First electrified home

The dining room of the Frank W. Tracy house, taken from a newspaper clipping, titled “The Family Album,” in the Sangamon Valley Collection. No source or date is given for the clipping, but the item was published sometime before the death in 1954 of Louise Tracy Lester, probably in the Illinois State Register. A handwritten note suggests the original photograph was taken in 1879, which would have been before the room was equipped with electric lights. (SVC)

The first Springfield home to be equipped with electric lights reputedly was the palatial residence of Frank and Sarah Jones Tracy.

It’s not clear when Frank W. Tracy, a banker and civic leader, had the lights installed. The date probably was  in the 1880s, while Springfield was still getting used to electric lights on streets and in businesses.

Getting Here, a 100th anniversary pamphlet published by City Water, Light and Power in 2011, gave this account of Tracy’s unveiling of his new lights:

In Arthur D. Mackie’s history of the Springfield Gas and Electric Company, Mackie wrote of being “told by E.A. Hall, who was a guest at a dinner given by Mr. Tracy in celebration of the electric lights, that the entire ceiling of the dining room was studded with electric bulbs and … the guests sat in the room in fear and trembling, expecting to see the ceiling burst out in a mass of flames any second.”

However, that did not deter them from enjoying the feast and the good things that went with it in that day – before Old Man Volstead was heard of. (See editor’s note below.)

The cutline accompanying the photo above of the Tracys’ dining room added,

Mrs. (Louise – ed.) Lester, daughter of the late Mr. and Mrs. Tracy, tells us that the walls being of brick and eight inches thick all through the house, the entire electric installation was “external and the lights had to be “pulled on by cords which hung from the ceiling.”

The home, which was at 1131 S. Sixth St., was razed in 1942. Illinois State Journal writer Beulah Gordon covered the demolition.

When the Tracys and their four children lived in the home, Gordon wrote,  “the three-story, twenty-one room brick house was the scene of some of the most brilliant social affairs in Springfield.”

The dining room, one of the largest in Springfield, extended the width of the house, and spacious doors opened off the south side on a conservatory filled with beautiful flowers, in which a fountain played constantly.

The mahogany table, which seated fifty people, was built for the dining room and the table cloth was made for the table.

The widowed Louise Tracy Lester (1869-1954) lived in the house until 1933, but it had been vacant for nine years when it was finally torn down.

From History of Sangamon County, Illinois, Interstate Publishing, 1881

From History of Sangamon County, Illinois, Interstate Publishing, 1881

Frank W. Tracy (1833-1903), born in Maryland, moved to Springfield in 1863 to become the teller of the new First National Bank. He was elected president of the bank in 1879.

Tracy had investments in railroads, several local manufacturers (including Sattley Manufacturing, Franklin Life and the Illinois Watch Co.) and held a number of state and national banking posts. He also served terms as a city alderman and member of the Springfield School Board.

Tracy’s interest in electricity went beyond his own dining room. In 1894, he led the effort to form the Capital Electric Co., whose 60 investors financed construction of a power plant designed eventually to be turned over to the city. In return, Capital Electric was given the city street lighting franchise under terms that more or less guaranteed a profit for the investors. Tracy became president of Capital Electric.

Although it ended in controversy, the deal basically worked out for both sides.

schs-logo-2Editor’s note: Arthur D. Mackie (1875-1938) was in a position to know about Tracy’s lights. Mackie managed all of Springfield’s private utility services – electricity, gas and street car/bus transportation – from 1913 until his death.  Neither the Sangamon Valley Collection at Lincoln Library nor the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library has a copy of his history of the Springfield Gas and Electric Co.

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society.


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6 Responses to First electrified home

  1. Larry Senalik says:

    June 1886 he purchased the property for the house on South 6th.

  2. editor says:

    Larry: Well, that’s mysterious. Here’s the full second graf of Beulah Gordon’s 1942 story on the demolition …

    “Purchased by the late Mr. Tracy in 1871, the three story, twenty-one room brick house was the the scene of some of the most brilliant social affairs in Springfield.”

    Just to complicate things, the first mention I can find of the Tracys at 1131 S. Sixth is in the Jan. 1, 1886, Journal. Mrs. Tracy, her two daughters and 17 other women were holding a New Year’s Day reception at 1131 S. Sixth. That suggests the Tracys were thoroughly moved in, and the house was probably pretty big already.

    If Gordon’s story is correct, I would have expected some mention of the home prior to Jan. 1, 1886. That supports your finding. But if Tracy didn’t own the property till June 1886, how could the Tracys have thrown such a New Year’s blowout at the start of the year?

    Could Frank have bought additional property on South Sixth later in 1886? Any other theories?

    Thanks for looking this up. It’s actually kind of fun trying to reconcile this kind of information.

  3. editor says:

    A followup: City directories show the Tracys at 1131 S. Sixth starting in 1875. Did people do refinancings in the 1880s?

    • Christopher R Wanstall says:

      I am Frank and Sarah Tracy’s Great-Great Grandson. Before my mother died, she showed me a newspaper clipping from the local Springfield newspaper about the electric light party at the Tracy House. I have been trying to find the clipping, but it was 10+ years ago. There was a grand party for the lighting, and all of Springfield society (at the time, however THAT gets determined) was in attendance. In addition to the four Tracy children, Sarah Tracy’s unmarried younger sister Emma Francis Jones (about 12 years younger) also permanently resided in the family home, and would have been present during the lighting party. Emma was a schoolteacher, who lived with her sister from the time of their mother’s death in 1868, until Sarah died in 1918. Emma then moved into the Lester household. One of the Tracy children, William Warren Tracy, worked at the bank under his Father Frank, and ended up marrying the neighbor’s daughter, Elizabeth Cooper Haynie, sometime in the 1880s. According to family lore, the two families knocked a hole in the wall separating the properties, and installed a garden gate to be able to easily go back and forth between the homes.

  4. Steve Tracy says:

    Frank was my great-great-great grandfathers brother. The original family farm is still alive and well in Mason City, IL since the Tracy family arrival in 1851 (I have the honor of farming it). We have an original photograph Frank signed and also civil war letters. Franks younger brothers was dying from disentery at the siege of Vicksburg and he wrote to his captain to offer to pay to have a soldier help bring him home. His private cemetery exists still today (I being the caretaker) located at the center of our families original 160 acres. I am unsure if there is any Tracy family left from his lineage or not. If anyone would know I would love to find out.

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