Stockbridge, Massachusetts — Mary Heather likes to talk, enjoys making yellow tomato marmalade for the "little old ladies" on her block, and doesn't look at all like a revolutionary. But she and her two brothers are attempting to prove an exciting new diea -- that individual canm help solve the energy crisis. Instead of wringing their hands of shaking their fists at OPEC, they are restoring a long-abandoned hydroelectric plant on the Housatonic River, which will supply enough electricity for 250 homes.
A retired Latin and French teacher, Mrs. Heather admits she knew little about hydroelectric power before she started on the restoration project. Then she adds with a mischievous grin, "But don't you know, anyone who can do Latin can do anything!"
She says she started in 1975, when the Stockbridge board of selectmen proposed tearing down the Glendale Power Station. Built in 1906 by Monument Mills to supply added power, the station had been shut down for over 30 years and was no longer in working condition. Mrs. Heather's older brother alerted her to the proposal, and at the town meeting she made what she calls "my impassioned speech.
"It really was," she says, peering over the steering wheel as she drives us down to the power station. "I mean, I thought this was ridiculous, tearing something down with no cause whatsoever. The dam was in good condition; it was good flood control for downstream; and the building itself is beautiful. So I made my little speech about why couldn't we at least see if anything could be done with it before carelessly destroying it. They voted almost unanimously to do that. . . ."
The gray stone building with a red-shingled roof coming into view triggers an abrupt shift in the conversation.
"There's the powerhouse," she says proudly. "I've just had the roof fixed . . . . My brother was opposed to that. He said, "Oh, Mary, let's get the thing going, and not worry about the cosmetics." I said, 'Well, since I'm trying to get it as an historical site I have to worry about the cosmetics.' Anyway, it makes it look nice. See, it's a beautiful stone building." Pause. "I hope you're warmly dressed because it'll be damp as I don't know what in there."
She's right. The old stone building could double as an icehouse. A heater designed to at least take some of the chill and dampness out of the air is not yet operating, and after 15 minutes of looking at turbiness and generators even my moustache is freezing. We beat a hasty retreat back to the house to continue talking over hot drinks and sweet rolls.
The subject range from national politics to teaching, gas-guzzling cars, and media coverage she's received. She's especially fond of an interview done by a reporter who insisted it take place in the kitchen.
"I said, "Why the kitchen?' She said, 'Well, what are you interested in?' I felt like saying, 'Well, certainly not the kitchen.' There were a lot of things I could have said, but . . . I just took a knife and started cutting tomatoes into a pan on the stove."
Finally she gets back to the power plant, her brother's premise that it could be restored, and her subsequent purchase of it for $5,000.
"Because it involved the buying and selling of town property, the purchase had to be approved by the town by a two-thirds majority," she says. "When they voted we had 40 or 50 votes more than the two-thirds needed, which is unbelievable."
Despite their support and that of Massachusetts Electric, which will buy the electricity the plant generates, she found that some town officials were less than enthusiastic. There were unexpected obstacles, such as five-month delay in the handing over of the deed to the property, and attempts to tie up the project in red tape.
By the time the deed was handed over in August, 1977, it was too late to start the restoration work that year. Mrs. Heather and her younger brother, Joseph Guerreri, found the necessary machinery and equipment, and work began in 1978. Mrs Heather hops to "pull the switch" this spring.
Asked about the delays, she sys, "I think [the officials at first] just had no comprehension of what we were doing. And as an old school teacher you can't get upset if people just don't understand. . . . When you're teaching somebody something and he doesn't get it, you try it another way. You feel it's probably your fault as much as his. Eventually you get it into his head."
She mentions that the plant, when operating, will produce enough electricity to make up for 2,500 barrels of oil a year. That may help hold down Massachusetts Electric's fuel adjustment charges found on its customers' bills each month.
"And water is non-polluting, self-renewing," she says. "[The electric company] is really enthusiastic about it now. I think they see what a benefit it is to people to have electricity that they can buy at a cheaper rate."
She says the response from federal and state officials has also been encouraging.
"I've felt as if the whole thing was going much too slowly," she says. "But when I was talking to one of the government people in Boston, he said, 'You know , you're way ahead of everybody else.'"
For those who think of power plants as costing hundreds of million of dollars , Mrs. Heather's project is a novelty. The cost of restoration thus far has been about $75,000. Joseph Guerreri has provided most of the money, but now Mrs. Heather is also checking into the possibility of government grants or loans.
The key to holding down costs has been the Yankee tradition of making do with whatever i available. Much of the equipment came from other old power plants.
Mrs. Heather says the project wouldn't have been possible without her younger brother. A graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an electrical engineer for most of his life, Joseph Guerreri, who now lives in California, has done all the planning for it.
Mrs. Heather admits she knows nothing about the technical side of hydroelectric power plants. She merely gets whatever information or equipment her brother says he needs.
"I explain as best I can and look for things -- even to finding out whether a turbine was okay. I had to take all sorts of pictures of it so he could count the number of things -- I forget what they're called -- to see whether it was worth buying. He's done the technical thing completely.
"My mother is disturbed because she says I'm getting all the credit," says Mrs. Heather. "I said, 'Mother, I'm not getting all the credit; it's just that I do all the talking.' My older brother started the thing rolling and my [ younger] brother . . . is doing the hard work. . . ."
The contract with Massachusetts Electric has already been signed, but Mrs. Heather would consider the project a success even if the plant didn't produce a cash product.
"One of our reasons for doing this was to get people interested," she explains. When we started, people just did not realize that there was going to be a shortage of oil, and the sooner we produced our own electricity the better off we'd be. Now people are calling to find where they can find similar places to do what we are doing.
"In Washington, D.C., last October there was a . . . hydro conference. The organizers expected about 200 people to show up, and instead they had 1,200 participants, all interested in developing [small scale] hydroelectric plants."
She says a man from Toronto called to find out more about what she was doing. He said that in upper Ontario a number of small dams have been abandoned and that "those people could really help themselves if they get busy and do what you've done."
"The other thing is: as a teacher I feel we have something that is really historical. We're restoring it pretty much the way it used to be, and young people who say, 'How did they used to run years and years ago?' [They] can come down and look. On top of that, the stretch of land and river from the powerhouse up to the dam is very beautiful. I've already marked where I've found some trout lily and other wildflowers and rare mushrooms. Even if the youngsters don't come here for a nature study, just walking along a piece of land near a river as beautiful as this is something to save for future generations.