John P. Cunningham began working for NP&L on February 7, 1939, two years after the company moved its home office to Franklin. The country was just coming out of the depression and he, like most men, was glad to have a job. Mr. Cunningham's forty-four hour-a-week job on the line crew earned him sixteen dollars a week. He was the fourth man hired on what had previously been a three-man crew. When asked about this job, Mr. Cunningham replied, "We had to do everything. We had to cut right-of-ways, dig the holes, set the post, frame them, string the wire, tied [the line] it to the houses. We didn't have any equipment. Everything was done by hand, it was hard work. We carried the poles, I believe the heaviest was a forty-foot pole.There were no two days alike. Everyday was a challenge. Sixteen dollars a week, out there handling hot wires, [and] now you can't get a man to climb a pole for sixteen dollars a hour."His crew was based at the Franklin office. However, their work required them to spend most of the week away from home. Later NP&L transferred Mr. Cunningham to the company's service and installation department and then back to the line crew as foreman. "I was the one that was called out when the power went off. We worked in the ice and rainWeather didn't stop work. Lightning gave [them] the most trouble. We worked on lines with lightning striking all around. The kids around here call[ed] me the Thunderman." Mr. Cunningham retired from NPL in 1977.

When Mr. Cunningham began working with the Nantahala Power and Light Company, few people in the area knew very much about electric power. Nevertheless, he was able to learn quickly. Mr. Cunningham admits to being somewhat of a natural when it came to understanding the workings of electricity. Although he received no formal training, Mr. Thorpe requested that he be exempt from the draft during World War II. Mr. Thorpe believed he was more valuable to the war effort at home. "I was self taught," states Mr. Cunningham. "I could work out the wattage load in my head. I could figure the load of the power line out on an oak leaf." By the 1940s the company was selling electric appliances and Mr. Cunningham had been promoted to their service department. "They put me doing service work. I wired houses. And the company sold refrigerators and stoves and stuff and I worked on that. And I was the only man this side of Asheville that could work on refrigerators." Mr. Cunningham's abilities were so well-known that when the company purchased the Bryson City plant, they tried to transfer him down to oversee the plant's operations.

Both Mr. and Mrs. Cunningham think that the company was a big influence in their lives and the life of their community. Mrs. Cunningham feels that she, like her husband, also played an important part in the company. She remembers Mrs. Thorpe visiting her at the Cunningham home soon after the birth of her first child. She mentions that during the time Mr. Cunningham worked as a line foreman, she served as the company's unpaid weekend secretary. She recalls many weekends taking calls and relaying information to her husband about power outages. Both she and Mr. Cunningham pointed out that they did not get the opportunity to go to many of the company's functions, because they were always on call.

© Western Carolina University

NOTICE: WARNING CONCERNING COPYRIGHT RESTRICTIONS The digitalized exhibit ìWatts in The Mountains: Rural Electrification in Western North Carolinaî is the sole property of Western Carolina University. As such, all materials presented in this exhibit are protected under the current law of the United States (Title 17, U. S. Code) that governs the making of copies or other reproductions of copyrighted material. Fair use under the law permits reproduction of single copies for private study or research. Further transmission, reproduction, or presentation of protected items without the written permission of the copyright owners is forbidden This institution reserves the right to refuse any additional copying petitions if, in its judgments, fulfillment of the request would involve violation of the copyright law.