John Jay Philbrick established the Key West Electric Company circa 1889. It was the first of its kind in the Florida Keys. Competition
arrived circa 1897 in the form of an electric plant developed by William Curry Son’s Company. In later years, Philbrick’s KWEC would purchase the operation. As Key West grew, as well as the demand for service, so did the KWEC. In 1943, the KWEC was incorporated into the Key West utility City Electric.
It was not until the later 1930s that electricity would become available outside of Key West. Tavernier’s H.S. “Mac” McKenzie worked with Florida Power and Lighting to build a small electric plant. Located behind the Tavernier Hotel, it was powered by a single 50-horsepower diesel generator. Electric lines stretched for about a mile between Tavernier’s Coconut Row and today’s Driftwood Trailer Park. Service hours were limited to 5 to 10 a.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. On Saturday nights, the electricity was left running until midnight. McKenzie’s plant served about 37 customers.
Following McKenzie, Alonzo Cothron built a private electric plant to serve a small community on Upper Matecumbe Key. Like McKenzie, Cothron offered service for limited hours in the mornings and evenings. His operation served about 22 customers. The same story, more or less, repeated itself in Marathon where Captain Bill Thompson, for example, operated a private electric plant to power his properties and likely those of a few neighbors.
President Franklin Roosevelt’s Rural Electrification Administration helped unify these private operations by offering federally funded loans to bring electricity to rural communities. In order to qualify for the funds, a group of 300 members, or future customers, had to sign up. A $5 membership fee was required. Securing 300 members was no easy task. Marathon resident Allen Parrish purchased 20 memberships to reach the goal. On Jan. 22, 1940, the Florida Keys Electric Cooperative Association Inc. was certified by the secretary of state. The office address read: Marathon Grocery, Marathon, Florida.
In the general time frame that Key West’s City Electric formed, an electric plant with three diesel generators began operating in Tavernier. Two portable generators served Marathon. City Electric has since become the Utility Board of the City of Key West, operating as Keys Energy Services and providing service from Key West to the Seven Mile Bridge. Learning more will be easy: the Key West Art & Historical Society’s exhibit “Keys Energy: Powering Paradise for 75 Years” opens July 27.
Brad Bertelli is curator of the Keys History & Discovery Center.