Old Friends Reunited

Giant Worthingtons are a Minnesotan’s Labor of Love


Joe Kopp and the open rocker arm overhead valve Worthington engines. The town of Kenyon, Minn., bought this pair for use in a light plant from 1928 to 1975.

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Every Thursday evening when Joe Kopp was a boy, his father went to town to get groceries. Somehow when Joe was about nine, just to pass the time, he started going down to the town's power plant, where he sat around, got to know the operators and, best of all, watch the power plant's giant 15-ton Worthington diesel engines run.

"I don't know how I got hooked up going down to the power plant," says the 51-year-old IBM electronic technician. "But I would race the block down main street to the power house and watch these things run. I was just fascinated by them, their moving parts, the noise and what they did. When dad got ready to go home, all he had to do was come down to the power house to get me, and we'd go home."

Luckily for him and other people who are privileged to see these big beasts every year at the Hastings (Minn.) Little Log House Antique Power show, Joe's love of the big engines never stopped.

Engines At Sea

These four-cylinder behemoths were originally manufactured by Worthington Pump and Machinery Corp. at the Buffalo Works in Buffalo, N.Y., to be used in U.S. ships, but in the late 1920s, some of them became surplus, and were converted to generators. In 1928, the town of Kenyon, Minn., bought a pair of them to use as the city's power plant. That's where, in 1957, 9-year-old Joe Kopp, now of Rochester, Minn., fell in love with them.

But Joe's involvement didn't stop there. "For years I went over there," he says, "even after I'd gotten my driver's license I'd sit and watch these things run. I don't know what it was. It was addicting to me." Eventually the machines got old and were taken offline, but Joe persisted, driving over to the Kenyon Power Plant. "The superintendent would say, 'You know where the light switches are, go in and turn them on,' and even though the engines weren't running, I'd still stare at those things and remember how they ran."

One day, Joe was driving by the power plant when he received a jolt. The engines, now in pieces, were being loaded on a semi flatbed. "I thought they were going to the scrap yard, these engines that I'd watched for years and years, and I was sad." A few weeks later, he discovered they had been trucked up to the Hastings Little Log House grounds, so Joe quickly got on the horn and told the people there that he was willing to help set the engines up and do other work on the big Worthingtons. "They didn't know me at the time, so they said, 'Yeah, sure, we'll give you a call,' but they never did." Still, Joe made the 60-mile trip to the show grounds to lift the plastic and gaze at the two great big engines. "I tried to find people to talk to so I could help get it back into production, but couldn't." Finally, about five years after the Worthingtons had been moved, Joe received a call from Ray Nicolai Jr., asking him to come to the Hastings grounds. He was not prepared for what happened next.

"I didn't know Ray that well. When I got up there, he showed me the building with the cement slab, which made me feel good because it would be housing the engines, and then we went inside. Ray walked over, pulled a lever, and they started up! I had the same feeling I'd had all those years, the sound roaring and the floor shaking. Chills ran up and down my spine as I was transported back 40 years in time."

Then came the kicker: Joe says, "Ray said, 'How would you like to be the chief engineer for these Worthington engines?' I could hardly answer. But when I could, I said I would, and he answered, 'They're yours to run.' I'll never forget that, never. Ray also said, 'They're yours to fix, too,' as he gave me a big grin."

Showing The Worthingtons

So that's what Joe has been doing for the past five years, talking to crowds of 50 to 75 people several times a day during the threshing show, answering questions, then air-starting the diesels and letting them run while he tries to answer a few more questions.

Air-starting big engines is not unusual, but with the Worthingtons, the amount of air pressure is. Other big units, like Seymour engines, can require up to 2,000 pounds of pressure, while the Worthingtons only need 125 pounds. To start the engine, the pistons have to be in the right position, accomplished with a 5-foot bar stuck into a hole in the flywheel to turn it to line up the start marks on the flywheel and block. Then the air valve is squeezed. The engines in the building are set far enough apart so the bar can easily be used between them.

The blast of air pushes the pistons and starts turning the engine over, and once the engine gets spinning, Joe throws the fuel switch on and it fires up.

The big generators ran at a fixed rate of 327 rpm to supply a steady flow of current, but the speed could also be adjusted so the generators could be hooked up to utility lines to sell extra power generated during slack times. "You need to play with the rpm in order to match the frequency to the exact same 60-hertz as the power line, and then throw the big switch. If that phase is not exactly the same as on the power line, you'll break the generator because there's so much shock. It can break crankshafts and generators off, and be really nasty. I've seen generators, when put online, shudder because they're so close, and the generator will actually be jerked either direction to get back into the phase it needs to be."

Joe never produces any electricity with the big Worthingtons nowadays, because the insulation in the winding of the generator starts to break down. "It wouldn't be worth it for a three-day show to have it rebuilt," he says. The big engines are also run during private shows and tours, as when agricultural societies come up to see the grounds.

While the engines are running, Joe climbs up to manually grease and oil the open rocker arm assembly. "That's what makes these really good show engines, because there are all these moving parts to see. The rocker arms, valves and pushrods are all exposed, and there's no way for them to oil, so I squirt oil on the valves and the pivot points on the rocker arms. I grease it once before the show, and go up there with an oil can at least once a day."

The only maintenance he's had to perform is to set the tappets, which clang like a ball peen hammer against steel when they get loose. "The factory will tell you there needs to be x-amount of clearance between the rocker arm and where it hits the top of the valve stem for optimum performance and less wear, but I take a press wrench up there and adjust the tappets by sound." The engines run for 45 minutes to an hour five times a day during the show.

Oil On The Fly

People expect electricity 24/7, so these generators ran 24 hours a day, the only time offline being for maintenance or when the bearings went bad. "The side panels can be taken off to crawl inside and check bearings and see if the pistons need rings or a complete overhaul is needed." When these Worthingtons were brought to Hastings, Ray Nicolai Jr. crawled inside and removed the rust buildup on the pistons and did some other interior maintenance.

Oil is removed and added at the same time so the engines can run continuously without disrupting electrical output. One person watches so the oil level doesn't get too high or too low, while others drain off old oil while simultaneously adding new. When the draining oil is clear and clean, the oil has been changed; in the case of the Worthington engines, 20 gallons each.

Oil is also used to clean the air that goes into the pistons. When the engine is running, oil is drawn up over a screen inside the air cleaner. Air passes through the oiled screen and collects the dirt, settled in the bottom, where it is removed through a plug.

The Worthington engines sport Manzel force-feed lubrication systems made by the Manzel Bros. Co. of Buffalo, N.Y. "The oilers force-feed oil to critical parts of the engine, between cylinders and pistons, different bearings at strategic locations, where regular engine oil can't splash up there," Joe says.

The force feeders have drip indicators that Joe keeps an eye on, making sure each one is dripping and the line isn't plugged, while the engines are running, "It's a safety thing," he says. "The manufacturing specs will tell you if it's running at, say, 75 percent load, you have to drip this much oil for this amount of time at that point. It varies by load." Swirls in the center of the glass drip indicators allow workers to see which pistons are getting oil, and when.

Oil filters are self-maintaining and self-cleaning. When the engine has racked up a certain number of hours, or if the oil gauge next to the line that feeds the engine shows that the oil pressure has dropped, the T-handle atop the oil filter is moved a half-turn and a screen inside scrapes debris away, which then falls to the bottom where it can be removed.

Diesel Lessons

Joe learned about diesel fuel from a farm neighbor. One day when Joe was helping the neighbor, the neighbor, who smoked, scared Joe senseless. "He had a drain pan of diesel fuel on the floor, and he lit a cigarette. I was yelling, but he didn't even put out the match. As he threw the match over in the diesel fuel (Don't try this at home!), I was running out the door thinking there would be a big explosion, but he was laughing at me." That's how Joe found out diesel doesn't explode like gasoline because of its high flash point. On the other hand, while testing a fuel injector, the neighbor showed Joe what happened to atomized diesel fuel, which did burst into flames.

The Worthington engines use six to eight gallons of diesel fuel per hour with no load, increasing under load. The fuel filter works just like the oil filter: Turn half a rotation on a key and it self-cleans. Fuel is fed into the cylinders by a fuel injector.


Because the Worthingtons were made for marine applications, the exhaust was water-cooled so no concentration of heat could build up in the engine room or other cavity where the engine was installed. Big cooling towers, which sat at a distance from the engine, circulated enough water to prevent the engines from getting too hot.

Overall, Joe says the engines need almost no maintenance at all. "We keep them full of oil, 20 gallons in each, and they don't use much. We've made valve adjustments a few times. That's about all."

People who come to the shows are so enthused and excited to see the engines start and run, that if they come after the engines have been working, they'll come back a few hours later just to see them start. "I get to stand in front of 50 to 75 people several times a day while they raise their hands and I answer their questions. I love the people. It's incredible to watch them. I'm doing something they like to see." He's grateful to Ray Nicolai Jr., Bob Geiken and Steve Bauer for letting him "play" with the engines.

Joe says what he likes best about the big Worthingtons is, first, having the opportunity to teach people about them while simultaneously imparting the history of how things were done in the old days. A close second is the satisfaction of returning to his childhood: "I remember hearing them running when I was just a little kid, and many of my fondest childhood memories are tied up in them."

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and the author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact Bill at: Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56569; (320) 253-5414; e-mail: bvossler@juno.com