A Problem with Light Plants

Childhood fascination turns into an adult collection


Self-proclaimed light plant fanatic Alan New’s 4-cylinder DELCO and a 20-volt Robbins & Myers.

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I think most of my friends in the antique machinery world currently know me as a steam engine and tractor collector. Some know that I collect hit-and-miss engines, and I have a thing for diesels. However, what most people don't know about me, other than my family and a few close friends, is that I have a serious addiction - light plants! I love them! I'm hooked on them! I can't get enough of them! This is the story of how a childhood fascination got really out of hand.

Discovering DELCO

I was raised on a farm outside of Pendleton, Ind., where I still live. When I was growing up, antique machinery was everywhere. Two of the country's best known steam engine collections were within 18 miles of home, and ancient tractors were in every barnyard. Dad bought a 20-30 Wallis off the farm it had worked since it was new, just six miles from our house. I have it now. He bought a 20-40 Rumely OilPull so close by that he and my uncles drove it home. Dad and my uncles found many rare gas engines in chicken coops and sheds throughout the area. There was even an 80 HP Avery Farm Motor (a stationary version of a 40-80 Avery tractor engine) in a weed patch only two miles from my house, where it had run a sawmill years before.

My mom's parents lived in town. Across the gravel alley from their garage was an old barn. The gray wooden barn leaned slightly, and tall weeds and trees surrounded it. The front doors were barred shut, but the windows gaped open, void of glass, while the back walk door always stood ajar.

Dad took me over there once when I was very young to show me what was inside. The barn was full, literally full, of DELCO light plants.

I was the oldest of 12 cousins. Over the next few years whenever I got bored playing with my younger cousins I sometimes wandered over to the barn and hoisted myself up to look into the dark hole of an open window. Of course I always got caught and hauled back across the alley to face a "warm" reception. My younger cousin Kevin Humbles, an engine collector too, told me that he later did the same thing, and suffered the same consequences.

In the shadowy gloom of the barn I could see DELCO plants covering the floor like huge black and red mushrooms. Many were about the same size, with a bigger one popping up here and there. Toward the center of the barn, a cluster of larger plants towered over the rest. In the far left corner by the walk door, sat a pair of some kind of larger red engines that were obscured by debris. They looked like car or tractor engines to me. At the front of the barn was a jumbled mass of junk appliances.

The barn and the DELCO plants inside were owned by Claude Noland. He was a local entrepreneur and owned several properties in town and out in the county. He had been a car dealer and an appliance dealer. When electric power came into town, Claude sold people new AC powered appliances. Somehow, he offered people a deal to take their old DELCO plants in trade. Why he didn't junk the plants I don't know, but he wound up with this barn full of light plants.

Bit by the bug

Sometime in the late '60s, my dad, uncles and grandpa decided one day to venture into the barn. Of course I went along. I was thrilled to finally be "allowed" to go into the barn. We went in through the open back door. I recall Dad or one of my uncles saying, "What a mess!" I thought, "Yeah, but what a wonderful mess!"

As I walked in, to my left sat the mystery engines I'd wondered about when I was younger. They were a pair of 4-cylinder DELCO plants, covered with broken windows and lumber. Thinking back, and it's been 40 years, they may have been set up as a unit. I now know that DELCO advertised such an installation for the 4-cylinder plants. If that was the case, they would have been the only plants in the barn that were set up to actually run. I was amazed by them. I had only known DELCO plants as single-cylinder engines until then.

To my right was a huge pile of parts from dismantled plants. The main floor of the barn was covered with plants. Most of them seemed to be of similar size. A larger one popped up here and there with three big ones in the middle, just as I'd remembered.

In the front of the barn, by the doors, were several washers and dryers that were newer than the light plants. They were in a jumbled pile where they'd crashlanded out of trucks.

As decrepit as the barn was, the tin roof had held. There was no water damage. The plants were set so close together that it was impossible to walk between them, and although it was a sunny day, it was very dark inside the barn, so it was difficult to get a good look at the plants. To a 14-year-old who loved old engines, it was like being a kid in a candy store. I wanted to take them all home and play with them. Nothing came of the excursion that day, and the plants sat for several more years.

Making an offer

Claude was well known around town, though I don't recall if I ever met him. Another local engine collector and good friend, Pete Scott, was also a friend of Claude's. Pete bought a few plants from him in the mid '60s. He traded Dad a couple of them around the time I was 12 or 13. Dad gave one to me and one to my younger brother Jim. Jim got a red 750, and mine was a black one, I think a 600- or 650-watt. With all of our dealings, they were gone within a few years.

Time went by. I grew up, went to college and got married. At some point, I took my young son, Andy, over and showed him the wonders in the barn just as Dad had shown me. Sometime in the mid '80s Claude Noland died. With many engine collectors around town, and my grandparents still living across the alley from the barn, we were kept informed about the plants. Dad knew Claude's son and talked to him occasionally. Claude's properties were gradually sold off. We were finally informed that the plants were going to be disposed of.

Though gone now, General Motors once had a major influence in Madison County, Ind. At one time there were over 20 DELCO Remy and Guide Lamp plants in Anderson, just north of Pendleton. The Noland family had decided to let representatives from GM come into the barn and pick out four plants of their choice. The rest were then to be sold in one lot, by sealed bid. An arrangement not to our liking, but that's what the family decided.

As I often did, I stopped by my grandparents' house on my way home from work on the cold, snowy evening the GM people were going through the barn. Being nosy, I watched for awhile through the kitchen or living room window while visiting with my grandparents. Needing to get home, I couldn't stay to see what they took. I figured that at least one of the 4-cylinder plants would go.

Whatever happened to the plants they took, I'll never know. The last DELCO Remy plant in Anderson closed down several years ago. Even by that time, the plant I had worked in while going to college, Plant 8, had already been torn down.

Later, all of us who were interested in bidding on the plants were invited to inspect them. My dad, my brother and I looked them over, and together we put in a bid. We went through the barn with Claude's son. As I walked in, I first looked for the 4-cylinder plants. To my disappointment, both were gone. I complained, "They took them both?" He said, "There was only one here, but they did take it." I later figured that Claude must have sold the other one himself, years before, just as he had sold Pete Scott the plants that Jim and I had as kids.

It was impossible to get an accurate count of the plants with the mess in the barn, but Jim, Dad and I put together a bid and submitted it. We didn't get them. I heard later that we were second highest bidder.

Gone but not lost

Raymond Gardner, the local junk dealer, was the new owner of the light plants. I wasn't worried. Besides running the junkyard, Raymond and his wife were antique dealers and Raymond had his own gas engine collection. They were also close friends. I knew the plants were in good hands, at least for the time being.

Sometime after the dust settled, I was at the junkyard one day and asked Raymond if I could buy a couple of plants. He said, "Sure, that's why I got them." I picked out a red 752 automatic, and one of the big 1250s I'd admired as a kid. I know that DELCO built much bigger plants, but these were the biggest in this collection.

As time went by, whenever I saw Raymond I'd ask about the plants. He'd either say he'd sold one awhile back, usually to a local collector who I knew, or he'd say they were still sitting there. Eventually I began to get an uneasy feeling. Raymond had bought the plants to make money, they weren't moving, and they were in a junkyard. Those plants were kind of special to me, and I began to get a nagging feeling that something terrible might happen.

Time for action

In late 1990, I went to the junkyard one Saturday morning. I had some scrap to get rid of, but I admit, I was on a mission. It was time. After unloading the truck, Andy and I visited Raymond. We sat around his old coal stove and visited for awhile. Then I did it. I asked Raymond what he'd take for all the light plants! Raymond didn't even look surprised. He acted as if he always knew I was going to ask, but just didn't know when. He sat back in his old desk chair and thought for a moment, then drawled out a number. One that was not too far out of line and I could live with. I asked if I could look them over. He led me through three bays of his shop, where he and his sons separated junk and worked on machinery. There were rows of DELCO plants along the walls. In one bay they were stacked around his restored 1923 Chevy truck, which had been a companion to one or another of my Model T's in many local parades. We went out behind the shop where he had light plants stored in two semi trailers.

DELCO plants, to some at that time, were considered about as valuable as boat anchors, but these were special. They were all from my hometown and some may have been owned by relatives.

As I looked them over, I again lost count, but realizing they were about to be mine, I noticed that many were not in the best shape. I made Raymond a counter offer of a couple hundred dollars less than his initial price. DELCO plants, to some at that time, were considered about as valuable as boat anchors, but these were special. They were all from my hometown and some may have been owned by relatives. Raymond told me they were mine.

I don't remember how many Saturday morning trips Andy and I made to the junkyard, two miles from home, but it took us about a month to move them. I sat the first ones in my barn around a Model T Ford that I was starting to restore. They quickly overflowed into the driveway. Only when the last of them were unloaded could I make an accurate count. Including the two I had purchased before, I had 42 DELCO light plants!

As featured in Gas Engine Magazine, 2004

While other companies took a stab at producing light plants, DELCO established itself as the dominant company in the market. Editor Richard Backus wrote the following about the history of DELCO in the January 2004 issue of Gas Engine Magazine:

"Commericially viable electric-generating units were on the market by the 1900s, and by the early teens, small, portable units became available. In 1909 Charles F. Kettering, the Dayton, Ohio-based electrical engineer and inventor responsible for the first electric starter (installed in a Cadillac in 1911), founded the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Co. (DELCO). Kettering's company originally supplied electrical components for the growing automotive industry. But as electrification spread, Kettering saw the promise in providing small-scale power for the farm, and in 1916 DELCO introduced its 'Delco-Light' line of electrical-generating plants."

While loading the plants at the junkyard, I asked Raymond about the pile of parts. To my dismay, he had junked them. He also said he had junked about a dozen plants that were in the worst shape. How many had there been originally? I got 42, and Raymond junked about 12. He had sold about another dozen to other collectors, and had kept one for his own collection. Raymond is gone now, but his family still has that DELCO. General Motors got four. I know that Pete Scott got at least the two that Jim and I had as kids. I also know that with the second 4-cylinder being gone, Claude had to have sold others. That puts the number at a very minimum of more than 70 plants.

I thought about all those parts. The pile had been almost up to the windows, probably about 4 feet high. I recall crankshafts, camshafts, cylinders and heads, crankcases, and flywheels. The parts that I saw might have included another 20 or 30 plants.

Make room for DELCO

I now had to deal with more than 40 DELCO light plants, and recoup my investment. My original intent was to keep one of each model, and sell the rest. That way I could preserve some local history, have a nice collection of DELCO plants, and make a little money. I soon realized that would not work. There were eight basic models of plants in the collection, but so many variations of many models that I would have had to keep about half of them to keep one example of each. For instance, I had three 650s, but each had different bases and fuel tanks. I hadn't decided which one to keep when a collector came to look the plants over. He wanted all three 650s. I said, "No, I want to keep one." He wouldn't take no for an answer. I needed to recover some investment, so I let him have all three. I still kick myself for that.

I wound up with all three of the big 1250s that had mesmerized me as a kid. Each was vastly different. One had a very early serial number and never had a grill over the top of the cylinder. Another had a kerosene carburetor with a fuel pump driven from the intake valve and a 110-volt generator, while the third was the usual type 32-volt plant. I kept the early one and the 110-volt kerosene plant. After several years of trading and selling, I still have a core collection of eight DELCO plants from the barn by my grandparents' house. It was down to seven at one point because I had to trade one off to get a pair of rare Robinson Threshing Machine Co. hay presses. I recently was able to get that plant back.

I had never really studied light plants until I got the first two. After I got the whole bunch, I quickly learned a lot about DELCOs. I also learned more about the many other makes of plants that had been built. I'd never seen most of them, except for Dad's Western Electric, but learned of several unique and interesting plants.

I think my first non-DELCO light plant was a Western Electric (I have two now). It was soon followed by a Universal, a Phelps and later, a Lalley. A Sears Roebuck "Seebright," built by Sunbeam, came along. Other light plants accumulated as time went by, including a 2-cylinder and a 4-cylinder Kohler. I finally got a 650 DELCO to replace the three that I let go early on. Recently, I have acquired a Westinghouse. A friend came up with an early Sunbeam. Another friend sold me a very unusual Robbins & Myers 20-volt plant, and I've recently gathered enough parts to assemble a Genco.

One of my major goals, after years of having them slip away, was to get a 4-cylinder DELCO. Finally, at long last, I got one from a good friend.

Though I didn't get any 32-volt DC equipment with the DELCOs, I have since acquired an assortment of motors, fans, rotary converters, etc., including a couple of nice DELCO well pumps.

As of last count, I now have 24 light plants. I've slowed down buying them. I've even turned some down, though there are still a few plants I'd like to find. I had a lead on a Willys-Knight sleeve-valve plant awhile back, but misplaced the gentleman's name and phone number, and he hasn't called back. I'd still like to find one of them, and maybe a better Genco than the one I am putting together.

Contact Alan New at (812) 934-4095 • JFKLAND@yahoo.com

Watch video of a DELCO light plant on the Gas Engine Magazine engine video index on YouTube. Just look for the icon at left at www.gasenginemagazine.com