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
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.
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
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.