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. 


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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