Digging Through History: Rust, Mud and Sludge

By Staff

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.

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