Digging Through History: Rust, Mud and Sludge

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1840 Porter Road, White Lake, Michigan 48383

The Delco light plant had seen many years of useful service. The engine's valiant attempts to maintain a constant speed had worn the throttle shaft by nearly a third of its original diameter. The light plant revealed more of its past as I slowly disassembled this faithful servant to attempt its resurrection. Though it had charged its bank of batteries many times through many years, the engine had not been neglected. As oil consumption increased the crankcase was topped up regularly. Quite possibly the owner changed the oil faithfully until near the end as there was no heavy sludge buildup in the crankcase. The valve rockers had been generously oiled at frequent intervals. So much so that excess oil ran down the valve stems and springs onto the head where it slowly carbonized, undoubtedly imparting a constant oily odor to the basement. I can almost hear Grandma telling Grandpa, 'We've got to hook up to that new REA line and get rid of that smelly, noisy thing no matter what it costs.' After they connected to the REA the engine probably remained unused in the damp basement for a few more years while its bolts and nuts solidified into rusty lumps.

Maybe Grandpa got too old to do it himself, moved away or died, but I suspect the engine was not removed by him. His sons or heirs, wanting to rid themselves of this heavy pile of junk, were frustrated by the rusted bolts holding the exhaust pipe to the engine. With little respect for the machine or the years of service it had provided, they smashed the one exhaust flange that hadn't already cracked, to expedite removal. After struggling up the stairs and outside with this monstrous, dusty load of cast iron and copper, they hauled it to the back fence line and dumped it unceremoniously in the soft earth. Surprisingly it landed almost upright. There it lay for many years, a favorite nesting spot for insects. Mud dauber wasps filled holes in the carburetor every year, while smaller insects made homes in tinier passages. The spring rains washed the past year's mud into internal chambers. There the mud mingled with the ever increasing supply of ferrous oxide from the cast iron. Mowing sand filtered into nooks and crannies and stuck in the slowly drying oil film. This provided a foothold for tiny roots that slowly threaded their way into the generator and air cooling chamber. Governor levers became frozen solid as rust expanded the original iron into oxide and set the fly weights into a permanently closed position. The fuel pump on the carburetor, though too tight to leak water, was firmly stuck by petrified fuel. The black surface of the electrical panel was bleached nearly white by many summers of blazing sun.

Folks eventually began collecting these curious old farm engines. One day a couple of young men discovered this discarded Delco light plant and took it home. After more carefully studying its condition they set it aside in favor of an easier restoration. They had plenty of other toys to tinker with and chose to get rid of the Delco at a consignment auction for whatever it would bring. A few people at the auction checked it out but nobody wanted to bid when its time came. As the auctioneer dropped the opening price down to $25.00 I nodded in silent agreement as to this being about an appropriate price. Though out of sight of the auctioneer, one of his helpers had seen me nod and signaled the auctioneer. With some slight reluctance I became the new owner of this rusty Delco light plant, but I appreciate a challenging (and inexpensive) old engine.

Tom Starling was at the auction and asked if I had bought anything. When I said yes, he said, 'I'll guarantee that it will weigh 16 ounces to the pound now, but when you get it home it will be 32 ounces to the pound.' After telling Tom what I bought he said, 'I was wrong John, those Delcos START at 32 ounces to the pound!' He's still wrong. It's more like 64.