Restoring a Phelps Gas Engine Power Plant

Crawford MacKeand walks GEM readers through the restoration of his Phelps, a gas engine power plant that seems to have been produced not long after 1915.

Phelps Farm Electric Plant

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If you lived in a city in the late 1800s you might have had gas light, a yellow flame with a better light than a candle, but not much better! By the 1890s you might have had light from an incandescent gas mantle, and by the 1900s, if you were very lucky you might even have electric light from one of Mr. Edison's new light bulbs. Water came from a faucet, and things got even better as time went on. But if you lived on a farm it was another story. There was certainly no gas, and most certainly no electricity. Lighting was by oil lamps at best, and though a good Argand lamp gave a pleasant glow it was no competition for gas, and certainly none for electric light. But the water was just plain hard work. It had to be pumped by hand, and carried by hand. Folk sometimes looked back nostalgically at the oil lamps, but not too many with experience ever looked that way at water chores.

No wonder that the idea of electricity for the farm was so welcome. But electricity for the city lights was powered by steam engines, and steam power was never a very practical proposition for the farm home. Power for the farmer's wife and family had to await the coming of the gasoline engine. Drury Engineering said, "It takes the drudgery out of the chores and puts water and light in easy reach all over the place." Dyneto said, "No matter how isolated your place is, you can have all the city advantages of electric light and power ... at trilling cost." Fairbanks-Morse told the fanner that their plant "offers a relief from the dirt, danger and unsanitary conditions arising from old methods of illumination." And we are told that "Henricks Farm Lighting Plants do the work and do it right. Illumination equal to city light."

 All in all it was quite an ad campaign, and thousands upon thousands of American farmers bought into the idea in the period from about 1905, when the first really suitable plants went on the market, to the 1930s, when the Rural Electrification Administration (R.E.A.) started to move commercial electricity to the farmer. One manufacturer was Phelps Light and Power Company of Rock Island, Illinois, whose sales of gas engine power plants seem to have started not long after 1915, ending in the latter part of the 1920s.

A couple of years ago we had visitors from the Falkland Inlands, Bob and his wife, Danuta. I had met Bob over the air by ham radio and had visited them in the Far South, and it was their turn to stay with us on their first trip to the USA. Bob is from Wales and I am from England, and it was not long before we realized that we were both engine people. He was distinctly starved of this hobby so we took them to the Rough and Tumble Spring Show at Kinzers, Pennsylvania. I had no engine at home but a Phelps took my eye. Never did see or hear of one before, but combined enthusiasm works wonders, and I left Kinzers with an agreement to pick up a rather plain Jane engine from George Archer in southern New Jersey. I should add that the selection was based on it being the lowest priced item on George's truck! Around 1919 he thought, and in the yellow book. Pretty close as it turned out.

After a few calls to arrange a pick-up date, Bob and I left in my daughter's Ford F-150, the day before they were due to fly back to England and then the Falklands, and we returned triumphant a few hours later. Now how do we get it off the truck? There was no problem in New Jersey; George has a forklift business. But back home it was different, so two men and one young lady wrestled the engine generator set to the garage floor with the aid of a few stout planks and we were set.

On first inspection everything was there except the cover for the contest breaker. Great going so far. The cast iron base plate for the engine and generator was in grand shape, no cracks, and a very protective layer of grime and oil looked like it was an inch thick. The generator had a switchboard that was leaning off to one side but looked fairly intact, and the engine still had what looked like its original gas tank, leaning off to another side. But it was heavy, and at this point I had no handling equipment at all. So I started the job backwards to most folks' ideas. Took the generator off the baseplate and down to the shop as the first thing to tackle. As an electrical engineer I do get some poetic license.

Suffice it to say that to my surprise the generator motored fine on a car battery, and after a little head scratching I had the circuit figured out and cleanup in progress. And there was a bonus too. In that layer of grime under the generator, there was the missing cover. How lucky can you get? Answer: wait and see. The insulation on the heavy wires from the generator to the panel was disintegrating badly, so I cast around for something with a period flavor. Cambric sleeving was normal in the 1920s but there's not too much of that around today. My wife came up with some sneaker laces with a neat floral pattern on them, but after they were turned inside out and varnished I can't see the pattern anymore, and they do make good sleeving. I won't go into the rework of the panel instruments except to note that I ran a merry chase looking for 12-20 brass hardware. I found that I could still buy a tap, even though my oldest books said it was non-standard, and retap some modern brass nuts, but would you believe that the day I collected the tap from the tool supply I found one in a bin at an engine show. So I have a spare. 

I would also note that on the back of the dial for the ampere-hour meter I found a penciled date: 4/20. This used to be a common habit for meter people, but it told me a fairly likely date for the rig. The panel itself was a pretty sad-looking dull gray, which looked terrible when the painting had been done. I don't know what the material is; my old electrical books tell me that ebony asbestos was used but it doesn't look like any asbestos that I know. More like some sort of heavy grade ebonite. Maybe an asbestos loaded ebonite? Time to chance my arm and try something. Some silicone grease was a guess to rejuvenate it and it worked just fine. Still looks good many months later.

The rest of the cleanup of the generator was plain sailing, although I did have the question of color. Well, electrical stuff ran on the same lines as Henry Ford. You had the choice of black or black, and everywhere I dug was black. So I decided on black. I didn't want to spray - not right for the age of the unit, so I decided that brush and sandpaper was the right way. The generator got ten coats, and has a neat deep gloss to it. Benjamin Moore's Retardo and Impervo did all I asked.

Next the base plate. A combination of scraping, rescraping, caustic, more caustic and solvents and some heat got me down to bare metal in the end and a very nicely machined casting I found under all that dirt. I have never claimed to be much of a millwright, but it certainly made alignment an easy task later .

Finally the motor. First I take off the carburetor. It is a Kingston Model L, made by Byrne Kingston and Company of Kokomo, Indiana, and a mud dauber has called it home. Many successive soakings in water and kerosene discouraged the mud, and the float and valve proved to be good. The bowl was a tad bent but soon straightened up under gentle persuasion. But now to more serious stuff. Off with the cylinder head. The engine proves to have a 3 inch bore and 4 inch stroke, which I reckon as 28.27 cubic inches or 463.33 ccs. But the real surprise was to come. No sign of any lands on the cylinder walls, and the valves look good; no cut seats, no wear, no problems, too good to be true. And the head gasket is even pretty decent. This can't last.

Now the water-works. Our friendly mud daubers had been at it again, but sticks, wires and water cured that. Down to the crankshaft area. The whole thing was buried in a dense black substance that had once been oil, but many quarts of kerosene later, I found ball bearings, all round, and connecting rod and main bearings, and no play at all. A nice oil slinger ring arrangement sends lubricant through a gallery to the L head valves. So after making a few new gaskets we were ready for this paint job too. Only eight coats on the engine I confess; it is not as satisfying a shape to brush paint as that nice round generator. An NOS cast iron muffler from the Kinzers fall show and that was the mechanical work complete, to my enormous surprise.

Assembly and alignment went as easily as expected with that solid cast iron bed, and new tank brackets were made from a piece of oak and some strapping that came from Radio Shack's TV antenna mount. Some new gas tubing and a gas drain valve completed the fuel work. For a cooling system, I took a five gallon gas can, bought during the late lamented gas embargo crisis, and plumbed up with inch and a quarter copper and brass. One of the local hardware stores was sadly going out of business and contributed his brass fittings at half the shelf price, which given the age of his very old stock, was already about 25% of the new price, so I was grateful for that too.

The cart was designed and built from 4x4s and the only thing left was batteries. There's really no such thing as a 32-volt battery anymore, so three lawnmower batteries give me 36 volts and that's close enough. I tap off 12 volts through a dropping resistor for the Delco-Remy 6-volt coil, which seems to be original, and various bits and pieces in my junk boxes contribute switches and wiring accessories that are close to the period.

The very first trial was to check that the generator would motor and drive the engine as a starter motor for starting up. No problem. The gas tank was not yet finished; I had mounted it too low and the gas didn't want to flow uphill, so with a squirt of starting fluid I pressed the starter switch. Nothing. I had forgotten to switch on the ignition. Try again. It fired and ran for a few seconds. Finish the tank mount and try with gasoline. Choke the carburetor and try to start. After many tries it starts and runs. Clouds of black smoke and dirty gas pour out of the exhaust and it staggers into life. Some more experimenting and I discover that at most it needs a few seconds choking and now it starts more readily than any of my motor bikes ever did. The only other problem to come up is wear on the throttle valve spindle letting in air and causing misfires. Some string packing and heavy grease seems to have cured that, and now it starts like the ads said, just push a button.

Here are some of the nameplate details. The PHELPS logo is followed by, as best I can tell 'Choreshare play night is day.' Then it tells me I have a Model C, with Engine Nr 3674 and Generator Nr 3365, No-Load RPM 1335, Watts 1500, Heavy Service Direct Current, Manufactured Complete by PHELPS Light and Power Company, Rock Island, Illinois. The Phelps ad says it is a 3 HP unit, which would allow 2 HP for the generator and 1 HP for the belt pulley, which was fairly usual.

It has been a great experience for a first engine, and is always an attention-getter at shows. How can you get so lucky?

(For any hams out there, Bob is VP8BFH. I was VP8CMY on my visit, and am usually WA3ZKZ, and found on 20 meter RTTY, AMTOR and PACTOR most of the time.)