A Problem with Light Plants

By Staff
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Self-proclaimed light plant fanatic Alan New’s 4-cylinder DELCO and a 20-volt Robbins & Myers.
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Alan’s son Andy with a truckload of DELCO’s saved from the junkyard.
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Some of the original DELCO plants in Alan’s collection. To the right are two 1250s. At the left is a copper cooled 800-watt. In the foreground is an 850. A later acquired DELCO motor on a tripod is also pictured.
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'Alan’s son, Andy, with the driveway full of DELCO light plants. There are just as many in the barn, stacked around all of his tractors and trucks. '
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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

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