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.

| December/January 1996

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.


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