Colorado Author Spotlights Electrifying the White House in 1891

By Amy Higgins

In 1891, the White House flipped a switch that shined new light on President Benjamin Harrison’s provisional home. In Cynthia Simmelink Becker’s book Lights On! Ike Hoover Electrifies the White House, young Ike Hoover navigates the White House rafters and walls to install the wiring for electric lights, replacing the conventional candles and lamps that the bulk of Americans were accustomed to.

To write the book, Becker, a Pueblo resident, researched early electricity, Thomas Edison, Harrison and his family and administration and, of course, Hoover (not to be confused with President Herbert Hoover), who chronicled his story in 42 Years in the White House. Additional research was done to ensure the illustrations were true to the era, including the clothing, White House architecture and interior design, and the Edison turbines.

Illustrator, 3-D chalk artist and native Coloradan Benjamin Hummel captured the essence of the era beautifully, from the Tiffany glass wall to the chandeliers, White House living quarters and the ever-affable Hoover. A two-time liver transplant recipient, Hummel finds joy with his artistic talent despite the chronic pain caused by his autoimmune disorder. In his drawings you can find a bit of Hummel hidden in the scenery — the German translation of his last name is “bumblebee” and he sometimes conceals the insect in his artworks. Lights On! is one of those examples.

Locating drawings of the turbines was particularly challenging, until Doris Baker, publisher at Palmer Lake-based Filter Press, contacted a knowledgeable librarian at Rutgers University Library who supplied links to the Edison catalogs that the salesmen used as visual aids when selling to municipalities and companies.

“After all the online work and phone calls, I attended a program at the Western Museum of Mining and Industry in Colorado Springs and there spotted a working, 1890s Edison turbine on display,” Baker explained. “All along, a wonderful example was waiting for me to discover in my own backyard.”

Sadly, Becker passed away in 2016, so she never saw her book come to fruition, but with the ongoing efforts of her family, friends and Filter Press, she knew the story was moving forward and would eventually get published. What resulted was a wonderfully illustrated and charming story about Hoover fitting the White House with electric lights and his relationships with Harrison and his staff. (Hoover would become a mainstay at the White House, starting as an electrician and eventually becoming what he called “Executive with the U.S. Government.”)

Lights On! was intended for third- through fifth-graders, but is a fun, educational read for all. Find it at filterpressbooks.com, hummelillustration.com and several other online stores.