President Lights Alaskan Tree

Posted: December 1, 2018

Reprinted from the RuralCap’s “Action Reports” newsletter dated December 20, 1968.

During the renovation of AVEC’s headquarters building, staff went through countless boxes of old paperwork and photographs to decide what to keep.

We discovered two old photos and news articles about a momentous event that took place in Hooper Bay in 1968. Hopefully sharing this story with you this holiday season will help recreate some of the excitement and pride these folks must have felt. The labor they provided to help install the wiring and generation facility brought light and warmth to their whole community for the first time.

“Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson last Monday lit the first community Christmas tree in Hooper Bay, one of the first Alaskan villages electrified by the Alaska Village Electric Cooperative (AVEC).

Pres. Johnson lit the tree at the same time he pushed the button to light the national Christmas tree 5,000 miles away on the Ellipse in Washington, D.C. December 16, 1968. The President’s action initiated the switching on of electric power throughout Hooper Bay for the first time in history. Hooper Bay is a community of about 550 persons on the far western Bering Sea coast.

This project was implemented to improve health and living conditions and to provide the facilities to stimulate economic development in the area. Most of the wiring, done by the people of Hooper Bay under the direction of officials of AVEC and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was completed last weekend.

All the houses of the community, in addition to churches, a mission house, a Native store and an elementary school operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) are receiving electrical service.

More than 150 persons – many of them children – gathered in Hooper Bay on December 16, 1968, to see the lighting of the village’s first community Christmas tree. Do you see any faces you recognize?

The community is made up of Eskimos, Aleuts and Indians, and all the residents participated in the decoration of the Christmas tree under the direction of Mayor Nile Smith, an Eskimo. The tree was flown into this seacoast community from Bethel, located 125 miles inland. Besides just the traditional lights, the residents added Eskimo handcrafts to the tree to make it more unique than ever.

This is the first time for some of the people to have electric lights and it will affect about 550 people. Before having electricity, they used a type of fuel oil called Blazo.

W.C. Rhodes, AVEC manager, said that at a minimum rate of $15 per month, electricity is much cheaper and more useful than the old fuel oil.

The people can now use electric appliances such as toasters, hotplates and even freezer chests. In fact, with electricity in this village for the first time, the community sought refrigerators as the first appliance to be used. One reason for this is that all Native subsistence foods can be stored in freezer chests to contribute to a better year-round diet for them.

Two other villages have their lights turned on. Nulato’s lights were turned on October 2 and Old Harbor’s on October 15. Therefore, three of the first 10 selected villages now have lights, Rhodes said.

AVEC will ultimately be owned and controlled by the Native villages it serves. William E. Hensley, an Eskimo Native of the Kotzebue area, is president of the cooperative until the next annual meeting. Rhodes heads the cooperative staff charged with coordinating and building the small electric systems all over the state of Alaska.”

AVEC has proudly provided power to rural Alaska since 1968. Through the cooperative teamwork of staff and members we overcame numerous challenges and have grown to serve 58 communities. Have a safe and warm holiday!