You could call it a genuine power struggle.
In the early days of Detroit (which would later become Detroit Lakes), on a summer day in 1900, a resident named E.G. Holmes, a prominent businessman and bank owner originally from New York, shot a large Irish saloon owner named Mike McCarthy in the head with a pistol.
While it wasn’t exactly uncommon for early settlers to handle their disputes in this sort of way, this particular dispute has a significant role in the history of Detroit Lakes.
First of all, McCarthy survived, as the bullet was deflected by the metal in the brim of his hat. Luckily for him — and possibly lucky for Detroit Lakes.
The argument, you see, stemmed from an ongoing feud between the two over who should control the city’s electrical power. At that time, Detroit Lakes’ power was being supplied by Holmes’ private power plant, but McCarthy envisioned a publicly-owned plant for the future.
Preceding the shooting, there was quite the brawl at the saloon, with chairs being thrown through windows and documents being burned.
Detroit Lakes’ power situation echoed that of many cities across the nation at that time, as the need for power grew. The revenue from generating it could be quite lucrative, and there were challenges to having competitive suppliers. Without today’s technology, people had to change the wires they connected to in order to select a different supplier, so in most cases, multiple suppliers never overlapped.
Owning a power plant with essentially a monopoly in a growing community could be quite the rewarding venture, and this surely would have been Holmes’ motivation. McCarthy, a successful businessman himself, but having come from more of a working-class background, saw the value in a publicly-owned and publicly-controlled plant.
The two wound up in court a week after the shooting, but ultimately it was ruled “self-defense” and Holmes was not prosecuted. In the meantime, the day following the brawl, the city held a vote and the citizens established a publicly-controlled power plant, thus ending the dispute for good.
It’s been a long time since then, and Detroit Lakes now has a public utility that supplies power to the community. Our current utility department is able to utilize power from several generating entities.
Starting Saturday, Oct. 26, the Becker County Historical Society and Museum will host the traveling exhibit, “Electrifying MN,” about how power impacted the history of Minnesota. Along with the exhibit, visitors can learn how our local public utility department has grown over time.
Editor's note: This history column appears on the Tribune's monthly History page.