The Hearthstone House and Electricity to Wisconsin

Front view of historic house in the summertime c. 1974. Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society, ID# 28719.

Built in 1882, the Hearthstone House operated using the first system of central electricity designed by Thomas Edison and it was the first private residence in the nation powered through hydroelectricity. The house was originally known as the Henry J. Rogers House, named after the first owner of the property. Rogers, using his position as president of the Appleton Paper and Pulp Co., had the apparatus that would power his home installed at one of their processing plants just across the river from where Hearthstone shines today.[1] With the engineering installation complete within the span of only a few weeks, the house lit for the first time on September 30th, 1882.[2]

Original lighting switches, Hearthstone House. Photo courtesy of Trase Tracanna, 2021.

Today, the Hearthstone House stands as a monument to Victorian-era architecture. Designed by architects William Waters, who was responsible for designing many buildings in the Fox Valley, particularly Oshkosh, in this architectural style, and Henry VanStrom. The features of the Hearthstone House revolve around the specific Victorian genre of Queen Anne architecture with  its characteristic wrap-around front porch, which was popular throughout North America at the time. Unlike these new electric fixtures using incandescent bulbs that could point in any way the user desired, the more common gas lighting systems of this time used an open flame, and, until the very end of the nineteenth century, were designed to point all of the light upwards towards the ceiling, and often away from where the light was most needed.[3] The preservation of the architecture and the original lighting fixtures complete with the antique switches help visitors step into the Victorian age of the late 19th century as they explore the house.

Today, the Hearthstone House still stands proudly on a bluff overlooking the Fox River on Appleton’s Prospect avenue. The turbine that once powered the house and other buildings around Hearthstone by the strength of the Fox’s rushing waters is no longer the conduit for the wonder of electricity that it once was, dismantled and replaced in favor of more modern and  efficient systems of electricity generation. But the house of the nineteenth century remains as a reminder of the innovations of the past, and new opportunities for the future of electricity in the twenty-first century and beyond.

Hearthstone House lighting fixture. Photo courtesy of Trase Tracanna, 2021.

The preservation of this building as a museum gives Wisconsinites, and the world, a look into the past with its contemporary architecture, and the early implementation of electricity that we now couldn’t imagine living without. And Hearthstone’s history shows us the life of the world to come, with the fact that this house was once illuminated through the power of hydroelectricity and the Fox river, one example of a renewable energy source the likes of which are still being widely implemented today to light up the future.

 

Written by Trase Tracanna, June 2021.


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FOOTNOTES

[1] Appleton Post Crescent Newspaper Archives (September 12, 1932): 2.

[2] Ibid, 2. 

[3] Jonathan Taylor, “Lighting in the Victorian Home,” Lighting in the Victorian Home (The Building Conservation Directory, 2000), Accessed June 7, 2021 at https://www.buildingconservation.com/articles/lighting/lighting.htm.


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