July 06, 2022

Columbus: A strong history with modern appeal

Member Utilities

This article was first published by MEUW in the Live Lines newsletter, Volume 71, Issue 7.

Situated along the Crawfish River less than 30 miles northeast of the Wisconsin state capital is Columbus, a quaint city with a population of 5,540. Home to one of only eight Amtrak train stations in Wisconsin, the depot in Columbus was built in 1906 and initially had separate waiting rooms for men and women. Visitors still arrive daily on the passenger train, using the same original depot built over 100 years ago. Today, regardless of how one finds their way to Columbus, they will soon discover the area has something to offer for everyone.

The first stop for many is the Columbus Antique Mall, the largest of its kind in Wisconsin with 75,000 square feet of wares displayed by over 220 dealers. The antique mall has been a staple in the community since 1983, when it took over the space previously occupied by the Columbus Canning Company since the early 1900s.

Each May, travelers flock to Columbus to enjoy the Redbud Day Celebration, an event in which the city celebrates the blooming of the redbud trees. Hosted by the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, the event is filled with food, fun, and entertainment. Thanks to the abundant presence of the vibrant flowering trees, Columbus is nicknamed “Redbud City.”

Another exciting time of year for the city is Independence Day, which is famous for its massive parade and five days of activities.  This year’s events included music, bingo, jugglers, and fireworks.

Summertime visitors may wish to enjoy the Columbus Country Club, which is open to the public, or the Columbus Area Aquatic Center, an outdoor attraction with interactive water activities, a zero-depth entry pool, slides, and a concession stand. Afterwards, a person may find themselves at one of the community’s family restaurants, coffee shops, or the local brewing company.

Visiting in the winter also has its perks, as the downtown shops, holiday train, lights, and festivities often draw large crowds. According to Columbus Water & Light Superintendent Michelle Kaltenberg, the downtown area is experiencing a period of growth, and the local stores are a bright spot for anyone hoping to enjoy some holiday shopping.

Kaltenberg is a great source of knowledge when it comes to everything happening in Columbus. As superintendent of the utility, she works closely with the community to help it succeed. The utility assists in hanging holiday lights and decorations and participates in the parades. The Columbus Water & Light staff also works closely with the school district, hosting field trips and leading “parking lot learning sessions” for the area’s elementary school students to learn about electric safety and the job of utility lineworkers through stories and an up-close encounter with a utility bucket truck.

Walking down Main Street, it’s fun to envision what the community may have looked like in its earlier days. Multiple family homes, City Hall, and even the Cream City brick, Italianate-style Whitney Hotel were all originally built in the 1800s. An 1863 newspaper story covering a party hosted in the hotel’s third floor ballroom urged readers, “if you ever hear of a ball by Fuller, ask no questions, but go at once, and enjoy yourselves, and for one night forget the ‘fear of the draft.'”

Just down the block from the historical hotel building is Farmers & Merchants Union Bank, built in 1919 and designed by architect Louis Sullivan. Sullivan was a mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright and has been referred to as both the “father of skyscrapers” and “father of modernism.” The legendary bank was featured in the 2009 Johnny Depp movie “Public Enemies.”

Twenty years before the bank was built, the com munity passed an ordinance providing for the issuance of Electric Light Bonds not to exceed $10,000 to construct an “electric light system” in Columbus. According to “The Columbus Electric Utility” by Donald L. Smith, utility superintendent from 1957-1974, the electric plant was originally made up of two direct current generators powered by two steam engines. The engines received steam from the boilers installed for pumping water at the water plant. The water plant was established in 1895, making it just a few years older than the electric department.

The first rates, set in 1899, were ten cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) with a monthly meter charge of 25 cents. If the bill was paid on time, a rebate of 25 cents was applied. All lights were powered until midnight except street lighting, which was not turned on if there was sufficient light from the moon. That changed in June of 1906, when the streetlights were kept on all night for three days in a row in honor of a Firemen’s Tournament being held at the time.

Fun fact: The first rates in Columbus were set at $0.10 per kWh in 1899. The current rate, 123 years later, is $0.1141 per kWh.

By 1910, the community’s electric distribution system had grown and the utility expanded the generators, increasing the capacity to 250 kilowatts (kW) and switching from direct current to alternating current in order to better distribute the power across a greater distance. At this time, the steam-driven water pump was replaced with an electric pump, and Columbus’ fire alarm was replaced with an electric version.

Smith’s book offers an interesting glimpse into history as it describes a particularly pressing issue at the time: horses chewing on poles, consequently requiring the utility to wrap the poles in protective banding. The electric utility and telephone company pressed for the city council to pay for the banding, as it was the council that allowed horses to be hitched in the streets. It appears the electric utility and telephone company lost that small battle.

In 1914 the electric utility had 456 customers whose individual usage averaged 607 kWh per year. When World War I required conservation efforts in 1915, the streetlights were only kept lit until 10:00 pm. By 1920, a new ordinance would require all electrical wiring to be performed by a licensed professional.

The first off-peak rate for heating water was established in 1935 due to the rising popularity residential electric water heaters. The rate encouraged customers to heat water in their homes during times of the day when demand on the electric distribution system was lower.

A new diesel generating plant was constructed in 1941, with an original capacity of 1800 kW. One year into the plant’s operation, the not-for-profit utility’s revenues were sufficient for the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin to approve an electric rate decrease. Soon after, World War II would bring new shortages that led to higher fuel costs. In 1949, as customer electric demand increased with the ending of the war, ongoing material shortages and cost increases brought about the utility’s first rate increase in fifty years.

Smith’s book concludes in 1974, 75 years after the electric utility was established. During his time as superintendent, the system voltage was raised to 4,160 volts, the utility converted from a delta system to a wye system, a goal was established to get all electric lines buried underground, a new 250,000-gallon water tower was erected (and is still in use today), and the combined value of the water and electric utilities rose from $10,000 in 1899 to nearly $1.8 million in 1974.

Today, Columbus Water & Light remains a valuable community resource and a source of strength for the people it serves. The community-owned, not-for-profit utility continues to deliver affordable rates, reliable service, local support, and modern programs — just like it has done each day for well over a century.

While retaining its rich history, Columbus continues to evolve and respond to the present-day needs and concerns of its residents, and Columbus Water & Light is there to support to the community’s priorities. The people of Columbus have expressed a desire to reduce energy waste and advance the use of renewable energy, and the utility has been as ready as always to respond. In 2011, the city was one of the first to replace high-pressure sodium streetlights with LED technology, which produces less heat, uses less energy, and lasts longer.

In 2020, the utility installed solar panels at its office to offset some of the energy the utility building uses each month and replace it with solar power.

The utility also established funding to support energy efficiency efforts in the community, and it has had a total of more than 1,200 participants over the past five years. Between 2017-2021, customers saved in excess of 2,100,000 kWh, resulting in an aggregate cost savings of over $224,000.

“We try to be as avid in the community as we can be,” shared David Koenig, operations manager with Columbus Water & Light. “When customers tell us something is important to them, we want to support that.”

The utility also offers residents and local business owners the opportunity to participate in the Choose Renewable program, allowing customers to power their spaces with renewable energy for an additional charge. American Packaging Corporation, a key employer in the area representing approximately one-third of the community’s electric load, is one of many participants taking advantage of the Choose Renewable program.

Columbus Water & Light also supports community businesses in pursuing their own energy efficiency efforts, and the utility has expert staff and programs available to help them do so. To date, dozens of local businesses have incorporated energy efficiency projects into their facilities. Notable projects include GAR Plastics utilizing the energy efficiency program for lighting upgrades and Prairie Ridge Health performing retro-commissioning to improve the operation of its HVAC system. Additional energy-saving measures carried out by local businesses with the utility’s support range from replacing old lighting with LED lights to updating manufacturing equipment and installing more energy efficient HVAC equipment.

Even Farmers & Merchant Bank, with its 1919 Sullivan-designed building, has participated in energy efficiency efforts. This melding of Columbus’ vibrant roots with its modern-day sensibility exemplifies the spirit that continues to power the community today: a thriving Wisconsin community whose story is both deep and moving.