their sides became a familiar sight. Jimmy Jeppesen and Francis Longo trucked flour and baked goods to stories and ranches throughout eastern Idaho, southern Montana and western Wyoming.

Seven weeks later, the ashes of the buildings finally stopped smoldering and smelling up the town. The flour mill, valued at $75,000, proved a $50,00 loss to TVP&M (the remainder was covered by insurance), and its closure affected almost every person in the valley, according to the Teton Valley News.

Wartime prevented Jeppesen from obtaining the German parts needed to revive the mill, so he built a feed store on the blackened site. Ed Griffith and Jimmy Jeppesen ran it for several years, but according to Longo, it never seemed to prosper like the flour mill and bakery. The “M” in TVP&M became history.

The “P” still demanded constant attention, however. Winter gales, aided by heavy snow, blew down lines, and summer lightning zapped transformers into smoldering scrap metal. Poles eventually rotted and had to be replaced.

Not trusting the phone company, Jeppesen strung phone line halfway up the power poles from the hydroelectric plant to the substations scattered around the valley. In times of total power fialure, communication between Driggs and the crews out in the blizzards was critical. No lineman wanted to touch the wire unless he was certain the plan had shut down the generators. Workers produced enough electricity for the private phone system by hand-cranking a 12-vold generator, which charged batteries mounted in an oak box on a pole. Cranking the handle rang every phone on the line.

Snowplanes proved the most efficient means of patrolling winter power lines. Curtis Jeppesen built one from scratch and the company bought two others. Basically a sled mounted on ski runners, two in the back and one in the front for steering, with an airplane engine and propeller behind the seat, the vehicle skimmed over snow0covered ground at incredible speed. The un-muffled engine roar deafened occupants and scattered cattle and wildlife, but plane travel was a vast improvement over frost-bitten snowshoe and ski patrols. The crews stationed at the power plant in the river canyon effortlessly zoomed out to Felt for supplies.

Like any power company, TVP&M’s profits were tied to “load,” the amount of electricity flowing through the wires. The high the load, the higher the profits. Paradoxically, electricity becomes cheaper for the customer as use increases. The more power used, the cheaper the per-unit price. People in the valley had to use huge amounts of electricity to keep the company profitable.

The 1950s brought an increase in demand for electricity, requiring substantial investment in new technologies. TVP&M was looking more and more like small potatoes in the regions burgeoning power industry and it was no longer the only game in town. Since 1938, Fall River Rural Electric Cooperative had been running lines to outlying farms and houses, especially on the west side of the valley. The larger Fall River REC provided service to areas too costly for TVP&M and could afford the expensive upgrades needed to deliver electricity to a growing community. the two companies shared a peaceful co-existence until November 14, 1960, when the Jeppesen family sold out.

Gene Sewell, who later ran the Ford garage in Driggs, began working summers for TVP&M in 1955, while he was still in school. “The two turbines Jens installed are still in use, as well as the tunnel and penstocks, ” he points out, adding that in his time at the plant, ice blockages remained a problem. “Several times we had to go out and shoot the ice [blast with dynamite] behind the dam to keep water flowing.”

Fall River REC renamed the facility, calling in Felt Canyon Hydroelectric Project. The two generators Jeppesen installed still hum out electricity, but not for Teton Basin. In 1985, a 35-year lease was negotiated with the now-disbanded Bonneville Pacific Services, which added two more turbines, and designated the power generated in the canyon for Utah Power and Light Company. Today, power for Teton Valley, distributed by Fall River REC, flows along copper wires over Pine Creek Pass from Palisades Dam.

As the sun slides behind the Big Holes and dusky finger of night creep down the canyons, pinpoints of light dance in gloaming. It’s a legacy of illumination for the Jeepesen family and Teton Valley Power and Milling Company.