Tag Archives: history

Bringing the Wind Home

Marcellus Jacobs

Back in 1984 I was assessing agricultural land in southern Saskatchewan. This was the beginning of the era of “suitcase farming,” where operators left their rural homes and moved to nearby cities. My work often took me by these abandoned farmsteads. Passing one, I noticed a curious rusty metal box in a refuse pile. It turned out to be the electrical control box for a wind turbine. Previously I had worked for Saskatchewan’s short-lived Office of Energy Conservation, and wind-powered electric generation had been an area of interest. So I took the box home with me.

Long story short, the box subsequently gathered dust over the course of a couple of decades and a couple of moves, until a basement water leak meant I had to move a bunch of stored stuff. There it was, long forgotten but suddenly a very tangible artifact.

Electrical control box
Electrical control box
Jacobs Wind Electric Co. label
Jacobs Wind Electric Co. label

The control box is an integral part of the Jacobs Wind Electric Plant, Model 25, producing 40 watts of DC power. The Jacobs story actually starts in 1922, on an isolated farm in Vida, Montana. Just to orient you, Vida is south of Wolf Point, Montana, which is directly south of Assiniboia, Saskatchewan. Young Marcellus Jacobs and his brother Joe are playing around with primitive wind generator designs, hoping to provide some electric power to their farm home. (In the 1920’s, large American cities had electricity, but rural electrification for places like eastern Montana was still years away.) Marcellus had learned to fly, so they had access to two-bladed airplane propellers, but they soon discovered that a two-blade design created too much vibration, so they created a three-blade design, which went on to become the standard for wind electric generation.

Marcellus and Joe started a small factory in Vida, producing and selling wind turbines, towers,  control boxes and storage batteries to farms in the area. Much of the demand came from the desire for access to radio programming. The Jacobs boys created a wonderful newspaper ad that showed their mother Ida ironing with an electric iron while she listened to the radio with a headset. The Jacobs company became quite successful and in the late 1920’s, they moved it to Minneapolis, to be closer to parts suppliers. 

In the late 1930’s, rural electrification became a federal priority in the US, and interest in home-based windpower generation dropped off dramatically. However, this was not the case on the Canadian prairies, which had plenty of wind, and did not connect to the electrical grid until, in some cases, the 1950s. So literally hundreds of used Jacobs wind plants migrated from the American midwest to rural Canadian communities like Melita, Manitoba, Peebles, Saskatchewan, and Milk River, Alberta.  Hence the origin of my rusty Jacobs control box. 

The rediscovery of the control box in the basement prompted an exploration of an equally dusty file cabinet, for my old files on wind power. In the cabinet I found a 1985 letter addressed to me from Marcellus Jacobs, answering my request for more information on the company’s history. There is a fine line between personal archival discovery and forgetfulness. 

The Jacobs plants did set the gold standard for wind electric generation. Not only did they innovate the three-blade design, Marcellus and Joe also solved two fundamental problems with wind turbines; controlling overspeeds in strong winds, and keeping internal bearings lubricated. Jacobs Wind Electric Company is the oldest renewable energy company in the US. Marcellus’ son Joe maintains a company website at https://www.jacobswind.net/

A Nagging Wish for the Divine

Jack Logie on horseback
Jack Logie on horseback

Local history intersects with world history, resulting in entanglements. As a resident of our small town of Summerland, I was casually aware of the family surname Logie, as in Logie Road, which winds through an industrial area and some adjacent vineyards. But then I stumbled on to mention of one Jack Logie, and his highly alliterative “Summerland Social Issues Summer School” from the 1920’s. This School, apparently, taught a melange of mysticism, arts and crafts, trade-unionism, and socialism.  Wow! Right here? In my bucolic, sleepy, politically conservative small town, which was a mere village in the 1920’s? 

Of course I was hooked, and dove right in.

Helena Blavatsky
Helena Blavatsky

Ok, be patient as we virtually transport to southern Russia, 1831, as Helena Blavatsky is born. Blavatsky masters several languages, travels to India and England, writes prolifically and pioneers a new religious movement called Theosophy. This new Theosophical torch then gets handed off to an Englishwoman, Annie Besant (1847-1933), also a prolific writer, traveller to India, adoptive mother of Krishnamurti, supporter of women’s rights and of various independence movements. Besant gives a lecture in New York, triggering the formation of the American Theosophical movement. Shortly after that, a Canadian chapter is born.

Theosophy is very difficult to pin down, as it ranges from the rational to the occult, with many levels in between. The three Declared Objects of the Theosophical Society are: 

  • To form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or color.
  • To encourage the comparative study of religion, philosophy, and science.
  • To investigate unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in humanity.

Theosophy was simultaneously able to juggle some very diverse ideas: karma, trade unionism, the Sixth Root Race, social activism, Shambala and the Astral Plane. Gee, and I thought we invented karma in the Sixties, and I was sure that Shambala was a suburb of the hippie community of Nelson!

Our story now moves back to Jack Logie, born in Manitoba in 1881, trains as a pharmacist, moves to Summerland and opens a pharmacy. Diminutive, with one bad leg as a result of a childhood illness, Logie dives into community affairs with amazing energy. A talented musician, he forms the Summerland Brass and Reed Band. He is a Noble Grand of the local Odd Fellows, he reads poetry, leads young people on hikes into the mountains, and studies local Indigenous culture. 

As the Great Depression sets in, Logie becomes concerned about working people, and is influenced by the rising tide of socialist and Marxist thought. In response he starts a local handicraft group to create pottery, wood carvings and basketry for sale. He builds a log cabin adjacent to the main road, where the crafters can work and sell their wares. Theosophy is in the air at the time, and it is a natural for Logie. He signs up.

Now for an aside, where local events again intersect with national ones. As Logie embraces Theosophy, so do Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley and Lawren Harris, they of Group of Seven fame. In turn, Lawren Harris introduces British Columbia painter Emily Carr to Theosophy. 

Jiddu Krishnamurti was chosen to become the Theosophist’s guru, but he eventually breaks away from all organized religions, becoming a powerful and thoughtful force on his own.

But back to Logie. In 1922, Jack starts his School at the log cabin, which runs for ten days each summer. Tents and cots are made available to out-of-towners, and speakers come from all over Canada.  Topics range from arts, music and economics, to Marxism, poetry, theater and pottery. A prominent visiting speaker is Reverend. J.S. Woodsworth, the iconic Canadian social activist and founder of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) the progenitor of the NDP.  

Meanwhile a group of Theosophists on Vancouver Island create an Aquarian Foundation and build a retreat near Nanaimo. The Foundation transforms into a toxic cult, led by the infamous Brother XII (Edward Wilson), who eventually absconds with a fortune donated by wealthy devotees. 

Logie leaves Summerland in 1927. This may have been due to the local press and business leaders, who were of course not thrilled with Jack’s brand of politics, but he definitely left his mark. Jack Logie’s log cabin still stands. I pass it every time I drive from our home down to Okanagan Lake, and it reminds me synthesis is possible: arts and politics, philosophy and crafts can mix to mutual benefit. 

Putting aside all the occultist Vedic/Astral/Sixth Race woo-woo bullshit, Theosophy does offer something to this lifelong but pining atheist: the notion of a Secular Divine. That God is actually humans and nature, together. 

Theosophists do believe in a secular heaven. Coincidentally, it is called Summerland.