Painting of Harvey Crowley Couch by Arkansas artist Adrian Louis Brewer.
Courtesy of the Arkansas History Commission
Last week’s column focused on Harvey Couch and the role he played in relief efforts during the Flood of 1927. Founder of Arkansas Power and Light Company, Couch was one of the state’s first industrial entrepreneurs. Whereas last week’s column explored his later life, this week we’ll go backwards a bit and explore his early days. In Stephen Wilson’s book Harvey Couch: An Entrepreneur Brings Electricity to Arkansas, he begins with a look at Couch’s childhood as a farm boy in Calhoun, Arkansas. Born in 1877, he was an outcast in the Magnolia school until a teacher named Pat Neff took great interest in him, suggesting he was the kind of man who could “build empires.”
Couch wanted to work for the railroad, and while waiting on a position to open up he worked at a drugstore in Magnolia where he collected loans from farmers. When he finally got a job on the railroad he came into contact with men putting up telephone wires. The telephone industry had yet to really take off and Couch saw an opportunity he’d been looking for. He wanted to set up new phone services in places that had yet to receive it, especially in rural areas. So he paid another railroad worker 50.00 to exchange routes with him, and took over the route from Magnolia to south Louisiana and set up lines on the side. Soon thereafter he and the postmaster in Bienville, Louisiana formed the North Louisiana Telephone Company.
Couch sold his company to the Bell Company in 1911 and began looking to invest in electricity, which was still spotty throughout the state. Just as with the telephone company, Couch sought to create an interconnected system. This was a much more difficult process than bringing phone service to the state. There was little investment capitol in/for the state and the equipment was drastically more expensive and complex. Couch knew start up would be hard but would save money over the long haul. “The advantages of an interconnected electric system,” Wilson writes, “was that one community could be powered by any of the several different power sources. Thus, he hoped, would eliminate the outages created by broken equipment and build a more satisfied customer base.”
At the time New Orleans was the only place in the tri-state Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas area that was using electric power to run its industries. The industries that did use energy, such as the timber industry, generated their own through the use of stream mills. Couch discovered that the Arkansas Land and Lumber Company working in Malvern was treating sawdust as a waste product even though it could be used to power steam boilers. Soon after he struck a deal with the company to build power lines on the property and make use of their waste product and their unused boilers. “For 300.00 a month,” writes Wilson, “Couch would buy steam from the lumber company’s boilers to give Malvern and Arkadelphia 24-hour electric service for the first time.” It was the first time such a partnership had occurred and highlights not only Couch’s creativity, but also the changing nature of Arkansas industry at the turn of the century.
More information on the coming of electricity, and the creation of large hydroelectric dams, in upcoming columns.
Are you familiar with the history of Harvey Couch? What are your thoughts on his role in the state?
Read more on Harvey Couch in the Arkansas Encyclopedia here.
Read last week’s column here.
The Seed and the Story is a partnership with theCourier and Post Dispatch newspapers in Pope and Yell County, Arkansas. This weekly column explores folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. Columns are often written in partnership with the McElroy House: Organization for Folklife, Oral History, and Community Action and humbly attempt to bridge intergenerational themes in the region.