Column: Illuminating Brite-Lite for the gas lamp folks

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 24, 2005

Several recent inquiries have put the spotlight on an Albert Lea firm once known as the Brite-Lite Company.

One inquiry from a man in Pennsylvania was e-mailed to the Albert Lea Public Library. Another inquiry from a man in Michigan came to both the Tribune and the Freeborn County Historical Museum.

These two inquiries came from members of the International Guild of Lamp Researchers. This organization is devoted to the various aspects of gas and kerosene lamps which were so popular and essential parts of life about a century ago. And one place which has become the focus of their attention and research activities is Albert Lea. That’s because of the one-time existence of the American Gas Machine Co., the Albert Lea Gas Light Co., and the Brite-Lite firm. These three firms made this city a real center for the manufacture of gas lamps years ago.

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I was able to help both of these men with copies of an article I wrote which was published on Feb. 23, 1997, plus an article from the May 12, 1912, issue of the Tribune.

Those inquiries were based on the Brite-Lite name. However, the Albert Lea Gas Light Co. was also a part of the same firm. The real key to both firms and their places in the city’s history is based on one really sharp Norwegian-American businessman named Soren K. Swenson.

He was born on May 25, 1879, near the town of New Sweden in Nicollet County, the son of Norwegian immigrants. New Sweden, incidentally, is located in the center of a triangle based on the towns of

New Ulm, St. Peter and Gaylord.

It’s likely his Norwegian heritage was in part responsible for Soren coming to Albert Lea to attend Luther Academy for three years. After leaving Luther Academy, he worked for the Ransom Bros. Wholesale firm in Albert Lea for a short time. This was followed in 1902 with a partnership in the

P.C. Johnson Clothing Co. After a year and a half in the retail clothing business, Soren was employed by the American Gas Machine Company of Albert Lea. Within two years he became the firm’s executive secretary.

This experience gained with one of the nation’s leading firms involved with the manufacture and sales of what was then called &uot;artificial illumination&uot; inspired Swenson to start his own firm.

The Albert Lea Gas Light Company was organized in March 1910 with Swenson as president. Offices and manufacturing facilities were located in a new building at the corner of South Washington Avenue and West Main Street.

Sales of the appliances and lighting fixtures were being made to consumers in the rural areas and small towns of the U.S. and Canada where electrical service wasn’t yet available

By 1914, this firm had about 50 workers in Albert Lea and 20 traveling salesmen. 1Distribution offices and branch warehouses had been established in Denver, Colo., Fargo, N.D., Chillicothe, Mo., and Moose Jaw, Sask., Canada. The firm’s expanding line of products were being sold under the brand names of &uot;Brite-Lite,&uot; &uot;Comet,&uot; and &uot;Home-Lite.&uot;

In early 1914, the firm’s founder and president became ill with typhoid fever. Swenson suffered with this disease for five weeks, dying at Naeve Hospital on Feb. 16, 1914. He’s buried in St. Theodore’s Catholic Cemetery.

After Swenson’s untimely death, a local attorney named John F.D. Meighen became president of the firm. The name was changed to the Brite-Lite Company. And by 1920, the short history of this firm faded out like a dying gas lamp as it was merged with the much larger American Gas Machine Co.

The building used by the Albert Lea Gas Light and Brite-Lite firms was soon taken over by Trades Publishing Co. This structure at 142 W. Main St. has now been converted into an office building.

(Feature writer Ed Shannon’s column appears each Friday.)