In 1898, when Forsyth County was at the dawn of its manufacturing heyday, it was the Idols power station that made the light.
Idols, now a ruin on the Yadkin River just west of Clemmons, was the first commercial hydroelectric generating station in North Carolina to use long-distance transmission of alternating current. No less a luminary than inventor Thomas Edison was an early investor.
David Bergstone, a member of the group Preserve Historic Forsyth, wants to see Idols’ historic structures preserved and its story told to generations who can scarcely imagine life without electricity. He organized a tour recently to persuade the group’s board to officially take on the project.
“It’s a great location because of the history of it and what it meant for the community,” said Bergstone, who is the director of architecture at Old Salem Museums and Gardens.
Architect David Gall, another board member, said the Idols station shows Forsyth County at the forefront of industry modernization across the Southeast. “That site has an important story to tell,” he said. “To be able to move forward, you have to have an appreciation of history.”
Idols’ story began with Henry Elias Fries, whose family owned several textile mills and a grain mill, among other enterprises. Fries saw the potential of electricity and formed a company, Fries Manufacturing and Power Co., to put the power of the Yadkin River to work for the community.
The Fries family “was like the Andrew Carnegie of Winston-Salem,” said Catherine Hendren, who is the president of Preserve Historic Forsyth.
The station opened on April 18, 1898, with Fries’ young daughter, Marguerite, there to flip the switch for the first time.
Power from the plant was an impressive 10,000 volts in 1898 and “long-distance” at the time meant 13¼ miles to Salem – the separate towns of Winston and Salem hadn’t yet merged.
But the electricity from the new station would power textile and fertilizer mills, the electric railway and electric street lighting, all of which would help Winston-Salem become the largest city in the state by 1920.
The Idols station continued to generate power until a fire on Feb. 8, 1998, apparently caused by a mechanical failure in a generator.
The station’s wooden wheel room, which sat above a stone structure housing the turbines, was destroyed and the brick generator room gutted. The granite dam, exterior of the generator room and brick walls of the wheel pits remain. Early 20th-century machinery such as a flume, turbines and rotor now sit in the grass at the site.
Ownership of the site changed hands several times over the years, passing to the City-County Utility Commission in 2002. For security reasons, the site is not open to the public: the commission operates a water intake at Idols Dam for the municipal water supply.
Initially, the commission considered tearing down the historic brick structure as part of improvements planned for the water intake. The building was spared, though, at the urging of preservation advocates.
David Saunders, the city-county utilities director, said that while historic preservation is outside the commission’s role, “I don’t think there’s anyone on the commission that’s opposed to something positive happening in the way of preservation of the site.”
Bergstone hopes the board of Preserve Historic Forsyth will decide at its January meeting to embrace the project. The group would try to work out an access agreement with the utility commission, then seek grants for a project to preserve the site for the public.
One possibility is an educational center, where people could learn about the early development of hydroelectricity, along with a park that would allow them to enjoy the natural environment of the area. Adding to the scenery is a truss bridge across the river just to the north.
“It’s very undeveloped,” Hendren said. “It’s really beautiful land.”
Another step would be pursuing inclusion on the National Register of Historical Places; the site has already been determined to be eligible, Bergstone said.
“I’m really proud that we have this site that of was national significance,” Hendren said. “It’s beautiful -- and inspiring.”