Old Friends Reunited

By Staff
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These are the generators coupled to the Worthington diesel engines. The 15-ton engines were originally manufactured by Worthington Pump and Machinery Corp. at the Buffalo Works in Buffalo, N.Y
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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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A view of the immense valvetrain components used on the Worthington engines. Check out the pushrods – they’re about 6 feet long
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This piston ring from the Worthington gives an indication of bore size: Approximately 13 inches.
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The Manzel force-feed lubrication system was made by the Manzel Bros. Co. of Buffalo, N.Y. A steady drip lubricates the cylinders. By watching swirls in the center of the glass, operators can see which pistons are getting oil, and when
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Joe Kopp fell in love with the Worthington engines when he was just nine years old and living on a farm near Kenyon, Minn.

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

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

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

“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

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

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

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

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:

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