Water Wheel Power: Using Ye Olde Water Wheel for a Bountiful Supply of Energy

Although water wheel power was rarely used in the U.S. by the early 1970s, one 71 year old man in rural North Carolina continued to rely on a system he set up in the 1930s to generate DC electricity.

| November/December 1973

  • 024 water wheel power - wheel, near view
    The water outlet is positioned six inches above the wheel so that logs and other debris shoot out over the buckets, preventing damage. 
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
  • 024 water wheel power - sluce gate
    Access water gushes from the spillway, directly in front of the sluice gate.  
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
  • 024 water wheel power - wheel, far view
     Water streams over the Fitz Wheel as access flow from the "race" is diverted by the sluice gate.
    PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
  • 024 water wheel power - checking connections
    Thomas Oates checks lead connections to his DC generator.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
  • 024 water wheel power - wheel closeup
    The bushings and shaft of the 1914 Fitz Water Wheel.  
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
  • 024 water wheel power - at the controls
    Oates, our inventive craftsman, adjusts the wooden "light switch"  that regulates the flow of water through the sluice gate.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
  • 024 water wheel power - diagram
    Diagram of the pulleys and mechanical linkages that transfer power from the water wheel to a DC generator.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF

  • 024 water wheel power - wheel, near view
  • 024 water wheel power - sluce gate
  • 024 water wheel power - wheel, far view
  • 024 water wheel power - checking connections
  • 024 water wheel power - wheel closeup
  • 024 water wheel power - at the controls
  • 024 water wheel power - diagram

Water wheel power—used in the United States for grinding grains and producing energy at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution—has declined in popularity since this country's rural electrification program was initiated in the early 1930's. There are, however, still individuals who refuse to give up the virtually free power source.

One such person is Thomas Oates of Route 74, Gerton, North Carolina. Sparkling, crystal clear water has splashed over his water wheel for more than four decades now ... to provide his woodworking shop, office, and home with electricity since long before transmission lines were installed in this onetime remote mountainous area of the Tar Heel State.

Tom, an agile 71-year-old craftsman, owns and operates The Manual Wood-Workers—a crafts and souvenirs center—where thousands of people stop each year to sample sourwood honey and to buy handmade cedar churns, dulcimers, or cornshuck dolls made by the local mountaineers.

Although Oates doesn't depend on his current metal water wheel as completely as he relied on his first wooden one back in 1933, it—and quick-flowing Hickory Creek—still provides his business with standby power.



Tom—who was born and raised near Asheville, North Carolina—started his first hydroelectric project during the depression, "when I had plenty of time to think about things." Oates adds, "My brother sent me three direct current (DC) generators from New York City, and I had the water ... so the two just fit together."

A total of sixteen woodworking machines and a battery of over fifty lights were hooked into that initial electrical system, to satisfy all of Oates' energy needs eleven years before commercial lines were run through his section of the country.






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